Outlook: It's time for New Deal feminism

Dorothy Sue Cobble
Professor of Labor Studies, Rutgers and Author
Monday, December 14, 2009; 11:00 AM

Dorothy Sue Cobble professor of Labor Studies at Rutgers and author of "The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America" and "The Sex of Class: Women Transforming American Labor," was online Monday, Dec. 14 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss her Outlook article titled "It's time for New Deal feminism."


Dorothy Sue Cobble: Hi I'm Dorothy Sue Cobble. I appreciate your interest in my article yesterday and I look forward to hearing your comments and talking with you about the issues.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Women now compose the majority of college students and are a majority or significant minority in most gradate and professional schools. What does this say about the future role of women in professional occupations and how much resistance is there to more women in positions of business, academic, medical, and legal importance?

Dorothy Sue Cobble: It's terrific that more women have moved into higher education and the professions. Barriers to success still exist, especially the more subtle kind. We need also to focus on raising the pay and improving the jobs for that majority who are not in professional occupations.


Washington, D.C.: Thank you for the terrific Outlook piece yesterday. As Congress this week votes on a jobs package to counter unemployment, don't you think they should make sure that a certain share of the jobs in construction, which is a major part of the package to improve development, go to women? Trades women continue to face discrimination in hiring by contractors. Only 2.8 percent of the workforce is currently women.

Please see "A Women's Agenda for Job creation" at A Women's Agenda for Job Creation (pdf)

Sincerely, Susan Rees Director of Policy Wider Opportunities for Women

Dorothy Sue Cobble: Yes, it would good to focus on how to retain tradeswomen as well and how to give them the support they need on the job.


Portsmouth, N.H.: Thank you for pointing out that there are more concerns for women than abortion. As a single, childless woman whose work has been primarily in lower-paying professions and freelance, I feel completely ignored by the women in power. They seem to have no idea that if the economy is predicated on two-income households, single women are at a tremendous disadvantage. I have absolutely no safety net, and, frankly, I don't think that there's a female politician in the country who cares about that. My impression of all of these women, Democratic and Republican, is that they got theirs, and they don't care what happens to the rest of us. The issue, it seems to me, is class, not gender or race.

Dorothy Sue Cobble: Yes, because dual-income families are the most numerous, they get a lot of attention. We definitely need to think about solutions for all kinds of households and as you say, for single women there's not another person who can act as a safety net. Single mothers have the highest rates of poverty and so attention should be focused there as well.


Durham, N.C.: Thank you for your essay. My only point of contention with your call for New Deal Feminism is that the components of the American economy of the twentieth century have completely changed or no longer exist. The wealth of industries and occupations that existed during the New Deal has disappeared, leaving in its wake so-called knowledge workers and services providers for multinational corporations. The demise of unionization to under 10 percent of the workforce results in severe fragmentation of workers in general, but especially women, who benefitted from the protections and wage security unions used to provide. I would like your views on how feminism can be resurrected given these profound changes.

Dorothy Sue Cobble: The question of how to resurrect a new New Deal feminism for a new era is right on target. We need a new labor movement that represents white-collar and service workers not just factory. In many other countries, most union members are salaried and many managers have workplace associations that allow them to participate more in decision-making.


Atlanta, Ga.: It is well-established that, when adjusted for type of work, education and experience, that the "wage gap" is actually a myth. So instead you tie it together with a "leisure gap,, which is most often associated with a woman's choice to raise her children; something that is as natural as hunger. So why argue against eliminating this "leisure gap" which is a woman's "choice"? Why do you want to discourage women from making their own "choice" when it comes to leisure? And will you apply this same zeal to discouraging another feminist "choice": abortion?

Dorothy Sue Cobble: Yes, some of the gender wage gap has to do with men and women being in different jobs. But actually there's still differences even when men and women do the same jobs. Most economists talk about a part of the wage gap not being explained by the things you mention. I believe we need better choices not just more choices. Many women want to stay in traditional female jobs like nursing but be better rewarded. We also need better part-time jobs with career advancement so that there are ways of having a career without having to sacrifice family life.


Redefining a woman's role: I think the overhaul of women's rights is akin to the health-care overhaul. We need some massive, fundamental changes. I think women's groups and the government need to officially "define" the roll of women in society. It's not as mushy as it used to be: "some women work and some don't, and you can do whatever you want." Working women/mothers are practically a necessity for most American families. Ergo...childcare, pay parity, tax deductions, higher education costs, etc. Uncle Sam does not respond well to the suggestions of a "fringe" minority. We need to band together and set some social policy for the 2000's.

Dorothy Sue Cobble: Yes, perhaps we need another President's Commission on the Status of Women. After all, in 2011 it will be a half century since we've thought seriously and fully about women's status.


Hoboken, N.J.: Do we have good examples of how these goals have been achieved, or more closely achieved, in other developed countries? How was it done?

Dorothy Sue Cobble: In Canada, there's been more attention to supporting families with children and investment in child care and early education. They also have better labor laws that extend the bargained wage across the industry so that wages are taken out of competition and businesses compete more on the basis of quality and efficiency.


Washington, D.C. : What is your suggestion for young women entering the workforce? How should they prepare to be as successful as possible in today's world?

Dorothy Sue Cobble: I teach a lot of young women and have two daughters. I encourage my students to develop skills like critical thinking, public speaking, articulating and defending propositions with evidence and clear reasoning, that can be used in a range of jobs. The economy changes so rapidly and so they need to train broadly.


Falls Church, Va.: On 10 December the "New York Times" published an article by Manohla Dargis detailing the dearth of female directors in the film industry even though -- over the course of time -- some of them had produced films with relative commercial success. In a capitalist society, the adage is that business will put its eggs in the money making basket. But clearly -- if these female directors made more money relative to other directors but still could not shore up support for additional projects -- that is not true. In my own industry I feel the same thing is happening. Women are producing -- out-producing, I should say -- but are not recognized or rewarded with increased opportunity commensurate with their performance. Men promote other men who they like, or with whom they're more comfortable (because of family status; a shared sports interest (Obama and the hoops issue); the same alma mater) and not necessarily because those employees are producing better relative to others. I suppose sometimes this happens with female employees too (the Letterman syndrome -- promoting based on romantic/sexual attraction). But how do we change that? On an individual scale, if one points the possible occurrence to management, most deny it's happening or claim there is some misunderstanding (and in the end one runs the risk of not being seen as a team player). And how do we address the general cultural trend among both men and women that working for a man is better than working for a woman, that women lack competence, leadership skills and in general make poor managers?

washingtonpost.com: Women in the Seats but Not Behind the Camera (The New York Times, Dec. 10)

Dorothy Sue Cobble: Rosabeth Moss Kanter's classic book, "Men and Women of the Corporation" still has some of the best answers. She agrees with you that people often prefer those who are like them and tend to want to hire people who are like them -- what she calls homosocial reproduction. She sees this tendency declining however as the workplace becomes more diverse.

People often prefer managers and bosses who have power and can get better salaries and better working conditions for those they supervise. One of the problems then is that women managers don't have the positions where they can leverage resources for others.


Bowie, Md.: What of your suggestions are specifically for women "qua" women, as opposed to being correlates to: those who want less than full-time employment for family responsibility, or lower-wage workers?

Dorothy Sue Cobble: Tell me more about who you have in mind.


Rockville, Md.: Thank you for your essay. For someone who was involved in the movement of the 60s and 70s, I still can't believe we are still struggling for equality in the work place when it comes to pay, insurance, etc. Social Security is still biased in favor of one income earners with the wife at home. My spouse and I jointly could exceed the max but the one income earner could stop paying when it was achieved but with our combined income we couldn't. Then we retired, the amount of Social Security paid out was based not on our combined income which equaled the one income but on individual incomes so we get less even though we paid in more. I am also worried about women in government now that Congress wants to assist veterans with more jobs. Military service is voluntary. At minimum the spouses of veterans should be included in this favoritism although I feel it continues to discriminate against women.

washingtonpost.com: It's time for New Deal feminism (Post, Dec. 13)

Dorothy Sue Cobble: Yes, the social security system was created for a world that has changed in so many ways. We live much longer and many more families are either dual-income or single-headed. The Institute for Women's Policy Research has done some of the most interesting work on the problems for older women retirees


White Plains, N.Y.: I'm surprised that this writer is ignorant of the fact that women achieved parity in the workplace during WWII while the men were away, and that the women were sent back to bake cookies as soon as the war was over, in order that men might have the good jobs. Where did you go to school, Dorothy Sue?

Dorothy Sue Cobble: Women did take on many more jobs during the war and entered many jobs that had traditionally been held by men. There was even a modest amount of child care support. But the gender pay gap persisted and as you say, the prejudices about what jobs women could and should do persisted. Many women wanted to continue working in the jobs they held during the war but were not re-hired.


Rockville, Md.: I am by choice not a mother and believe there is too much emphasis in the media on having children as though every woman wants them. In the workplace the benefits need to be balanced between parents and non-parents. As someone who had to supervise people, usually women, I preferred the older women who did not have children or who were grown. In today's environment with cell phones parents can't seem to let their kids be independent and I was expected to be sympathetic to all the tribulations of parenthood. Parenthood is also a choice.

Dorothy Sue Cobble: Yes, people should not be stigmatized for not having children and workplaces should allow for time off for elder care, re-tooling, and even more leisure. It turns out we are more productive when we take a little time off. There are diminishing returns for long hours at the job. At the same time, we are all dependent on and benefit from the future earnings and productivity of the children who become the next generation. Yes, parents should take the primary responsibility for raising their children but it is in all of our interests to help them a bit as well.


Detroit, Mich.: I applaud your recommendation to move away from the divisive issues we will never settle and toward those that will improve women's lives, because I believe economic autonomy, support for family and better choices will actually do more to improve and even save women's lives than cutting off access to abortion or prohibiting gay marriage. Do you have any practical advice for women who wish to move the organizations they support in this more practical direction?

Dorothy Sue Cobble: I'm glad you agree that we have an opportunity now to make some headway on greater economic equality and security. Women's organizations led the way in the past and they can do so again. We all just have to keep saying what we believe and listen to others and try and find common ground. We can't make progress on all fronts at once.


Silver Spring, Md.: The wage gap is real. My husband and I have very similar job experience and education. We are both in the computer field. However in our 20 years of marriage he has always made more than me (about 25 percent more than me). I never had children so I did not do a leisure gap. Can someone explain the difference.

Dorothy Sue Cobble: Yes, it's always been amazing to me that women without children were confronted with a gender wage gap as well as women with children. In part, it's due to the expectation that all women will have children. It's also part of the outmoded thinking that has persisted that married men need higher pay because they support a wife at home. Fewer people think this but the differential wages have persisted.


Dorothy Sue Cobble: I've really enjoyed hearing from everyone and wish we could continue our conversation. We've got lots to talk about!!


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