As Congress quarreled its way to a conclusion, the fate of assorted jobs bills rose and fell like a barometer in a political storm system.
For a fortnight, the economists and politicians discussed every detail of their bills: make-work and real work, the private sector and public works, the cost of unemployment and the cost of government programs. But hardly a word was heard about one odd little secret. All these job bills were actually "men's job bills."
The basic fact skewing these plans is that 98.3 percent of construction workers in this country are male. So when Congress talked about funding jobs to repair highways and bridges and mass transit, it was really talking about funding male jobs. When it wrangled over the gas tax, it was over raising money that would eventually pay the wages of skilled male labor.
There is nothing wrong with supporting jobs for men. Nor is there anything wrong with improving our highways. Women's axles also go bump in the night.
But we're in hard times, and in hard times we talk about putting the breadwinners back to work and think of breadwinners as men. In hard times it's just too easy for unemployed women to become invisible.
Harvard historian Susan Ware, who has written about the fate of American women in the 1930s, says: "I keep sitting here being struck again and again by the parallels with the Depression. This is exactly what happened in the 1930s. They helped the men and forgot that women were also unemployed, only they were in different jobs."
During the Depression years, somewhere between 2 million and 4 million women were unemployed. Too many of them faded into the wallpaper. As Ware points out in her book, "Holding Their Own," the female unemployed, laid off one by one rather than in massive factory shifts, were not seen in bread lines or flophouses.
No one noticed them. Some became "housewives," 145,000 or more became homeless wanderers, and still others shut themselves in rooms until their money and food ran out.
When the Roosevelt administration set up the first jobs program, it was also for large-scale construction work and public projects. It was up to the women in the New Deal, especially Eleanor Roosevelt, to remind the men that women, too, needed work.
Even so, only 300,000 of the 4 million people at work for the Civilian Works Administration in January of 1934 were women. Of all the workers in the WPA, only 13 to 19 percent were women, and over half of them worked in sewing rooms. For most of its existence, the Civilian Conservation Corps for unemployed youth was limited by law to men.
At the same time, the attitudes toward working married women turned sour, even hostile. In 1936, when George Gallup asked the American public whether wives of working men should hold jobs, 82 percent said no. By 1939, 77 percent of the schools, 84 percent of the insurance companies and 65 percent of the banks had restrictions on married women working.
You don't have to be clairvoyant, you don't even have to be a historian, to feel this happening again.
Today the television cameras shoot film outside the factories where a hundred men are being laid off, rather than outside the smaller businesses where women lose work one by one. The president suggests that it's not the recession causing a rise in unemployment but the increase of so many women in the marketplace.
Stories begin to appear about husbands who have lost jobs while wives have not, as if the economy were engaged in some giant role reversal. Few remind us that the unemployment rate among men is only one point higher than among women. Still fewer remind us that now, as in the '30s, women retain jobs only when (and because) they work in the low-paid female job ghettos where men do not apply.
Finally the Congress begins to think about jobs . . . for men.
I am not trying to suggest that men and women should become competitors for jobs. We're too interdependent for that. A jobs program for men also helps the bulk of women who live in families where men are the higher wage-earners.
Similarly, at a time when 52 percent of the women in this country work, when one out of six families is being maintained by women, when the bulk of young families depend on two workers to survive, it just won't do to forget about women.
It took decades for the women who work to become visible. Now we have to "see" the women who are out of work.