Equal Pay Day is just around the corner, so it’s a good time to take stock once again of how women’s earnings compare with those of men. Your (Wo)Man in Washington has buried her nose in so many economic reports, federal statistical surveys, and stacks of mind-numbing data, she feels entitled to confidently assert the following facts. In general … :
Women earn less than men when they work within the same field or industry.
Women workers are concentrated in the lower paying fields or industries.
Women spend more time out of the paid workforce than men do.
Women with children earn less money than men with children.
Women with children earn less money than women without children.
Poverty rates for women and children are significantly higher than poverty rates for men.
Typically, at this point, those who reject the existence of gender discrimination will invoke the notion of “choice”, free will, personal responsibility, and the logical consequences of our actions. Cue the strains of our glorious, rugged individualism which compels the Marlboro man, our ultimate American icon, to unfurl his bedroll and sleep, alone (and uninterrupted by an infant’s cry or a toddler’s wet bed), under a starry sky. Proponents of the “lifestyle” social theory will relish the personal freedom and see no larger economic or national security implications. Such a view is risky.
Assuming that we agree the United States should continue to thrive, and that the human race is a species worth perpetuating, all the chatter about choice rather misses the point. Our great American story is hardly personified by a chain-smoking single male wandering unfettered around the Wild West. He may have been independent and self-sufficient, but really, what did he actually do? And don’t even get me started on the public health costs of all those cigarettes!
No, there’s a much better symbol for the growth, expansion and diversity of this great country. She’s Lillian Gilbreth, mother of 12, and the heroine of “Cheaper by the Dozen”. Either pregnant and/or lactating during much of her adult life, she raised a family the size of Rhode Island, earned a Ph.D. in industrial psychology, advised five US Presidents, authored innumerable articles and essays, picked up 22 honorary degrees, all while caring for her demanding and over-achieving husband (which sounded like a full-time job in itself, according to the book.) This woman raised to adulthood 12 fully functional, tax-paying American citizens, across two World Wars and one Great Depression. She could rightly claim to be a one-woman economic stimulus program, spurring both job creation and a labor force simultaneously. Why her face isn’t plastered on billboards across the length and the breadth of America, I’ll never know.
As a nation, we should face facts and admit that we desperately need women to have children, and mothers and fathers to raise and provide for them. These children will drive the economy, extend the boundaries of achievement and knowledge, defend and protect us, and run our country. We will become dependent upon them, in ways large and small. Making women poorer than men, and making mothers the poorest of the poor, is hardly a strategy calculated to lead to success. Hiding behind “lifestyle choices” to avoid our collective responsibility to parents and children, regardless of what individual choices we may make, is shortsighted, and carries far-reaching costs.
You can share a smoke with that Marlboro man, but I’ll be hanging with Mrs. Gilbreth. Mother mojo beats macho anyday.