Feminomics: On Botox, Motherhood, and Unemployment

From an economic standpoint, will 2010 be the year of the woman? As part of the Roosevelt Institute's ongoing 'Feminomics' series, running on the New Deal 2.0 blog, I was asked to reflect on women's changing roles in the economy. Here's my take on why fairness for working women means considering their reproductive roles.

The National Organization for Women has landed some brand-new bedfellows, namely anti-tax neocons and defenders of the status quo whose status is decidedly not quotidian. NOW President Terry O'Neill has come out swinging against a proposed 5% tax on elective cosmetic surgery saying "[middle-aged women] are going for Botox or going for eye work, because the fact is we live in a society that punishes women for getting older."

This, she goes on to say, is especially troubling in these tough economic times where older women are facing fiercer competition for jobs than ever. So I guess we've accepted that inflatable bosoms is an acceptable prerequisite for landing a job? No need to fight to have women evaluated for the range of their abilities rather than for the shape of their asses. No sense challenging the dominant paradigm of beauty that would have women starve, barf, cut, inject and mold themselves in Barbie's image. We'll just oppose any attempt to make it cost more to do so.

Enter reality, if only for the time it takes to read this post. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons declares that according to their own poll, roughly 60% of patients earn below $90,000. Check out the median wage in most of this country -- $90K even for a family looks like a fortune. And did I mention it's elective surgery?

These plastic surgeons, fighting doggedly for the right of every American to nip and tuck no matter their tax bracket, are worried people will take their self-enhancement overseas. Indeed, customers -- I mean patients -- already are. But basic economics (which, I realize hasn't proven itself especially useful of late) tells us that if this tax drives buyers out of the market, suppliers will lower their prices until demand rebounds. I can see it now: home-improvement store-style sales pitches that promise, "you'll lose the wrinkles, we'll pay the tax!"

But what if these surgeons are right? What if people suddenly stop having plastic surgery in huge numbers? Well, it'll be a shame to lose this tax source but -- yippee, that sounds wonderful to me.

Lower and middle class women do not have elective surgery. Often, they don't have medical care at all. If Botox injections become the new college degree, a barrier to entry for decent jobs, it becomes even more impossible for poor women to keep up, never mind get ahead.

Add to this a wage gap between women and men that is bad and looks to get worse. This doesn't even factor in the wealth gap, which is staggering. (The racial disparities are even more shameful but that's another article or fifty.)

In this time of economic tailspin, we can sometimes hear the cry for equalizing the distribution of our nation's bounty. It is a mere whisper below the drumbeat demanding that we deal with the deficit or allow the super wealthy to create jobs for us (apparently, they excel at this but they just need some more money to do it).

It was women's entry into the workforce that prolonged our current economic reckoning. As Robert Reich has noted, what we failed to get in wage increases for the last 30 to 40 years, we made up for in work increases. And then some. Women entered the workforce largely to boost lagging household income. More recently, when there were simply no more hours to work, debt became the new revenue source for our double-income-no-money generation.

Perhaps kicking women out of the workforce will be the proposed solution for curbing unemployment. It will sound better than this, of course. It will be about America, for the children, focusing on the family. This may sound paranoid, but spend a couple minutes learning about Mr. Bart Stupak (D-MI) and his C Street Family, and you may find yourself with me in this dark place. If men are to have dominion over women as he and his Congressional cronies desire, it helps a lot for men to have all the money. And it doesn't hurt if women can't decide whether and when they want to become mothers -- amazing what barefoot and pregnant can do for docility.

Women are different from men, if only in the roles they play in reproduction. For those of you who came of age in the abstinence-only era, here's a crash course: (most) women can get pregnant, give birth and produce milk; men can't. This means that for the gestational period and very often long after, women are the primary caretakers for our offspring. Without paid maternity leave and affordable childcare, women most often bear more of the load our dysfunctional economy dumps on its citizens. And we get paid less or nothing to do it.

My mother is fond of saying "if women fight for equality, they're giving up a lot." Misogyny-humor aside, I don't think we should seek to become equal to men. This very construct -- women are equal to men -- presupposes men are the standard to which we aspire. Achieving equal pay for equal work would be a Pyrrhic victory. Until there is some real attention paid to the work of having and raising children, women's work will never be equal to that of men. It will continue to far exceed it. The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild's brilliant description of the work women do once "work" is over, doesn't pay a dime.

In this time of great economic upheaval, let's upheave our thinking about what is work, what has value and what role women have and will continue to play in our economy and society. Equal pay without maternity leave, health care coverage for dependents and accessible child care is not equal at all. Honestly, "working mother" is just plain redundant.

Instead, let's embrace the fact that there are too many people, male and female, wanting too many hours of work relative to current supply. Let's champion what several economists have advised and shorten our work hours across the board while also recognizing that child rearing is definitely work. Perhaps the most valuable of all.

This post originally appeared on New Deal 2.0.