President-elect Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan has provoked comparisons with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Like Roosevelt, Obama is promising to pull the country out of a depression with massive job creation through infrastructure spending. But, like FDR before him, it looks as if Obama is on his way to neglecting women.
An injustice then, it would be even worse now. Nearly half of America’s wage-earners are female and they’re suffering proportionately from the economic downturn. Any fair spending plan must therefore ensure that women have equal access to the jobs that federal money creates or sustains.
New Dealers treated jobs for women as an afterthought. As one official told Eleanor Roosevelt in 1935, “For unskilled men, we have the shovel. For unskilled women, we have only the needle.” Obama’s plan seems to be giving the same low priority to female workers by focusing on “green” jobs and infrastructure improvements that are likely mainly to employ men.
From 1933 through 1943, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Civil Works Administration, and Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed from 1.4 to 4.4 million people each month. To preserve men’s status as principal breadwinners, the Roosevelt administration gave the best jobs to white men and minimized the number of women eligible for work relief. The administration maintained the federal Economy Act, which limited civil service positions to one per family. By January 1934, only 300,000 out of four million jobless women — 12 percent — had found government jobs.
In planning his jobs programs, Obama can certainly learn from the past. By its end in 1943, eight million men and women — one fifth of the workforce — had labored under the WPA. They built 2,500 hospitals, 5,900 schools, 1,000 airports, and 13,000 playgrounds.
But Obama should not follow his New Deal predecessors in prioritizing white men’s employment. Women made up only one-sixth of WPA workers. The African-American and Mexican-American women who received jobs were largely restricted to domestic service projects. With federal wages based on prevailing rates in the private sector, women earned only 51 percent of what men did for work of comparable worth.
During the Depression, officials justified such policies by the idea that men were the primary breadwinners for their families. Women, they believed, merely earned “pin money,” while African-American and Mexican-American families could make do on less.
But they were mistaken: in the 1930s, four million women were out of work, and they, too, had mouths to feed. Lone female wage-earners supported as many as one out of six urban families. Among African Americans, the rate was double.
Today, the situation for women is even graver. Women make up 46 percent of the labor force, and they’re almost as likely as men to be the principal supporters of their families. Over 70 percent of both married and single mothers hold jobs. They earn money that is vital to paying mortgages and putting food on the table.
The problem with Obama’s proposals is not simply that women are unlikely to qualify for the jobs he wants to create for rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. Some women could be trained to do “men’s work,” and the new administration should make a commitment to hire them for “non-traditional” employment.
But even if the stimulus package guarantees women an equal chance at the new jobs, it still won’t address the occupational sectors in which most female wage-earners are concentrated, such as education, child care, social work, health care and care for elders and those with disabilities. These sectors are also marked by low wages and poor working conditions.
Addressing these issues makes sense in terms of the economy as well as for women’s equality. Any successful recovery plan must focus on jobs that cannot be outsourced as well as those that open up new directions for economic growth. Service work, where women are concentrated, is here to stay. A forward-looking jobs program would recognize the value of the work that women are already doing and pay them at commensurate levels.
Integrating work performed primarily by women into the recovery package and infusing the jobs with new resources would be a way to ensure a living wage for the millions of women who provide the education, social services, and health care that are essential to creating and maintaining a productive labor force.
In this way, President-elect Obama and his team could both move toward a more sustainable economy and avoid repeating the mistakes of their New Deal predecessors.
Eileen Boris, Lisa Levenstein, and Sonya Michel
Eileen Boris, University of California, Santa Barbara; Lisa Levenstein, University of North Carolina at Greensboro; and Sonya Michel, University of Maryland, College Park are historians who have written on women’s economic issues.