Women’s issues (as if in a sexually-reproducing species such as Homo sapiens, there could ever really be such a thing as a solely female issue) seem to be the latest thing to argue over this political season; or at least women’s issues and religion, but it’s not clear there’s much distinction between the two.  Rick Santorum is against abortion.  He believes that sex should be for procreation alone.  Santorum is a devout Catholic, which ironically is probably the least objectionable denomination of the three remaining contenders.  He claims that his theology animates his morality.  If Santorum is elected, we’d have something of an official moral scold when it comes to all things sexual and procreative, sort of like having a Pope for President.  He would undoubtedly be about as effective in shaping behavior as has been the actual Pope.  The Pope says all sorts of things about human sexuality.  The parishioners shrug and do what they want. 

Mitt Romney is now against abortion, though in a Kerry-esque way, being in favor of it before he was against it.  And truthfully the prevarication can only be because Kerry Romney grew in his moral understanding and wisdom over time.  It would be crass to think Kerry Romney discovered the immorality of abortion as a matter of political expediency.  Morals aren’t situational like that.  Just ask the Mormon church to which he belongs, which has always been opposed to abortion, and to gay marriage, and to caffeine, and to alcohol, and to nicotine.  But not to multiple wives, at least not until lately.  And surely the change in their stance on polygamy could not be attributed to political expediency.  Never mind that outlawing polygamy was a condition for Utah to gain admittance to the Union.  The Mormons discovered a moral truth about the matter that they had not realized before, just like Kerry Romney did on abortion.   

Even Obama’s had female issues to deal with, in the form of outrage by the Catholic Church that his new health care law mandated the Church provide insurance that covered contraception for its employees engaged in non-religious activities, which is to say, everyone but the clergy and nuns must be furnished with contraceptives, but the clergy and nuns don’t need contraception because they’re supposed to be celibate, and mainly are, except in some instances with choirboys where pregnancy is hardly the preeminent issue.   The Catholic Church is officially against contraception, including of course abortion, but is also even against such mundane things as condoms, the Pill and hysterectomies.  Forcing the Church to buy health insurance policies that covered such things as the Pill for a certain segment of its employees seemed an affront to its free exercise of religion.  Remember that little clause in the Constitution, the part that prohibited the government from establishing a religion?  It also protects religion from government interference in the free exercise thereof, which was conveniently disregarded by the Obama Administration, but is the reason Obama’s Black Power Theology pastor, Jeremiah Wright, was able to shout from the pulpit “God Damn America” and not be hunted down and silenced by government thugs.  Obama is putatively Christian, but nobody really knows what that means so far as he’s concerned.  He had to disavow his pastor.  Not to get elected, but presumably because he, like Kerry Romney and the Mormon church, discovered a new moral truth about which he had been ignorant before.

But in reality, all this moralizing about the reproductive organs of females is a proxy fight in the ongoing gender wars resulting from the rise of female economic power relative to males, a process beginning with the Industrial Revolution and continuing until today.  Industrialization involved replacing human muscle with machines.  Which of the two genders had the comparative advantage when the necessaries of life had mainly to be secured by the sweat of one’s brow and strength of one’s back?   Of course, it was men.  Men have testicles and these testicles produce copious amounts of testosterone and testosterone provides for bigger, stronger, faster, more agile and more durable muscles.   Women also have some testosterone, but not on average nearly as much as men (about 1/10 the amount).  So a knock-on effect of replacing muscle power with machines was a relative decrease in the comparative economic advantages men brought to the marketplace.  Driving a tractor or shooting a gun requires no inordinate amount of muscle strength and stamina, whereas hoeing a field by hand, or beating off savages with an ax did.  As technology made accomplishing work less and less a matter of muscularity, women were able to do things about as well as a man.  And as industrialization gave way to the information age, it became clear that men possessed a surfeit of testosterone for a great many of the new jobs of the age.  Testosterone might help a man hoe longer or slash harder, but it doesn’t help him sit at a desk in a cubicle all day.  If anything, it impairs his ability to do so. 

As female economic power grew, so too did their desire to assert control over their reproductive organs.  A woman who can do most of the jobs in the economy just as well as a man need not leverage her womb to survive.  It was the early sixties, roughly half a century ago, that marked the end of the age of the Cleavers and harkened the age of Mary Tyler Moore.  It would take until 1970 before the Mary Tyler Moore Show, starring MTM as a thirty-something single female news reporter would hit the airwaves, but the die was cast, so to speak, by 1962.  Why 1962? Two things–the pill and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The pill had been approved in the US for use as an oral contraceptive in 1960, eventually allowing women to do just what Rick Santorum so opposes–having sex without concern for procreation.  The Cuban Missile Crisis revealed once and for all the irrelevance of male strength and stamina in the service of protecting the society.  Males no longer had a comparative advantage in either securing or in protecting the necessaries of life.  Women (and society at large) no longer specifically needed men for much of anything.  And they could now do with their reproductive organs as they pleased (a corollary development).  Roe v. Wade, a decade later, relieved women from even the inconvenience of planning ahead for sexual encounters.  The products of copulation could be discarded like yesterday’s news.  And the bomb made it all possible. 

A couple of graphs, courtesy of FRED as  always, should help clarify things.  The first is of the female workforce participation rate.

Graph of Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate - Women

The Post-war female labor force participation rate steadily climbed until the late nineties, when it plateaued, and has since declined somewhat with the latest recession.

The male labor force participation rate tells a different tale:

Graph of Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate - Men

Male labor force participation has steadily declined since the war.  Could there be a more poignant graphic explaining the rise in female economic power relative to males over the last half-century?

In truth though, the rise in relative female economic power really just sets things square with how they have historically been.  The Ward and June Cleaver paradigm of the nineteen fifties, where the husband worked and the little wife stayed bored at home, was actually a historical anomaly. 

Men and women have always cooperated to secure the necessaries of life.  Before agriculture, women generally accomplished the tasks for which they had the comparative advantage, like gathering fruits and nuts, while men generally did most of the hunting and protecting, tasks for which size, strength and stamina are comparatively advantageous.  David Ricardo may have been the first to “discover” the principle of comparative advantage as among nations, but human beings struggling to survive have always innately understood its precepts.  But the idea of a traditional family being a man who works and a woman who stays home and raises children, a notion Santorum and Romney seem to harbor, is a perversion of comparative advantage, and an attempt to make a tradition out of a unique and anomalous period of social history.  A traditional human family is simply one where everyone, including children, cooperates to meet the challenges of survival.  It is inherently communistic–from each according to ability, to each according to need.

The Cleaver paradigm arose out of a confluence of factors.  First, washing machines, running water and other technological innovations meant that traditionally female tasks were accomplished with little effort.  Whereas on the farm, the men would plow the fields and raise the cash crops, women would tend to all the family’s needs, like milking the cow, raising the chickens, keeping a garden, washing clothes, etc.  With industrialization and its attendant urbanization, the heavy workload of the female practically disappeared.  The post-war era in the US was especially unique in that the benefits of industrialization, combined with newfound empire, made a surfeit of riches in time and energy.  One person could work and provide the resources for the family, leaving the other person with nothing to do.  Boredom is fantastically oppressive.  Even the Rolling Stones wrote a song (Mothers Little Helper)about the ennui and despair of living the life of a housewife of the era.  For these women, and their rising cohorts, entering the work force seemed a natural thing to do, especially considering that a great many jobs depended on mental acuity, rather than physical strength and stamina.

It’s ironic, but not surprising, that Republicans are the ones most concerned with the moral implications of female sexual and economic liberty.  Morality is concerned with survival, and though Republicans trumpet the virtues of the individual over the collective, it is the survival of the collective which concerns them most, as their concern over female sexuality (and their eagerness to unleash the dogs of war on Iran) proves.  Notwithstanding the example of moral rectitude displayed by the Mormon church on polygamy, or by Romney on abortion, or by Obama on whatever theology it was that possessed him during his twenty years in Reverend Wright’s church, morality is situational, and in humans, individual.  That which enhances individual survival and propagation prospects is good.  That which impairs it, is bad.  From the perspective of the individual female, greater sexual and economic freedom must be good, or legions would be clamoring now to restrict it.  Though the rate of labor force participation leveled off and has declined somewhat (the decline could be attributed to the recession), there’s nothing to suggest that females are beginning to believe economic freedom is a bad thing.  Maybe some are just beginning to realize that work is not as glamorous as it may have appeared those many years ago gazing through the kitchen window.  Perhaps some women are discovering that working for a living is only marginally more attractive than the boredom of home imprisonment. 

The ongoing cultural wars, are of course, a distraction.  So long as some calamity doesn’t rewind the clock two hundred years, women are not going to need men, either for protection or for economic security, to survive.  But the quickest way to get a rewind would be to continue spending each year in excess of a trillion dollars more than is taken in, which is precisely the issue for which the culture wars serve as a distraction.