08 January 2021

A Third Wave of Feminism and the Social Inventions It Will Depend Upon

Everything is made up but the consequences are very real.

Something like public schools is obviously a social invention. One generation a child’s parents teach him or her what she needs to know about farming or cooking or sewing. Another generation has dozens of teachers during about a dozen years and learns math, reading and writing, history, etc. Both are just made up and both have very real consequences, at turns enabling, hindering or neglecting the work of the child to become an adult able to create a life they and their community value and find joy in.

Less obviously, even what it means to be a woman is a social invention. And given our growing mastery of surgery and genetics, even the givens that past generations never imagined could be made up are – increasingly – made up. (For instance, in the 1960s, the average bra size was 34B. Today it is 34DD.)

100 years ago, women got the right to vote. That was totally made up and it has very real consequences. Had only women voted, Biden would have won by 12.2 million votes. Had only men voted, Trump would have won by 5.9 million, a swing of more than 18 million votes. Women have changed politics.

Why did women not have the vote before 1920? Did a male-dominated society suddenly decide to treat women as equals? Maybe. Or maybe technology allowed women to shift their attention outside the home. In 1900, a woman would carry about 10 tons of fuel (wood and coal) and 40 tons of water in and out of the house each year. Running water and electricity came to most homes by 1920 and women could literally shift their energy from inside the home to outside. They became political.

In the 1960s and 1970s, women began to gain an equal role with men in education and finance. In 1969, Yale made its undergraduate program coed. In 1969, Hillary Clinton graduated from Wellesley – an all-woman’s university – and began study at Yale law school. In 1975, women (some of them fresh graduates from the universities that had just let them begin studying there 5 years earlier) could open a checking account without their husband’s signature.

Again, this was coincident with new technology. The pill was approved in 1960 and within years millions of women were on it. Birth control technology gave women the ability to plan their families, deferring children until after they’d finished university and began the better paying careers that made banks being to treat them as equals to men.

Progress is never over, though. We don’t simply hit a median income of $20,000 a year and say, “Hooray! We’re economically advanced now.” We don’t finally get Model T cars and stop improving on the design and manufacture of cars. And we don’t just point to a 21-year-old woman in 1975 and say, “We’re done! She has all she needs to now realize her potential.” And to my mind, a big change that will be on par with the right to vote and equal access to educational and financial opportunities will mean social invention that again changes our institutions to accommodate the reality and potential of women.

For now, the biological reality is that it’s tough to be pregnant and have a young child and have as much energy and attention to put into work as man who gets to share in the most euphoric 15 minutes of a pregnancy. And yet a community has a real interest in their best and brightest young women not feeling penalized for deciding to perpetuate the species. Women having babies is a huge benefit for a community but we still charge women disproportionately to have those babies.

Right now, with the incentives and penalties in place with the current design of work, a record percentage of babies are born to the lowest income and least educated women in our community. For them, the opportunity cost of having children is lower. Curiously, the opportunity cost of having children rises along with education and work opportunities. One, we need to do more to support the poorer women having babies. Two, we need to lower the penalty to better educated women for choosing to have a child or three.

I’m not sure of the details of how we’ll stop penalizing women who could be working to stop or cut back on work enough to have and raise children without undue stress. I do know that everything is made up even though the consequences are real, though. Designing work so that women could more easily have and raise children should not be as complicated as designing a new drug or rocket. And I’m sure that women would have all kinds of design suggestions for work that stops pretending that there is no difference between men and women in terms of the demands that pregnancy, babies and small children place upon them.

We’ve benefitted enormously from making up new norms and technologies that enable women to join men in politics, in education, in work and finance. It is well within our ability to change those institutions so that they allow half the population to fully realize their potential. We just have to make it up – even though the consequences will be very real.

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