Guest post: Foul-weather Feminism

Originally a comment by Hj Hornbeck on Guest post: Sexism squanders human resources.

Historically, families have always had at least two “incomes.” Even people who buy into a strict division of labour between the sexes concede that all sexes brought food to the table, from picking berries to doing farm chores. This is quite stable against adversity; if one person cannot provide for the family, they can try to subsist on another person’s contribution. Arbitrary restrictions on what each sex can do artificially limit that capacity, and endanger survival.

On rare occasions, though, a single provider has been enough to feed an entire family. Artificial restrictions aren’t a factor anymore, and don’t face the opposition they would in a two+ income society. But of course, no culture has ever fit on that extreme, so you wind up with a mixture of both. Nor has any culture been free of economic swings down to the individual level.

This suggests a theory: during economic downswings, societies are pushed towards feminist attitudes, as sexist attitudes squander human resources. During upswings, there is no strong draw either way, but as it’s tougher to correct justice than perpetuate it societies tend to gradually drift towards anti-feminist attitudes. I dub this “Foul-Weather Feminism.”

Early drafts of that paper included two anecdotes to support this. Iceland, for instance, has been sympathetic to feminism for some time. In 1975, a radical woman’s movement called the Red Stockings suggested all women should go on strike. This came to pass on October 24th, when 90% of Iceland’s women refused to work or look after the children.[1] Yet by 2009, Iceland had a greater gender pay gap than all of Europe, one that persists to this day.[2] Why? Well, Iceland was profiting greatly from the housing bubble in the USA, thanks to deregulation and aggressive investment in foreign countries, which led to a huge economic boom in a small country.[3] As banking was predominantly a male profession there, this inflated the gender pay gap.

Iceland suffered a significant economic crash in 2009, a 10% loss in GDP between 2008 and 2010. In response, during the 2009 election they voted in Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir as Prime Minister, the first woman to hold that position in Iceland and the first world leader to be openly lesbian. Her government implemented a vast number of reforms, most notably the criminalization of the purchase of sex and the shutdown of all strip bars in 2009; gender quotas were implemented in 2010, as well as a bill allowing single women to receive donor sperm.[4]

Japan saw an incredible economic boom after WWII, thanks in part to shrewd investment in infrastructure and foreign economies, plus a practice of tight industry-government and industry-industry relations that reduced bureaucracy and waste due to competition. [5] With only one income necessary to sustain a family, and every person promised a job for life, their culture drifted towards heavy sexism. So what happened after that bubble burst?

Japan has suffered from a decade-long recession, and seen sluggish growth in comparison to other developed nations. In 2006, Maki Fukasawa wrote an article on what she dubbed “soushoku danshi” or “grass-eating boys,” who rejected the strict gender roles that their fathers had embraced and were exploring behaviors previously held to be feminine. Roughly 60% of men under 23 now fall into this category, and 42% of those between 23 and 34.[6] The last decade has also seen the rise of “nikushoku onna,” or “carnivorous women,” who also reject traditional roles by taking the initiative in relationships and pursuing men more aggressively.

Digging up supportive anecdotes is pretty easy, though. In my paper, I look at two decades worth of global economic data in search of a similar effect. Child care is almost universally undervalued, but in a contradictory way: parents looking after their children receive no income and few benefits for it, yet third parties looking after children do earn an income.

This means that during an economic downturn, the shift from single to multiple income would cause a “boost” in overall GDP and smooth out small economic bumps. It isn’t an actual boost, mind, it’s just that an undervalued task is being assigned more value. A 100% feminist society would see no cushion, because child care would not be undervalued, and a 100% sexist society would see no cushion, because gender norms would prevent the necessary economic mobility. Interestingly, this also provides a secondary way to measure the gender gap: if women are truly undervalued compared to men, then an influx of women would have less of a “boost” than an influx of men. By comparing the size of each effect, we can measure the gender income gap on a global level.

And I found… pretty much what you’d expect. The cushion effect exists, and it’s greater for an influx of men than it is for an influx of women. Again, here’s the gory details.

[1] Rudolfsdottir, Annadis. “The day the women went on strike.” The Guardian, October 15th, 2005.
[2] Eurostat, “Gender pay gap statistics.”
[4] J.E. Johnson, “The Most Feminist Place in the World.” The Nation, February 21st 2011.
[5] Jesse Colombo, “Japan’s Bubble Economy of the 1980s“. June 4th, 2012.
[6] A. Harney, “The Herbivore’s Dilemma.” Slate, June 15th, 2009.



  1. Funny Diva says

    Thanks for this, HJ Hornbeck! (also for your excellent debunkings of EvoPhrenology over at That Other Blog).
    Your analysis, and coinage of “Foul-weather Feminism”, make a lot of sense to me.

    When times are harder the pushback is “well, OK, we’ll let you work for (lesser) wages, because otherwise the economy will _really_ tank” but “others have it way worse, so just shut up and wait your turn for full equality”
    And once the acute economic crisis passes it’s back to “oh, well, thanks for all the riveting, Rosie, but teh menz is back nao, so back to the kitchen, K? BAI!”
    And when times are fairly good the pushback is “well, things are really good for most people and not _so_ bad for you wimminz, so shut up, that’s why”

    It’s almost as though there are a lot of shouty, privileged people who not only don’t care about equality, but actually care very much about propping it up at all costs. Almost as if (in this case) women just. can’t. win. Funny that…

  2. PatrickG says

    Funny Diva: I wonder if there isn’t a more passive effect as well, not to discount the shouty, privileged people.

    When things are relatively stable, there is a natural tendency to simply not pay attention to issues that don’t really affect you; conversely, radical proposals are more likely to be entertained in times of adversity because people are desperate for change. For this class of people, when times get better, it’s less about shoving Rosie the Riveter out of the way and more about simply not paying attention to whether Rosie is Riveting, or caring about how she’s treated while Riveting. Obviously, this clears the way for active oppression.

    Call it the principle of “See no evil”. It’s not overtly malign, but in some ways even more pernicious than the shouty people you describe so aptly.

  3. guest says

    Thank you for this! Have just downloaded the paper and will take it to work. I’ve described this concept (and also thanks for giving it a name!) in a more abstract way (e.g. ‘in a subsistence society, would people rather eat a deer shot by a woman or go hungry?’) and in the context of the economy of eighteenth century England (there is a very definite break point where the general economy shifts from multiple family firms to a smaller number of larger professionally-managed firms, and at that point women experience what a colleague refers to as a ‘return to the parlour’), but you’ve put together a quantitatively answerable research question and crunched the numbers.

    Another way to look at it, and this might be getting too complicated for a blog comment (and as I said I have to go to work :)) is that before the widespread adoption of the ‘Enlightenment values’ of universal categorisation whether someone was female or not mattered less in the grand scheme of things. Enlightenment values gave us the concept of human rights, as every human fit into the ‘human’ category, but also made salient demographic categories that weren’t as significant in daily life as they are now. ‘X is female–but she’s also y’s daughter and z’s husband; she comes from this place and has this history’–and all that would be relevant to her role in her society. We still see this prioritising of individual relationships, history and provenance over universal demographic category a lot more in non-‘developed’ cultures–we in the ‘developed’ world marvel every time we see something like this:

    and don’t get me wrong, it’s great–but she’s doing what she’s doing because her relationships and history trump her gender, and not because her society has suddenly developed a Western-style view of ‘women’s rights’.

    Re women working in industrial manufacturing in the war…yeah, it seems unfair that ‘Rosie’ got sent home after her wartime service, but it wasn’t purely sexism–when those men went to war their employers agreed that they would keep their job seniority when they returned; by definition they were more senior than the women who’d been doing these jobs temporarily while the men who’d previously held them were fighting the war, so it was fair that the more senior people were able to take up their jobs again. Fascinating to read the mixed reactions of the displaced women.

  4. Hj Hornbeck says

    [commence squee flailing] Yay! I’m honored all over again. I hope this leads to a bit more scrutiny; as someone working outside their area of expertise, I kinda need it. 😛

    Funny Diva @1:

    When times are harder the pushback is “well, OK, we’ll let you work for (lesser) wages, because otherwise the economy will _really_ tank” but “others have it way worse, so just shut up and wait your turn for full equality.”

    To a point. The approach I took is really just plain-old supply-and-demand, but extended far beyond material products. Gary Becker pioneered this approach back in the 1950’s.

    Discrimination against outsiders has always existed, but with the exception of a few discussions of the employment of women (see Fawcett [1918]; Edgeworth [1922]), economists wrote little on this subject before the 1950s. I began to worry about racial, religious, and gender discrimination while a graduate student, and I used the concept of discrimination coefficients to organize an approach to prejudice and hostility to members of particular groups.

    Instead of making the common assumptions that employers consider only the productivity of employees, that workers ignore the characteristics of those with whom they work, and that customers care only about the qualities of the goods and services provided, discrimination coefficients incorporate the influence of race, gender, and other personal characteristics on tastes and attitudes. Employees may refuse to work under a woman or a black even when they are well paid to do so, or a customer may prefer not to deal with a black car salesman. It is only through a widening of the usual assumptions that it is possible to begin to understand the obstacles to advancement encountered by minorities.

    Presumably, the amount of observable discrimination against minorities in wages and employment depends not only on tastes for discrimination but also on other variables, such as the degree of competition and civil rights legislation.[1]

    For instance, employers compete with one another to snag the best employees. If few women work in an industry then employers looking specifically to hire women have to compete with one another, and they can’t afford to discriminate. If a lot of women work in an industry, then employers are the ones in short supply and women will put up with more discrimination. The evidence supports this.

    But it’s important to remember the effect only kicks in when the conditions are right; if there is no demand for female labour specifically, or the baseline pay is generous, then supply is irrelevant and the wage gap will be unaffected. In short, the story is a bit more complicated than you describe it.

    [1] Becker, Gary S., and Revolution, and Peace. Hoover Institution on War. The Economic Way of Looking at Behavior: The Nobel Lecture. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, Stanford University, 1996.

  5. Hj Hornbeck says

    Whoops, linked to the wrong chart above, and I can’t find the proper one at the moment. I’ll patch that when I orbit back for another round of replies…

  6. brucegee1962 says

    I like the theory above, with one caveat:

    as it’s tougher to correct justice than perpetuate it societies tend to gradually drift towards anti-feminist attitude

    This seems to presuppose that there is not any socioeconomic pressure that works contrary to feminism. I would presume that there is one. In bad times, as you say, societies focus on short term economic progress, which is achieved by encouraging everyone to work. But in good times, societies tend to focus more on long-term economic growth — and for most of human history, that has meant increasing the birth rate.

    In both of the examples of anti-feminist retrenchment discussed above — 1950s America and 18th-19th century England — it wasn’t really a “return to the parlor” as much as it was a “return to the birthing couch.” Women were supposed to do their duty to their country and Have Lots Of Babies. And it was hard for her to do that when she was out there riveting.

    If you believe, as I do, in cultural evolution, then for most of human history, cultural memes that encouraged a high birth rate were highly positive survival characteristics of every culture. It’s only been in the last century or so that the cultural priority on babiesbabiesbabies has begun to wear off. There are several reasons that come to mind:
    1) The real danger of outstripping our food supply,
    2) Cultures can propagate themselves more effectively now through media than through conquest,
    3) Countries can control their population by immigration, as well as by birthrate,
    4) (These two are probably the biggest) International organizations and increased prosperity have led to a general reduction in warfare as the primary means of distributing resources, and
    5) Wars themselves tend not to be determined primarily by numeric superiority any more.

    I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the rise of feminism has coincided with these five tendencies over the past century. There’s no big benefit to be accrued to our society from cranking out lots of kids to feed the military, in a nutshell. But for most of human history, there was.

  7. brucegee1962 says

    Oh, I forgot number 6: Lowered infant mortality. If a woman wants to have two kids, she only needs to go through two pregnancies, usually — not five or six as would have been the case earlier. Again, that gives her more time for working outside the home.

  8. Funny Diva says

    Patrick G @2
    just checkin’ back to this thread…

    Yes, I completely agree with you that it’s also just easier to be silent and complacent when times aren’t that bad.
    So, you’re right–between the shouty people and the probably not ill meaning but not really paying much attention people…that’s significant pushback plus lorry-loads of plain ol’ inertia.

    I’ve also been listening to a lot of audiobooks of Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie novels…written during times when active shoving of women back out of the wartime workforce, in favor of the Boys lucky enough to come home, was far more significant than it’s been, say, in my lifetime.

  9. Funny Diva says

    HJH @5
    Thanks for the response. I must read more from this Gary Becker. That one pull quote puts in a nutshell so much of what, IMO, is _still_ wrong with a lot of mainstream economic thinking–it’s _not_ all about the money, prejudices (and worse) matter, too!

    So, yes, much more complex than my little thought-let. I was more venting my frustration at perceiving yet another example of women. can’t. win. And sort of shoe-horning some of the recent, anti-feminist shoutyness from the atheoskepticosphere into your model of Foul Weather Feminism.

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