Wednesday, 6 January 2010

More on the Rise of Women: Don't Forget the Pill and the Unemployment Rate As Factors

There is an interesting overview of the history of women in the last 50 years reviewed in The New York Review this month. Gail Collins' When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present is a social history that covers a lot of ground, and tells some interesting stories.

But I was surprised when reading the review by Caroline Schine that so little space was given to the impact of cheap, easy and extremely reliable contraception that women could control. As someone who came of age just as The Pill arrived, I know just how liberating it was. The anxious monthly waiting to see if you had one in the oven was gone, and you could plan your future the way men have always been able to plan theirs.

But maybe the reviewer just neglected to mention this, I thought, so when I saw the book at the library, I picked it up. So far I haven't read all 471 pages, but in following up threads in the index, I find very little discussion of this. Nor is there much attention paid to the role of tight labour markets in making it easier for women to enter the labour market and to soar once they were there.

This last is one of the messages Lee always tried to convey in his economics classes. When there was a demand for labour, women responded. An interesting case is that of the aircraft industry in Canada before and during World II. In 1939 women made up 3 per cent of the fledgling industry's labour force, but by 1944 they made up 30 per cent. After the War, though, they were turfed out of their jobs. It wasn't until later in the century that a tighter labour market opened the way for women to demand better jobs. You could have all the equal rights marches you wanted, but if the jobs weren't there, no one, male or female, was going to be hired.

An argument for full employment as a major economic goal if there ever was one.

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