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Hillary Clinton's plan to use feminism to sell big government

I didn't actually read that Iversen & Rosenbluth paper.
I didn't actually read that Iversen & Rosenbluth paper.
Andrew Burton

Political analysts have made repeated observations about the growing importance of "social issues" to Democratic Party campaign strategy. But speaking at a Center for American Progress panel Thursday morning alongside Patty Murray, Kirsten Gillibrand, Nancy Pelosi, Rosa de Lauro, and CAP president Neera Tanden, Hillary Clinton tested a potentially potent fusion of feminism framing and populist policy that shows how artificial the division between "economic issues" and "social issues" really is.

"Women hold two-thirds of all minimum wage jobs," Clinton observed, and "nearly three-quarters of all jobs that are reliant on tips" and thus eligible for sub-minimum wages.

Clinton discussed the plight of a working-class mother with a service-sector job that provides low pay and little flexibility. "We talk about a glass ceiling," she said, "but these women don't even have a secure floor under them."

Indeed, while people can debate the precise origins of the gender wage gap, there's no denying that women earn substantially less than men on average. Social safety net programs and income redistribution initiatives are disproportionately beneficial to low-wage workers, and low-wage workers are mostly women.

American political discourse often associates the gender gap in voting with abortion rights and other "women's issues" that specifically highlight sex or gender. But as political scientist Karen Kauffman has shown, these issues do not particularly seem to divide men and women. Instead, starting in the Reagan-era, men, but not women, have been attracted by the Republican Party's tilt against the welfare state. Libby Copeland offered an excellent overview of this literature for Slate in 2012, but it remains largely unappreciated by political journalists. Further evidence for the primacy of economics comes from international comparisons. Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris show that women's voting has skewed left in all advanced industrial economies.

Why is this? Torben Iversen and Frances Rosenbluth offered a plausible explanation in a 2006 article, writing that the "partial socialization of family work, even at the cost of higher taxes from the private sector, increases a woman's ability to work outside the home and thereby increases her exit options and her household bargaining position."

In other words, because conventional social norms leave the care of children and the elderly to women, the expansion of the welfare state to shoulder some of that burden not only helps the directly assisted, it helps women by saddling them with less unpaid work.

This is, of course, not exactly how Clinton put it. But during the discussion she referred to the Nixon-era push for a universal childcare program, inspired by a desire to grow the economy by increasing women's workforce participation rate. Clinton said that after being initially supportive, the White House found itself pressed to veto the bill "on ideological grounds not on evidence." Proponents of traditional patriarchal family arrangements, in other words, feared exactly the Iverson/Rosenbluth dynamic. More generous social provision might make the economy richer, but it would also shift the intra-family balance of power away from men and toward women.

At a time when activist government was broadly in vogue, highlighting the implications for family life was enough to sink the proposal. Clinton's calculation seems to be broadly the opposite — that putting a gender equity frame forward is a good way to bolster support for the welfare state at a time when the national mood is swinging toward smaller government.

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