Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pour Yourself a Cup of Ambition, Ladies

After many years at her current place of employ, my wife left her job this last week. Unlike so many others in this rather difficult employment market, she's moving on to another job. It's a good move. Her departure was amicable, and her new position is a significant and positive step up in her field. Work, for Rache, has always been an important thing. She's a smart, capable, and intensely committed staff person. That means that after two decades in the same field, she's on a path that will lead her deep into primary breadwinner territory. While we could live simply on what I earn as a pastor, her work now provides a significant majority of our household income.

Interestingly, the issue of women in the workplace has surfaced in the Virginia governors race. Bob McDonnell, the Republican candidate, is catching all sorts of flak for his Master's thesis. He got his graduate degree in public policy from Regent University, which used to be called CBN University. Oh yes it is. It's Pat Robertson's grad school. In that thesis, McDonnell runs through a series of familiar conservative themes. In particular, he argues that having women in the workforce is bad for families.

This has not played particularly well.

McDonnell has been doing a great deal of backpedaling and counterspinning over the last few days. He's pointed out that he wrote the thesis two decades ago...although he was hardly a kid at the time. When you're 34, you're a grownup. Is he saying that his graduate study didn't matter? I'll admit that any masters thesis that includes condemnations of homosexuals and fornicators probably isn't going to make it's way into the Journal of Public Policy and Management. But it still formed him.

He's also pointed to his legislative record, which is a mix of practical politics and conservative social engineering. He's not quite the fascist that the Huffington Post would have us believe, but then again, he's not anywhere near the political center...even in the conservative state of Virginia. He knows this. His campaign theme for populous and moderate Northern Virginia appears to be: "Hey Guys! I also grew up in Northern Virginia! How 'bout them Skins! How 'bout them Redskinettes? Aren't they hot? Man, don't you wish you could marry one too?"

As the political backpedaling goes on, I find myself wondering if perhaps we should look more closely at the statement that got him in the most trouble. It's not politically expedient, but perhaps we should critically consider McDonnell's most challenging assertion.

Are women in the workplace bad for the American family?

If you look at the historical statistics for working women in the United States against the statistics for divorce, they sure do seem to be trending the same way. Both are an arc, and both arcs point strongly upward. Of course, this is just a correlation, and correlation is not causation. They may not teach that at Regent's Public Policy program, but it's a reliable axiom for anyone else who studies statistics. But for the sake of argument, let's say that here is something to that correlation. Let's cede McDonnell his point. Women working has a major and negative impact on the stability of the traditional family unit. But why? I see two major reasons.

First, when women are able to work and support themselves, the dynamic of the household becomes radically different. Women who work cease to be economically dependent on the largesse of a man. Wealth is just a societal instrument of power, and where individuals become culturally detached from the ability to sustain themselves, that power imbalance can become a means of coercion. If you don't stay married, you starve, so you better stay married, little missy. That dynamic of oppression is not necessarily the case, of course. Couples where one partner works and the other cares for offspring work just fine...so long as each partner views the others interests as equivalent to their own. Marriages that hew to the Christian ideal of mutual care can manage that dynamic just fine. But I think ultimately "traditional" relationships that weren't founded on mutual respect just can't survive the transition of women into the workforce.

Second, I think the dynamics of the American workplace make two-income families a desperately challenging proposition. The demand for endlessly rising productivity and the expectation that we'll all be full-time employees who are constantly on call place an often unmanageable amount of stress on the family unit. The combined net income for the household may allow for big houses and big cars and a gutbusting cornucopia of consumer products. But that stuff don't count for nothin' if you're stressed and screaming at each other about who's going to take the kids to soccer this Wednesday, because I've got a deadline, dammit. As women have entered the workforce, those old expectations about work have remained. Where couples could be working less than two full-time jobs and maintaining balance in their lives, we are instead driven into much harsher emotional terrain, and it's doing damage.

So McDonnell's thesis is, on the one hand, correct. The dynamics of a marriage in which the wife is subordinate to and economically dependent on her husband cannot stand in the face of women in the workforce. He is also correct in that our expectations of work have not changed to permit for healthy two-worker families.

On the other hand, and here I come at it with my pastor hat on, McDonnell's thesis is ironically unscriptural. While many conservatives seek out texts here and there to argue for the divinely ordained subordination of women, they're not really paying attention. Where scripture speaks to the issue in the most sustained way, it says something very different. The most pertinent passage is in Proverbs, which makes a profound and sustained case for married women as an active and honored part of the working world, and declares that their work is a sign of a healthy and blessed family. If anything, a Bible-based approach to public policy should be making sure our workplace dynamics make room for both women, men and healthy families.

Guess they must not have bothered much with the Bible in that master's program of his. Oh well.