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The Ornery Observer
March 4, 2010

Protecting Women or Re-engineering Society?
by Paul Gottfried

ELIZABETHTOWN, PA — President Obama’s state of the union address mentioned something he had done right after taking office. He tried to make sure that “women would receive equal pay in the workplace” by supporting the Lilly Ledbetter Law, passed by Congress on January 29, 2009. Because of this law, female employees can now bring suits against employers whom they think are not paying them enough because of gender discrimination. GOP congressmen kept a low profile when the law was passed, for fear of seeming “sexist.”

But the enactment of this feminist goal could damage our eroded freedoms even more. Although women as a whole currently receive only 75 percent of the salary income earned by men, this oft-stated statistic begs for an explanation. Women on average do not stay as long or as uninterruptedly as men in the work force; they often drop out of jobs in order to have children. Moreover, women are sometimes marginal workers, who are hired precisely because they receive lower pay than men. How would the government remedy this disparity?

One suggestion is that the government force employers to pay female employees while they stay home with young children. If this payment for non-work cannot be extracted from employers, then perhaps it should be passed on to taxpayers, an arrangement that has already been introduced in parts of Europe. Another suggestion for dealing with unequal salaries is having the state determine who should be paid what. This form of wage control was tried under communist regimes but yielded disastrous results.

Supposedly Obama is taking a more moderate course, by letting female employees intimidate their employers without having additional government surveillance. But one wonders what effect this law will have on potential employers and female applicants (in the absence of government coercion to hire these applicants). Why would one choose for a job someone who can intimidate the employer with legal suits, if she believes that a male employee is earning more than what she thinks she deserves for a comparable job?

Scholars like Allan C. Carlson, director of the The Family in America Studies Center, and Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute show that women are now doing much better than men academically and professionally. They stay in colleges longer and are usually favored in entry-level positions. There are also anti-discrimination laws and government agencies protecting female employees against even the faintest hint of sexist conversation and such social iniquities as offensive male laughter. Obama and the Congress are not dealing with downtrodden beings, like Saudi Arabian women who are not allowed to leave their houses unaccompanied or to drive cars. Feminists are reaching out to the most privileged women in human history in the name of a war that has already been won.

Allow me to get more personal about this war against sexism. Having grown up in the 1950s, I never encountered any of the oppressed women whom my academic colleagues assure me were legion back then. My mother and aunts, who stayed at home raising children, seemed happy with their roles in life. But I have now been told that these members of an older generation were conditioned to be submissive. My late wife also enjoyed her domestic role, but perhaps she too was deluded. The problem with depicting the other side as brainwashed is that it can be thrown back at the one making it. The accuser as well as the accused can be presented as someone who has been conditioned to think in a certain way.

Back in the 1930s, the women’s movement, when led by such activists as Eleanor Roosevelt and Francis Perkins, fought for the “single family-wage.” Interwar feminists wished to make sure that working men earned enough so that their wives would not be forced to leave home in search of a second family income. Despite my general sympathy for a market economy, I applaud these early feminists, who cared about the traditional family.

If women, however, wish to work outside the home, they should have the right to do so. Their decision, however, should not carry an unacceptable political cost. The government should not monitor my behavior and conversation in front of women or anyone else. Heaven knows, the feds should not set pay scales to fit some abstract scheme of gender equity.

Integrating women into the work force here and in Europe has been for decades a social project. It has less to do with the market than it does with government social engineering. Recently, a female colleague suggested that I would not want the government to interfere even if an employer made improper advances toward one of my daughters. My response was to point out that there are laws against assault and battery that go back to English common law, and these would apply to the situation mentioned. There is no need for an army of lawyers and government bureaucrats to micromanage the workplace. But those who favor such meddling do not care about restraining government power. They are too busy rearranging society.

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The Ornery Observer is copyright © 2010 by Paul Gottfried and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. A version of this column has been published in the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Newspapers. Copyright © 2010 by LewRockwell.com. Reprinted with permission.

Paul Gottfried, Ph.D., is the Raffensperger professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
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