Women and the Great Retrenchment: The Political Economy of Gender in the 1980s

By May, Ann Mari; Stephenson, Kurt | Journal of Economic Issues, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Women and the Great Retrenchment: The Political Economy of Gender in the 1980s


May, Ann Mari, Stephenson, Kurt, Journal of Economic Issues


Policy analysts and scholars are only now beginning the serious task of sifting through the debris of the 1980s to chronicle the impacts of policy changes and to evaluate the policies as well as the policymakers. The 1980s will no doubt be remembered as having produced the worst recession since the Great Depression and perhaps, more generally, as a period of economic retrenchment [Dugger 1992]. While many segments of society were affected by the restructuring inherent in Reaganomics, the impact on women merits special attention, particularly in light of demographic changes in voting behavior. It has long been understood that discernable differences exist between women and men on issues, party identification, and candidate selection. Women tend to favor less military spending and more government spending on social services, to more often identify with the Democratic party, and to vote for Democratic candidates over Republican candidates [Matlack 1987; Shapiro and Mahajan 1986; Zipp and Plutzer 1985]. In the 1980s, however, women's participation rates exceeded those of men for the first time in U.S. history. Women emerged from the 1980s as a significant, although certainly non-monolithic, electoral force.

At the same time that women have become more prominent electorally, there has been an increased recognition of the political nature of women's economic status [Nelson 1984]. Following the expansion of the late 1960s and 1970s, increasing numbers of women have been employed in government jobs associated with the social safety net. Moreover, the feminization of poverty has resulted in an increased attachment to the state at the very time that much of mainstream political discourse has reflected a distinctly anti-statist perspective. Finally, working women in all socioeconomic groups have become increasingly aware of the political nature of their economic status because of the protection offered to women through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the accompanying executive orders pertaining to sexual discrimination. The 1980s stand out, then, as a period when women's attachment to the state was increasingly at odds with the dominant political rhetoric.

The 1980s and Women's Attachment to the State

In 1982, as the unemployment rate reached its highest level since the early 1940s, President Ronald Reagan responded with the following assessment of the unemployment statistics. According to Reagan, "Part of the unemployment is not as much recession as it is the great increase in the people going into the job market and, ladies, I'm not picking on anyone, but because of the increase in women who are working today . . ." [Public Papers of the Presidents 1983, 483].

Although it is more than a stretch to blame the 1981-82 recession on women's entrance into the paid labor force, it is indeed true that women had entered the labor force at an accelerated pace during the 1970s. The female participation rate was 42.7 percent in 1969; by 1982, the rate stood at 52.6 percent [Economic Report of the President 1992, 337]. Moreover, female participation rates continued to increase throughout the 1980s, albeit at a slower pace.

While increasing numbers of women participated in the paid labor force, the civilian unemployment rate for women fell below that of men for the first time in the postwar era [Economic Report of the President 1992, 341]. In addition, the pay gap between men and women, which was relatively constant throughout the 1960s and 1970s, began to narrow in the 1980s. Where women earned 60 percent of what men earned in 1980, they earned 72 percent by 1990 [Economic Report of the President 1992, 101].

On its face then, conditions for women in the labor market seem to have improved in the 1980s, and women who, according to poll data throughout the 1980s, were apprehensive about Reagan, might appear to have been well served by the "good old time religion of the market" ritualistically espoused by "the Gipper. …

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