The Feminist Housewife, Gender and Bargaining Power

midcenturyhousewifeThis week’s New York Magazine published an article by Lisa Miller entitled “The Retro Wife: Feminists who say they’re having it all – by choosing to stay at home.” I’ve heard this argument before, and I can usually bite my tongue, especially since I cannot imagine what it’s like to be raising a family (according to my partner the cats do not count), but I figured it was a worthwhile venture to explain some of the economics implications of these women who have it “all” by staying at home.

As with all home economics, and not the kind where you learn to make a cake in middle school, we must start with Becker. For a long time, the home was outside the purview of economics. Economics was about the market. But this isn’t totally right, since what happens inside the home often affects how the members of the household decide to participate in the market. So along came economist Gary Becker, who developed theories of marriage and the family to describe how formal economic models can be used to describe what takes place within the home. The basic idea is that there is one unitary model of how the family makes decisions and produces goods and services both within and outside the home. To Becker, this meant that the household is run by one altruistic, rational head who decides the allocation of resources. As within the market, things will be more efficient if there is a division of labor and specialization. You can guess the logical conclusion of this. That’s right, ladies, make your man some damn dinner by the time he gets home from work and make sure the kids are already bathed and their lunches are packed too. Becker went so far as to describe women who are trained in fields other than homemaking as “deviant.” And then he went on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics.

dont_get_smart_with_me_retro_housewife_print-r5f85e64a845546b2a0f2527f1584e18a_w2q_400I give credit to Becker where credit is due. He began the discussion, so other economists knew what to do to start to improve/oppose this model. A major line of criticism is based on bargaining models applied to the household. In bargaining models of the household, often built upon game theory, outcomes are based on cooperative conflict. This means that members of the household cooperate to achieve various outcomes, like making enough money to pay the mortgage and making sure the children are reasonably well-fed and clothed – however their interests and preferences are not exactly the aligned as Becker assumes, hence the conflict. For example, both adult members of a household, usually thought of as a husband and a wife, realize that dinner needs to be made, so they need to cooperate in decision making to ensure that this happens and they do not starve. But maybe they want really different things for dinner, or maybe neither of them even wants to spend the time in the kitchen, but it has to be done so they must decide who does it and what is made. How this happens is explicit or implicit bargaining based on each individual’s level of bargaining power. And here is the crux of how I think this relates to the idea that women are choosing to have it all by staying at home…

If one person remains attached to the market, and thus the skills and income associated with being continually employed, they will have a different level of power compared to someone whose life exists solely within the home. In bargaining theory this is because of their different “fallback position” – where you’d be if you stopped agreeing to cooperate and just left the relationship. Commonly this is thought of as divorce in a family, but it can also be withholding sex, emotionally withdrawing, or just running away. So clearly if one person has all the financial control, they have a better fallback position, and thus a different level of power in day-to-day interactions as well as in larger family choices, like where to live, whether to move for different opportunities, etc.

So here’s the problem. Sure Kelly Makino in the NY Mag article is happily married… right now… But what happens if her marriage dissolves? She may not be able to imagine divorce, but unfortunately job loss or death of a husband are real possibilities. Or what happens when her kids grow up and her reasons for being a housewife no longer exist? In the article, Makino discusses what happens after her kids grown up and she isn’t needed in the home to the same degree, and thinks maybe she’ll go back into the labor market (or she’ll just have the most perfectly manicured lawn in the neighborhood…). Sorry, but this isn’t how it works. When a person leaves the labor market for any reason, either voluntarily or involuntarily, it becomes harder and harder to find a job the longer you are out of the market and you will most likely start at a lower wage level and never make up those lost lifetime earnings. The longer you stay home, the more vulnerable you become. You lose power.

housewife2And what is feminism if not empowerment of women? I might piss people off in writing this, but I don’t think that choosing to stay home and adopt traditional (re: patriarchal) gender roles is an empowering choice, exactly because you lose bargaining power in the home by doing so. Furthermore, this is often an elitist choice to make. Most stay at home mothers are at either end of the income spectrum, either poor or rich. For poor women, this decision may be because the cost of childcare is greater than what they can earn in the market. It is not necessarily a choice for these women, but a necessity. For rich women, it is an elitist choice, a luxury. Taking advantage of their elite class position does not further the empowerment of other women less privileged than they are. One may argue that women don’t need to use their own lives to work toward, either explicitly or implicitly, gender equality for all women. But personally, I think women should. You don’t need to become a fulltime feminist activist, but at least follow your professional goals and make sure you can support yourself. Have an identity separate than just a reference to the men in your life. Remember the saying “the personal is political” from the women’s movement of the past? Our individual choices as women shape society, so when these women use their privilege to give up their own power, they reinforce the disempowerment of all women. They affect the household bargaining environment for women. It’s all just economics.


Categories: Means of Reproduction, Means of Reproduction-1

9 replies

  1. This is an excellent article, but how come Gary Becker gets a shout out, and not any of the female economists who’ve contributed to the mainstream economics bargaining literature, such as Marjorie McElroy or Shelly Lundberg, fantastic feminist economists like Nancy Folbre and Paula England, or even male economists like Bob Pollak who actively work for gender equality?

    • Fair enough. I also rely a lot of Bina Agarwal’s and Kaushik Basu’s work on bargaining in the household. I should have referred to these sources since they are so important, but it was more of a choice of simplicity to keep the post short and manageable. I hope to continue this discussion and reference the work of these people more explicitly, since my own thinking is clearly really influenced by them.

      • Well done for popularizing the concept of bargaining power! I hope this is the first of many discussions around this fundamental concept in feminist economics, which would naturally pull in Folbre, Agarwal, Basu, et al.

  2. Becker is being criticized unjustly. he has both unitary and non-unitary models, and his altruism model does not have to be used in conjunction w the other models. i agree w Frances


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