Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Feminist Bean Counters to the Rescue

Two aspects of Obama's economics and other early appointments and pronouncements have troubled me for some time but this afternoon's advance announcement that Ray LaHood, a mediocre white male Republican from Illinois, will be appointed Secretary of Transportation in the morning has finally pushed me over the edge and compels me to post an item.

Two warning signs in Obama's early appointments that women would not be treated well in the senior most positions and that women's needs would not be seriously assessed in policy discussions were the appointments of Larry Summers and Rahm Emmanuel. Neither is known for their commitment to enhancing equal opportunity for women. Having Emmanuel as the ultimate gate keeper in the White House was a bad sign for all future appointments, and having Summers as the inside-the-White-House-czar of economic policy was a bad sign for the content of economic policy, at least as far as meeting women's needs goes.

So what has happened since these major bad signs in the immediate post November 4 period? Of 15 department secretaries, 14 have been announced: 12 are men and 2 are women, for a ratio of 14 percent--lower than women's share of Congress (which itself puts the US at the bottom of countries of similar economic standing). The Department of Labor position is still open. Let us hope that it is filled with a better choice with regard to expertise and commitment to equal opportunity.

In the context of the economic disaster that is upon us, these last two jobs, transportation and labor, are very important to the success of the economic recovery program, to make sure grants and contracts are efficiently and fairly let and appropriately monitored. And to make sure women and women -owned businesses get their fair share of the new work created. Sure, you don't need to be a woman to be a feminist and you don't need to be a feminist to make sure women are treated fairly, but all the research evidence suggests it helps. And the construction industry is not known for equal opportunity for women. Moreover, our last great publicly-funded economic recovery program was also not known for equal opportunity for women--in the great depression of the 1930s women were dismissed from jobs and they got very, very few of the new public works jobs made available.

Feminist economists and other academics have been buzzing about the need for a fair economic recovery program for more than a month. Somehow, discussion of creating jobs in education, child care and health care seemed to morph overnight in Obama's language to almost exclusive focus on jobs in transportation infrastructure and retrofitting buildings to be more energy efficient. Jobs in health care have become jobs to computerize records. Unless health care, education, and early care and development SERVICES are expanded, or jobs are created in other areas in which a substantial number of women have trained for and work in, women will not get a share of jobs commensurate to their share of unemployment (which was 42% in the third quarter of 2008). Economist Randy Albelda had an op ed in the Boston Globe in November on these points. Petitions making the same arguments have recently been circulated among historians and economists as well as networks of academics and activists working on caregiving issues (see The Take Care Net and Institute for Women's Policy Research websites, and These experts believe the economic recovery will not be successful unless women have access to a fair share of the employment and business opportunities, in areas both traditional and nontraditional for women. Moreover the petitions and their signers stress the need for good-quality jobs, jobs that include not only decent wages and health insurance but also family friendly benefits like paid sick time. With women 46 percent of the labor force, it would be folly to ignore job creation for them or to fail to create the kinds of jobs that can truly move our country forward.

One good sign is that on Friday the Obama Transition Team is slated to meet with leaders of women's organizations to discuss the economic stimulus package and proposals for economic recovery. I wonder if senior members of the economic team will be at the meeting and if, in view of appointments like Ray LaHood, which seemingly came out of nowhere with no discussion, everything isn't already a done deal. Several pundits have commented that so far neither Obama's appointments overall nor his recovery proposals give Americans anything to get positively excited about--there's no big vision in the recovery plan (nothing to capture the imagination). And there's not even basic competence in the appointment of Ray LaHood.

Of the 14 secretary appointments so far, 5 are minority men. There is not a single woman of color appointed to head a major department. Whoa. Why did I title this entry "feminist bean counters to the rescue"? I'm hoping another positive development will occur: that the person appointed to head the Labor Department will actually be a champion for workers of both genders and all races and ethnicities. I'm even hoping the ridiculously inept nomination of Ray LaHood can be stopped. There are many Republican policy makers who could make a substantive contribution at Transportation: Ray LaHood is not among them. And there are many women with expertise in transportation who could make a significant contribution to the economic recovery. If he gets that far, Ray LaHood is likely to serve as the joke of Obama's cabinet.

Moxie Momma