Matt Yglesias, Susan Moller Okin, and Michelle Obama

Matt Yglesias has done an interesting interview with The Browser about five books that have influenced his work. He names one of my all-time favorites: Justice, Gender, and the Family by Susan Moller Okin. 

I really love what Matt had to say about Okin's work (emphasis is mine):

This is definitely a book I recommend to men. A lot of men who have left-wing political views of one kind or another say, “Well of course I’m a feminist! Of course women’s equality is important.” They pay lip service to that goal. But being men, they do not necessarily have a visceral sense of what these questions are all about. Susan Okin has written a book which is not visceral at all. It’s an intellectual book, it’s very abstract. It engages with all of the “great men” of political theory through a feminist lens, in a very rigorous and analytical way. She shows that the exclusion of women from centuries of conversation – about what equality, liberalism and freedom mean – has had a really distorting influence. I think the main message of her book is that you can’t take a political order that’s been constructed over hundreds of years on the basis of the disempowerment of women, and then one day say, as a kind of add-on, “oh and also we’ll treat women fairly”. Once you take seriously the idea that women are equal, you actually have to rethink social and political institutions from the ground up.

Yes! As Matt mentions, this is most obviously a problem when we look at women's rate of participation in electoral politics. About 17 percent of the U.S. Congress is female; only about 13 percent of the members of all parliamentary bodies worldwide are women. Numbers are similarly depressing among CEOs and even non-profit executives. 

There are lots of reasons why this is the case — after all, we're facing down centuries of business and political life being culturally coded, in most times and places, as male — but one of the big ones has to be that within hetero couples, homemaking and child-rearing work tends to fall disproportionately on women. Even when women do work outside the home, they do about four times as much childcare and two times as much housework as their husbands. This leaves women less able to take on uber-ambitious public roles, whether in politics or other fields.

Susan Moller Okin wanted individuals and society-at-large to become much more aware of the trade-0ffs women are forced to make when their partners don't step up. One of her more radical proposals in this regard is that when one member of a married couple does not work outside the home, the working spouse's income should be split in half and paid equally to each partner. Riffing off this idea (which, let's face it, is really more of a thought experiment) I wrote a column two years ago on the role of the First Lady. I was inspired not only by Okin, but by Michelle Obama, who once told a second-grade girl that she should think twice about wanting to be First Lady, because the job is unpaid:

The job of first lady is so crucial that our one bachelor president, James Buchanan, appointed his niece to carry out the traditional duties. So considering the varied social and political services the first lady–or, one day, the first gentleman–renders to the United States, don’t taxpayers owe her a salary?

Not so, argues historian Jonathan Zimmerman in the San Francisco Chronicle. If we paid the first lady, Zimmerman writes, wouldn’t the vice president’s spouse expect a salary and maybe even the spouses of senators? After all, they too have numerous duties. During a recession, we must be more frugal. “Living ‘only’ on the president’s $400,000 salary, however, [the Obamas will] make eight times as much as the average American household,” Zimmerman points out. “It’s hard to see why they need a second income.”

It is true that the Obamas don’t need the money. But that’s no reason to deny the president’s partner compensation for her work. The salary for the first lady could be garnished from her husband’s wages. Since we expect our presidents to be just one half of a 24/7 public-relations team, why not pay the president less–say $300,000–and make out the remainder of the check to his wife?

It might sound radical, but I’m not the first person to suggest salary-sharing as a solution. In her 1989 classic, Justice, Gender, and the Family, political philosopher Susan Moller Okin goes further, arguing that in couples made up of one stay-at-home and one working spouse, employers should pay each partner exactly 50 percent of the working spouse’s salary. “The household income is rightly shared, because in a real sense jointly earned,” Okin writes. “The wage-earning spouse is no more supporting the home-making and child-rearing spouse than the latter is supporting the former; the form of support each offers the family is simply different.”

Such a system would protect women, giving them the financial resources necessary to exit unhappy or abusive relationships. And while Michelle Obama is in no need of extra cash, paying her for a difficult job sets the right example.

One thought on “Matt Yglesias, Susan Moller Okin, and Michelle Obama

  1. Kathleen Wright

    Two edits…

    Thomas Jefferson was a widower whose daughter Patsy served as hostess, I believe, while he was POTUS

    And, on the spouse thing, let’s say “his wife or her husband.” This is not just a First Lady issue if we leave gender bias out of it.


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