Has Feminism Been Bad for American Education?

By†Matthew Yglesias on Think Progress

Tyler Cowen has an excellent post†smacking down right-of-center skeptics about the value of education. I have to say that I think itís strange that the pure signaling model of education is so popular among libertarian college professors. How does Bryan Caplanís belief that attending college imparts no useful skills impact his pedagogical methods when students take his undergraduate econometrics class? But after running down the evidence, Cowen gets to what he thinks is the real puzzle:

The real puzzle is how large measured marginal returns to education are consistent with the continuing observed failures of the American educational system. Why does the low-hanging fruit persist or is it low-hanging at all?†The traditional liberal view is that further educational subsidies are needed, but a possible alternative is that some people simply do not wish to step across to the other side of the divide to a “better life,” at least as defined by middle class values and income statistics. Or is there some other hypothesis? Whichever way you cut it, a big improvement in this area does not seem about to happen and arguably we are moving in the opposite direction. Whatever gains are there “in the data,” we don’t seem able or willing to capture them.

For one thing “more subsidies needed” and “some people simply do not wish to step across” seem to me to be pretty similar ideas. If present-biased and moderately ill-informed teenagers are failing to familiarize themselves with the academic literature on the long-term returns to education and focus more on their own schooling, then steps to make education less costly (which might include subsidies as well as other types of reform) should be beneficial.

At any rate, while I don’t want this to be taken the wrong way, I think the cause of the problem here is the intersection of feminism and capitalism. Prior to 1970 or so, overwhelming social and politician coercion was brought to bear on women to overwhelmingly focus their time on childrearing and to severely limit the range of occupations they could enter. One of those occupations was, of course, teaching. This all constituted a giant implicit subsidy to the school system. In some countries, such as Sweden and Finland, the feminist turn was accompanied by big-time family leave policies, big investments in preschool, and substantial structural reforms to K-12 education. But America just kind of welcomed women to the world of competitive labor markets and left it at that. Under the circumstances, I think it’s slightly surprising that†we’ve managed to avoid actively†backsliding in educational attainment. Meanwhile, the overall trajectory of the welfare state in America has†shifted in favor of transfers to the elderly and disabled even though the facts on the ground suggest a shift in favor of children and families. But if the feminist revolution was sort of the origin of the problem here, it’s also a big part of the solution. Taking care of and educating children is a socially vital function, one that was traditionally and unfairly assigned to unpaid or underpaid women, and we need to actually step up to the plate with preschool, family leave, as well as much more focused efforts to re-raise the average quality of teachers were in K-12 classrooms.

Photo from†Seattle Municipal Archives


Kate Florio
Kate F.5 years ago

All I can say here is CELEBRATE YOUR DAUGHTER and she will flourish.

Marcus Fish
Marcus Fish5 years ago

I think feminism has been a very positive thing in our society. My Mother was actively involved in the League of Women Voters, NOW, etc - I remember her passion and teachings on the importance of women's rights.

For those of you interested who have not read this one - I highly recommend "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls" by Mary Pipher. It gives incredible insight into many of the issues and pressures young women face in our society.

Similarly, I must highly recommend "Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood" by William S. Pollack - as the male equivalent to the above. If anyone wants to understand what motivates the American male psyche - this is the book.

Both of the above books in combination will help give a comprehensive understanding to the complex issues of societal influences and pressures face by both genders - from cultural, educational, familial background, etc. Amazingly insightful and informative reading.

Ruth R.
Ruth R.5 years ago

Some women are happier working whether they have children or not. Some women like studying, and learning, and applying what the have learned. Feminism and women's suffrage gave some rights to women that are essential.

Hilary E.
Hilary E.5 years ago

I'm tired of education only counting if you're paying for it. I made the conscious choice not to go to college and I'm so glad. I moved across the country to where I needed to be. I work hard and learn in the school of life. Just because I'm not paying tuition doesn't mean I'm not capable of reading college level books. College is great but ultimately intelligent people are intelligent, they will pursue learning their whole life.

Michael M.
Michael M.5 years ago

I would think repukes cutting funding for education on all levels was the problem...

Britin Jackson
Past Member 5 years ago

Wayne M.~ Again a virtual star for you! You seem to bring them out in me!

John B.
John B.5 years ago

When women's lib first raised its head there was a strong male voice that stated they were all lesbians, exhibitionists and anything else that could be said derogatorily about women who merely wanted equal rights. Women have more rights than ever before but they still don't have equal rights. There are companies and institutions that do not hold any bias towards a woman and merely look upon her ability to produce within that organizations guidelines and reward that production by promotion but these are far too few. Many European countries have swung too far in the opposing direction in denying rights to women for so many centuries are now giving them more rights than a man. One can only determine any individual's worth to an organization, community or nation by the products or services that this individual can create and should be based solely upon merit.

Child rearing is the most important job that any woman has. It has been faltering since the 70's and this is backed up by the increase in crime, drug and alcohol abuse and the overall general collapse of morality and the family unit. Much of this has been more of an economic problem than there is now suddenly something wrong with women that they don't want to raise children. One gets the radical churches spouting off about something anti-American or that God wants us all to say a few extra "Hail Marys" as the reason behind it all.

My view on it all is that the role of women has been demeaned and that if a woma

Luvenia V.
Luvenia V.5 years ago

I feel that some people are misunderstanding the article. It seems the article is saying America has NOT gone far enough in the rights for women and children. The article is saying that for education to be the best it can be we need to invest MORE in early learning and leaves for women. The men need to understand that women are NOT super beings and while they can do ANY job or maybe any TWO jobs there has be some support for them. The support will cost some money but NOT nearly what we will get in return. The two jobs I refer to is working outside the home AND in the home being wife and mother.

Marianne C.
Marianne C.5 years ago

Education has given women scope and range of possibilities and choices they never had before. Education has given women power: to be, to do, to achieve, and to succeed. Education has brought women up from the kitchens and out into the business world. Education has been the ticket by which women rose from domestic and sexual servitude, moved beyond being mere breeders of men's offspring, and came into the world as full enfranchised human beings.

Educated women don't have to take the crap their mothers and grandmothers did. Educated women don't have to stay in bad or abusive marriages simply because they have no other recourse. Educated women can have children when and if they want them, and don't need a man to pay the bills.

Of COURSE the right is against that kind of progress!! It turns their worldview of women as second class, second rate, and second choice upside down. The right wants women to be chattel and breeding stock, not equal participants in life and in the world.

Wayne M.
Wayne M.5 years ago

Feminism is good for education for two reasons:
1. Women have more career choices. They no longer have to enter teaching just because that is the only choice available.
2. Men also have more choices. They are no longer pushed toward entering so-called "men's professions and jobs" and given the impression that teaching is "women's work".