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The Wages of Equality

Republicans are picking up the equal-pay mantle, but what are they really arguing for?
The Wages of Equality

A man cannot know his deepest desire. That’s a rough-and-ready interpretation of the parable in Andrei Tarkovsky’s iconic film Stalker, but it does the job. The near-end scene of the three travelers sitting just outside the “Room,” having decided it is better not to know that their deepest desire is money than to be consumed by it having gone into the Room and come out wealthy, is enough to make the point. More poignantly, Tarkovsky leaves us, the viewers, in the Room looking out. We have succumbed.

Tarkovsky doesn’t quite tell us what this means, but we can imagine. Our deepest desires are not what we wish or even believe them to be. Which is why, in the wake of Equal Pay Day and in the midst of Women’s History Month, we should consider what we wish for when we say the composite salaries of all women should equal those of all men.

It wasn’t so long ago that the right was arguing that differences in pay between men and women were actually the result of job preferences, not discrimination—a statistical error, in short. This was mostly true—the controlled gender pay gap says women make $0.99 for every male $1—but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference to the wage-gap crusaders.

Now that gender politics have moved so far past wage debates as to be in a completely different state, Team Red, running to catch up and snag Team Blue in a gotcha moment, says Democrat pandemic policies made the gender pay gap worse. So there is a pay gap now, apparently, and it’s the other guys’ fault.

Lest you think I exaggerate, the RNC’s statement on Equal Pay Day was just this:

Equal Pay Day is of particular importance this year as over the past 13 months, women have shouldered much of the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic. Women have unfairly suffered a disproportionate share of economic harm caused by Democrat-led lockdowns, with women having to drop out of the workforce in record numbers. The longer women are kept out of their jobs–either because their child’s school remains closed or because the government tells them they can’t go to work–the longer and more difficult their economic recovery will be.

In short, the “family values” party is openly promoting more women entering the workforce, which necessarily means fewer women at home with their children. The party that wants you upset about the state of American public schools is pushing for women to be more involved in their careers and less involved in their children’s education. (If you think Loudon County happens in a pre-pandemic world, remember that before Zoom, most parents had no idea how radical were the teachers in their own child’s classrooms.) The party that is righteously angry about men calling themselves women is arguing that there are actually no differences between the sexes, and average wages should reflect that. To the GOP as to the left: To be equal means to be the same.

The logic of one begets the other, and neither is a conservative position. It is precisely because men and women are different that family needs protecting; a society must protect the distinct characteristics of the sexes, since each part, being unique, cannot be interchanged for the other.

Debates about equal pay trap their interlocutors in a false premise, but we should not be confused: Equal-pay dogmatists effectively tell women that their worth is measured by their market value—what they add to the economy. So long as they receive a composite 83 cents on a man’s dollar, their worth, like their labor value, is somehow lesser. This is nonsense. Each sex’s worth neither is nor should be determined by the finances of the other. It makes about as much sense as saying men are devalued because, on average, they eat more—and therefore spend more on food—than women. The original feminists, for their part, argued a wife should receive a “salary” from her husband for the work she does at home. While this is also absurd, at least that arrangement admits of a separate female economy—that the value a woman brings to the home does not have a market price.

Let’s take it a step further.

The pandemic-prompted return to the home—which allowed many women to reduce the number of hours they worked, to increase their flexibility, or even depart from the 9-to-5 world altogether—is seen as a travesty by the equal-pay totalist, because it takes her out of the marketplace. But for many women, these changes represented a victory—a squaring of the circle that permitted women to fulfill both the modern desire to work outside the home and the natural desire to cultivate and flourish the household. She still can’t do it all, but now she can do more.

A woman’s place is in the House, and the Senate, and the White House and the Supreme Court, damnit. How could she have been tricked into preferring the four walls of her own home again? How could she prefer her garden to a cubicle, her children’s company to her coworkers’? 

It is one of the great ironies of history that the feminist movement first had to convince women themselves that voting—and entering the political fray—was a good thing. Many were content to leave the grime of politics to the other sex. There are good reasons for this. No job, certainly no salary, can replace the joy a woman receives from creating a beautiful home. (Vogue knows this—it’s why they take their largely female audience inside the curated palaces of the rich and famous, and we love it.) And while women today are spoon-fed career aspirations from a very young age, their love of the domestic, while perhaps stunted, is not dead. The trends of 2020 reveal exactly what happens to women when we return home: cottagecore clothing, sourdough bread baking, homesteading influencers on TikTok and Instagram. If there was one silver lining from the pandemic, the return to the home for wives and mothers was surely it. It is precisely this contentment that the wage crusaders can’t abide.

Republicans used to argue that women’s preferences led them to choose lower-paying careers, but a recent paper from the Institute for Family Studies found that is only part of the story. A woman’s income was actually inversely proportional to the number of children she had: “Husbands with higher income tended to have more children, while wives with higher income tended to have fewer children.”

As the study notes, there is an aspect of this that is self-reinforcing: Women with more kids certainly have less time to work, and men with more kids may even receive positive discrimination from an employer. But what of the wife with an incredibly high salary and no kids? She has both the job stability and the financial resources to have children—she has waited to start her family until her other ducks are in a row, as we are told to do—and yet she hesitates. Maybe she never starts a family. Maybe she can’t.

The author writes that this trend may have a spillover effect on fertility:

The findings presented here suggest that the decline in the proportion of men employed full time and the decline in male earnings relative to female earnings likely have contributed to the decline in aggregate fertility rates. Given the positive relationship between education and earnings, lower rates of men attending college are likely to exacerbate these tendencies in the near future, with a continuing downward pull on fertility rates.

The feminization of the university isn’t just a red flag for families, then, but suggests that the script on wages could be flipped before long.

Meanwhile, the recipe for family success holds true on both sides: “Men earning high incomes with a spouse who has a low income have the most biological children in the United States, while women with low incomes with a spouse who earns a high income have the most biological children.”

If we can assume—and it’s not clear we can—that our deepest desire is truly for men and women to be valued equally, then we should not try to force women into men’s roles, but learn that value can be defined apart from the dollar. And if we believe in family, we should not reinvent the wheel. History and human nature have given us the answers, if we would have the courage to accept them.

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