Research Paper 2014: A Theoretical Explanation of Women’s Economic Insecurity in the U.S.

A Theoretical Explanation of Women’s Economic Insecurity in the U.S.

Elizabeth Cox

Kennesaw State University

The United States is a nation of prosperity from a macro perspective, generating a GDP which exceeds that of over two hundred other nations on earth and second only to the European Union (Nationmaster 2014). Commonly called the ‘land of opportunity’, the U.S. presents a global public image of an egalitarian economic system blind to race, gender, and ethnic subcategories of its citizenry in the pursuit of material security. Statistical data indicate otherwise.

U.S. women are earning less for their work than men performing the same or similar production. It is estimated that in 2013 women were paid 78 percent of what men were paid for the same or similar work. Even though the male/female gender earnings ratio is slowly improving, the gap is still significant and has improved very little in the last decade (Hill 2014) . Even as U.S. women are currently earning college degrees and graduate degrees in greater numbers than men, they are not holding positions of leadership and expert power representative of their proportion of the population and overall educational achievements (NCES 2012). The statistics describing poverty among U.S. women reveal a bleak oppressed quality of life. This data is, to a great extent, divorced from the consciousness of our nation’s affluent women and men. The dark story of women in poverty is relegated to the annals of sociological research, random media articles, and government statistical reports. “Les Miserables” are ghettoized both geographically and politically.

Here is a snapshot of the statistical data describing women’s economic insecurity in the United States:  13.5 % of white women, 27.5% of black women, and 27.4% of Hispanic women in the U.S.  lived below the poverty line in 2009 (Gray 2012). According to the Shriver Report, of the more than 100 million people living near or in poverty, about 70% are women and children. Almost two-thirds of the U.S. minimum-wage workers are women (Shriver 2014).      A Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data has determined that mothers are the primary or sole breadwinners in 40% of all U.S. households with minor children – up from 11% in 1960 (Wang, Parker, and Taylor 2013).

In this paper I endeavor to explain the economic insecurity of U.S. women through the application of three sociological theoretical perspectives: identity theory, exchange theory, and standpoint theory. Much contemporary sociological theory is rooted in the core theories of a few white men who theorized, for the most part, from a male perspective. Nevertheless, it is valuable to view sociological patterns which negatively affect women through the lens of contemporary theories that attempt to explain behavior that is sexist and detrimental to women’s well-belling on the whole.

Identity theory is rooted in the view that there is a reciprocal relationship between society and the individuals that make up the societal whole. Each of the components acts as creator and, in turn, is created by the relationship. Stryker viewed this interactional relationship as a bridge between self and societal structure. He posited that various roles which an individual occupies are internalized and assimilated to form the individual self in all its complexity. Stryker simplistically theorized the anatomy of self utilizing three component concepts: identity, identity salience, and commitment (Appelrouth and Edles 2008).

Identity theory illuminates the relationship between women as a gender group and the patriarchal societal structure which characterizes U.S. culture. Our male-dominated economic and political framework casts those of female gender in a subordinate economic role. The salient or primary role of women remains embedded and enmeshed in the classical myth of female fulfillment through childbearing, domestic cohesion, and performance of subordinate labor.

Collective identity, such as the collective identity assigned to U.S. women as a group in this paper, is defined by Polletta and Jasper as: “an individual’s cognitive, moral, and emotional connection with a broader community, category, practice, or institution”. The scholars further define the collective identity as separate from individual identity; although it may be incorporated into an individual’s identity. A sense of shared relationship associated with collective identity may be imaginary or experienced as reality (Polletta and Jasper 2001).

Political progress revolving around issues of women’s rights in recent decades has yielded more autonomy and wider educational and career choices. Second-wave feminism which emerged in the 1960’s and 70’s affected the nature of roles assimilated and internalized by women and spurred societal change. Nevertheless, the income gap between men and women and the proliferation of U.S. women in poverty persists unfettered.

U.S. culture perpetuates the salient role of women as objects of man’s dominance. This is evidenced, in part, by the prevalence in contemporary Western media of images propagating female desirability based on stereotypes of large-breasted, submissive, often adolescent-type female bodies. Publications catering to and directed toward women support this false self-consciousness as actively as those directed toward male audiences. This dynamic supports the postulated reciprocal relationship between individual women and women as a gender group in terms of identity theory.

The ‘hierarchy of desirability’ stratified in common media images depicting objectified women reflects and fertilizes biased economic relations between male-dominated institutions and women. The classical portrayal of women as reproducers, domesticators, and subjugated labor is in conflict with recently adopted cultural norms of female empowerment supported by contemporary feminist ideology.

Stryker and Macke’s theoretical examination of the effects of status inconsistency and role conflict sheds light on the current state of confusion in the feminist psyche of developed Westerns societies. While enjoying many newly acquired trappings of gender equality, women are still materially insecure and suffer bias on several levels. Women may negotiate role conflict between work at home and work outside the home by limiting commitment to one of these roles or by neglecting the requirements of one or the other (Stryker and Macke 1978). This conflict further aggravates women’s conflicted self-appraisal and undermines capacity to reach full economic, educational, and emotional potential.

Exchange theory postulates that social interactions and behavior are conducted via the rational calculation of costs and rewards in an economic-type evaluation of relationships. We decide whether to participate in a relationship or to avoid or end participation based on whether or not the rewards outweigh the costs. Unconscious drives and traditions are not motives in the process of social interaction (Appelrouth and Edles 2008).

In the context of First World affluence and technological superiority, the U.S. does not suffer a lack of resources. In this ‘land of plenty’ economically insecure women work hard to obtain basic essential needs and undergo what Skinner referred to as operant conditioning, as they struggle to make ends meet (Skinner 1948). The more women are needy as a group, the more they will work for less. By supplying limited reward for their labor outside the home and no remuneration for domestic labor in the home, subordinate behavior is reinforced and perpetuated.

If women were to receive fair and equitable reward for their labor, they would no longer value the exchange relationship that is biased and inequitable. U.S. women’s financial insecurity reflects a dynamic Homans described where, although reward is unsatisfactory to those in need, inadequacy of the reward has not reached a critical point where they will give up, cease participation, and seek a new direction for exchange. Homans defined social exchange interaction in terms of  the economic formula: Profit= Reward – Cost (Homans 1958).

The unbalanced exchange represents a practical equilibrium. Homans posited that practical equilibrium is the appearance of balance. He observed that real life groups, “often appear to be in practical equilibrium.” He further clarified that this apparent equilibrium may not be actual homeostasis; but we may observe an exchange that mimics equilibrium. If inequity is resolved, no longer supporting the social exchange between patriarchal agency and subordinate female labor, both parties to the prior practical equilibrium will experience disorientation and seek new exchange circumstances. Innate fear of chaotic change helps bind participants in an inequitable exchange. The change process itself is a barrier to transformation (Crawford, Brungardt, and Maughhan 2005).

Schachter observed that a high degree of cohesiveness within a social group strongly enhances the group’s ability to maintain its standards and internal norms (Schachter 1951). The more cohesive the group, the greater the likelihood that the group will produce prescribed behavior in its members, both new and established. ‘Male bonding’ is a cohesive activity highly promoted and valued in U.S. culture. Young men are indoctrinated into the group psychology of male bonding from an early age. Popular male-dominated sports activities and spectatorship reinforce the socially accepted premise that males must internalize standards of ‘maleness’. Psychological and social sanctions are exercised against those males who do not adhere to group standards.

In contrast, women have not been encouraged to internalize the discourse of bonding. Instead, women are manipulated by social norms that encourage competition within their gender group. Young women are socialized to compete for male attention and ascribed male status by proxy. Even within the scholarly feminist discourse, universal terms inferring sisterhood and oneness are discouraged, as some scholars reject a one-size-fits all feminist approach. Renowned U.S. scholar Chandra Mohanty criticizes “the construction of the (implicitly consensual) priority of issues around which apparently all women are expected to organize”(Mohanty 1988). A discourse criticizing the homogeneity of ‘male bonding’ is absent from the dialogue of males who shore up the power structure of U.S. patriarchy. The contrast between male gender group cohesiveness and splintered female gender group cohesiveness cements the foundation of unbalanced exchange in economic, political, and social transactions.

Blau explored the dynamics of power through application of exchange theory. He put forth that “Exchange processes give rise to differentiation in power.” Further, Blau explained that if one person or group controls goods or services that are desired or needed by another, the controller then achieves power by requiring compliance in exchange for satisfying needs (Blau 1964). Traditionally, U.S. banking institutions, major corporations, and educational institutions were predominately controlled by men. Only in recent decades have women made inroads into positions of power in these institutions. After achieving the hard-won right to vote in 1920 via the 19th Amendment, women still remained economically disenfranchised compared to men for the most of the 20th century. This pattern evokes the ‘Catch 22’ dilemma: in order to achieve economic success, individuals or groups much generally first possess economic knowledge, resources, and/or social connections. With few economic assets to bring to the exchange table, women have often instinctively resorted to trading physical affection or domestic labor in the barter for material security. If higher education is the key to economic security for women, that key is only offered to a select few who have had the benefit of strong educational foundation, college funding, and intellectual muscle required to reach for that brass ring.

Economic marginalization is most crippling and concentrated among the ghettoized population of poor women in the U.S.  The combination of poverty and high rates of domestic violence takes an enormously toll in terms of fatigue which represents a cost factor in the social exchange equation. Minimum wage jobs fail to support costs of safe housing and rising food prices, especially for single mothers who must also find affordable child care.

Exchange theorists see inequities of power as the catalyst percolating societal change (Blau 1964). Women experience submission to the power of others as an unsatisfactory and debilitating state. The present unrest spurring demand for feminist change both in the U.S. and globally stems from women’s intuitive sense of getting a ‘raw deal’ in the quality of life market.

Feminist perspectives offer the most focused area of theoretical analysis of the multifaceted marginalization of women, especially in light of major contributions to the theoretical realm made by women scholars in contrast to classical male-dominated sociological theories. It is interesting to note that discrimination against female gender dates back to biblical times, when men were valued more highly than women. In ancient times women were commonly considered to be property (Rollston 2012) . The struggle for equality has spanned the centuries achieving little progress until modern times. First wave feminism of the 19th and early 20th century focused on women’s suffrage and successfully promoted women’s right to vote. Second wave feminism beginning in the 1960’s supported scholarly feminist discourse and worked for social and legal equality. Activists worked to change the course of age-old sexist history by closing the economic, social and psychological gaps between men and women. U.S. feminist activists such as Friedan, Steinem, and Greer helped promulgate feminist praxis. Women’s studies courses began to sprout on U.S. campuses during this phase. Third-wave feminism began in the 1990’s and continues until present day.  This phase of the movement has fostered discussion and criticism of the failings of the second phase to encompass all strata and diversity of feminism, while endeavoring to address transnational feminist issues in light of globalization of markets and structural adjustment policies. The third-wave finds the cause of women’s social equity much advanced but much mired in academic debate and prevalent economic marginalization.

Standpoint theory postulates that one’s perspective and knowledge of the world is contingent upon one’s social subject position. As a developer of standpoint theory, feminist scholar Dorothy Smith experienced social dichotomy in her own life when she labored as a wife and mother, while at the same time pursuing her doctoral degree at a university. Her theoretical orientation is multi-dimensional, incorporating neo-Marxism, phenomenological concepts, and poststructuralist theory into her work. Her standpoint theory perspective cites three main principles:1) No individual has absolute objective knowledge of the world; 2) No two individuals have the same view or standpoint; 3) One should not consider one’s standpoint to be complete or objective but should be aware of its limitations (Appelrouth and Edles 2008).

Smith’s standpoint theory grew from her experience as a sociology graduate student while married and caring for her children. She recognized that sociology’s first theorists were mostly men viewing and analyzing social interactions from a male standpoint which ignored the female perspective. She examined the differences in points of reference and conceptual framing used by men in contrast to those used by women. As Smith observed that privileged white men dominated social norms and standards, she realized the correlation between this unbalanced social dynamic and Marxist theory. Marx described how economic and political social inequities create oppression and alienation. Marxist conflict theory views social structure as a relationship between dominant classes and oppressed classes. Although Marx neglected to expound on women’s struggle for equality, his theories have value in explaining women’s oppression and economic insecurity in the context of the capitalist system (Appelrouth and Edles 2008).

Smith’s views have echoed Marx’s as she posited that women who must constantly adapt to a dominant male world view in order to be accepted suffer from alienation from their true selves. She has pointed to a “male subtext” behind the curtain of the seemingly neutral texts of the ruling apparatus. This subtext permeates census records, employer files, medical, and other institutional records. Her institutional ethnological approach focuses on how institutional directives interface with everyday life experiences (Smith 2005).

The everyday activities of women are tainted by relations of ruling as capitalism has spread and gained momentum as an economic way of life. Women have been increasingly excluded from economic discourse as men became able to direct economic and social evolution from a distance via printed text, technological advances, and exclusive meetings and conferences. Where before women were ruled by people they knew directly, they subsequently became ruled by distant others in government, corporate, and scientific positions, mainly dominated by men. As local enterprises have been absorbed by large corporate interests, women’s voices in community economies have been systematically silenced in America as well as abroad. Capitalism has utilized the relations of ruling to block substantive economic progress for women in small businesses and farming enterprises; and at the same time, capitalism has driven women’s wages further into the red (Smith 2005).

U.S. Women have effectively advanced the cause of public education and worked diligently to establish a public education system which is designed to be egalitarian and to offer educational opportunity to all economic strata. Nevertheless, women have remained in the shadows of university hierarchy and hegemonic capitalist enterprise. They have remained marginalized in terms of ruling relations and, as Smith observed “playing the subordinate roles, lacking agency, producing their work for men’s appropriation (Smith 2005).

Although Hill Collins has rejected the materialist Marxist perspective in her standpoint approach to analysis of oppression of Black women, she has put forth that groups share a common consciousness in terms of their relations to institutionalized power and group-based experience. She has utilized standpoint of the group as a focus in analyzing relations to preexisting hierarchal power structures in society (Appelrouth and Edles 2008).

Black women in America are particularly economically burdened by the intersectionality of discrimination based on gender, race, and poverty. The gender pay gap affects all women but is more oppressive in combination with other factors of marginalization levied against Black women. The gender pay gap in the U.S. has been studied from many perspectives. When analyzed from a measured statistical approach, the gap has been seen as composed of two factors:

1) the result of differences in men’s and women’s experience and skills and 2) “other” unexplained reasons- which may be due to discrimination based on gender. Discrimination has also been analyzed from a legal approach by looking at court cases against discriminatory employment practices which were common a few years ago but have declined in number because of effective litigation. Based on the court case numbers, scholars see discrimination as reduced but still very much in place (Blau and Kahn 2000). Even though advanced education improves income for all, Hispanic and Black women are often paid less than white counterparts with the same educational credentials. This gap points to racial and ethnic discrimination as a factor in addition to gender discrimination (Hill 2014).

Feminist standpoint theory has been criticized as incompatible with scientific method and objectivity. In response, social scientists who see the value of standpoint theory argue that introduction of factors of gender related to economic and political experience of oppression does not taint or bias knowledge. The incorporation of standpoint experience into sociological discourse my actually result in better quality of knowledge (Crasnow 2008). Standpoint theory has also been criticized for excluding other types of inequity that intertwine with women’s oppression. However, the standpoint theory concept has served a valid purpose in consolidating political opposition against masculinist oppression of women. The theory has given women a common banner to carry in the ideological march toward equality.

In summary: Economic insecurity of U.S. women is systemic and inherent in patriarchal cultural practices widely accepted as social norm. Those who benefit from unbalanced exchange relationships between dominant male and subordinate female groups carefully hold and protect power through group cohesion. Women participate in biased power relations by assuming female identity roles promoted in male-dominated media and fiction. Behavior and fashion which reinforce objectified ideals of female beauty serve to prime women for competition with other women in the pursuit of proxy male power. Role conflict causes stress and fatigue for many U.S. women, as they attempt to fulfill domestic labor demands of the wife-mother-housekeeper role, while maintaining a valued desirable beauty image and performing work outside the home for unequal pay. The unsatisfactory exchange relationship has been exasperated by capitalistic economic globalization and resulting local disenfranchisement of women.

Identity theory, exchange theory, and feminist standpoint theory serve to help explain economic insecurity of women within the sociological framework. There is much discourse surrounding the causes and remedies of marginalization based on gender. Pursuit of ideological altruism and scientific truth has fueled decades of scholarly theoretical debate resulting in advancement as well as impediment to progress in improving women’s quality of life. Setting aside the conflicts surrounding epistemology in feminist scholarship, the theories applied in this paper have intrinsic value as they are contained in the well of liquid theoretical perspectives where sociological researchers and students come to take in ideological sustenance and refresh their energies – so they may continue the journey toward women’s enlightenment and group-actualization.


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