I am not a trained economist; I don’t even play one on TV.  Economics shapes the world I am a part of–but the skewed language of our male-dominated economy often feels like Greek to me. I doubt I’m alone in this feeling, perhaps the reason Americans have mostly left finances to Wall Street and the economists, since they’re well-trained in the subject.

But then I remember Rosa Luxemburg. She drew huge crowds in her time but got deported, despite huge popular support. She told her fellow male radicals,  she didn’t want a revolution unless she could dance. About economists of her time, at the turn of the 20th century she said,  if they couldn’t explain what they said in clear, simple language, then either there were reasons for their mystifying the subject, or they themselves didn’t really understand what they claimed to. Whatever your political affiliations, left or right, this remains an important insight.

Rosa Luxemburg had her doubts

Rosa Luxemburg had her doubts

I suspect most women already know more about this subject than they think. The root of the word economics, oikos, means household or dwelling. Oikonomia literally means household management, and women know a great deal about the efficient use of their time and their money. The word was first coined by Xenophon and, yes, he was Greek. He wrote his book back in the day when households produced goods as well as consumed them.

Xenophone wrote Oikonomia

Xenophon wrote about the industrious bees and their queens

The women of his time didn’t read it, since few women could, but they apparently inspired it. He took their practical work very seriously, calling them “queens of the hive.”  He knew the wealth they produced, the prudence they practiced, could help define a household’s success or failure. So you see, you do know at least about home economics—which is actually a redundant phrase.

So why do women and children, particularly women of color and their children, continue to make up the majority of the world’s poor?  As a journalist, I have often written about poverty issues, as well as women’s issues and history. The tales of race and sex give us clues about the ways biology has been used against our well-being, and against some of us more than others. We American like to imagine ourselves free of racism and sexism now–until we look at the facts of the global economy and our own.

The Job Market and the Slave Market

I’ve been driven to learn more by my personal experience as a middle-class new single parent in 1979. I was working full-time and blithely assumed I’d be able to support my children; my policeman ex-husband always used to, and by then I was working as a writer. Newly in charge of my budget, feeling as though I were rich, I nevertheless had to go on welfare to feed my three children, without adequate childcare or child support.

I later interviewed a number of women on welfare, many of whom felt richer than they ever had been, and they, too, were surprised to learn welfare wasn’t enough to live on. The state denied women with children the time and skills training they needed to find work to support themselves. Welfare reform said it intended to address poor women’s issues, and some good changes have happened at least here in Vermont.

But “reform” forced welfare moms to join the rest of us working moms. It ignored the reality of low-income life, now being experienced first hand by greater numbers. When the economic going gets tough, women are lose their jobs.  And the safety net now? It’s full of holes and short-term.  See the City Mayors Task Force that questions the way the U.S.  measures poverty. It makes the fact that every state in our Union pays far less than the poverty measure to any family it helps even more shocking. You may be in bigger trouble than you know–yet finding this out might help you feel better, as happened to me.


When I entered the job market, and went to college with a Pell Grant, I learned that women in the U.S. at that time were making 59 cents to a man’s dollar. Learning this came as a relief. First, it meant I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t bad or stupid. I had learned the hard way, by experience, and as a reporter on poverty issues, came to know first-hand our economy’s many injustices.

Though women’s education levels and pay levels have risen since then, women and children remain more likely to be poor. In 2007, 18% of American kids were in poor households, 33% of African-American children. In my home state of  Michigan, I  had been shocked to see I was the only white face in the lobby, though I know this has changed since then. Michigan is in very tough shape. Katrina brought this ongoing reality of poverty and low-income to more public attention. Black writers, espeically black women are on the cutting edge of political thought, identifying what they call the Prison Industrial Complex and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.

Meanwhile most women report to work, not usually because they’re career-blazing feminists, but because their family would be in poverty without their paychecks.  Women and mother’s entry into the workforce is a huge phenomenon and feminism helped open those doors, but I suspect it is more largely because  American men’s wages have been dropping in the world market for the past 30 years. Without women, working class men would be out in streets, not voting Republican.

Women made 79.9 cents on a man’s dollar in 2008, much better than my day as a young mom. But it’s the third annual loss since a high of .81 to $1 in 2005. http://www.iwpr.org/pdf/C350.pdf And any ratio that is rooted in men’s wages omits the story Susan Faludi tells us in Stiffed.

In a way, women’s work in the market place (and our credit cards) have helped to disguise what serious trouble American workers are in. Looking even more closely at those statistics, Jane Waldfogel at Cornel revealed working moms remain more underpaid compared to single working women. (“Understanding the ‘Family Gap’ in Pay for Women with Children,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 12, no. 1 (1998): 137–156.) Additionally, any work at home maintaining the present and future workforce will not add one penny to any woman’s Social Security pension. Childcare needed when she’s out working will cost her a raft of money, and when out on a job search, Moms still experience job discrimination. http://www.momsrising.org/node/254

Meanwhile, all American workers have lost time, now expected to balance work time with family life while working an additional 40 hours away from home.  While 30 years ago, even working class Americans expected one worker’s 40 hours would support a household, most often today two workers and at least 80 hours of labor are needed to support a household or a family.  Housing costs are up, education costs are up, (with a degree no longer optional), while healthcare costs are going through the roof.

I had the privilege of hearing Elizabeth Warren, who wrote The Two-Income Trap; Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke (with Amelia Tyagi) after she researched bankruptcy’s increase, long before the current crash. Warren is  professor of law at Harvard, and now part of Obama’s economic team. You can see her interviewed by John Stewart. But better,  you can hear her 2007 lecture about the middle class the poor are supposed to aspire to. She identifies those economic realities that threaten us all at Berkeley University here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akVL7QY0S8A

Time is money…but not everyone’s time

Yet despite women’s heroic entry into job markets, none of the work of maintaining a home has disappeared. It’s only grown more complex with twice the opportunity for job/salary/childcare/commuting arrangements to go wrong. We no longer can speak of a division of labor, because work seems all that is valued, whatever your sex. Fathers left home when the Industrial Revolution began, and now women have joined them in the “new service economy,” that shipped industrial jobs overseas.

Our jobs on the job market may last from sun to sun, but still that work at home is never done. It’s put off in pieces, until whatever piece it is becomes an emergency and a stress. Women joke about lowering standards for cooking and cleaning. They enlist partners and children to help. But disorganization and stress at home costs Americans plenty in time and money, as well as in pleasure and peace of mind.

Households short on time spend fewer hours having fun together, eating healthy meals together, being involved in community life, the arts, spiritual care, and staying mentally and physically healthy. We used to expect a certain amount of leisure and social time, but at least on some days, flopping in front of the TV with a Hot-Pocket for dinner seems the best many exhausted families can manage. See this web page for public policies that could make a difference. http://www.timeday.org/time_to_care_call.asp

The new word “couch-potato” sprouted in the midst of our time-poverty. It seemed lovely when we could begin to watch movies-at-home and not go out yet again for more consuming–plus it was cheaper. But since then films have grown more violent. We see more gun-toting women, promoting the notion that women can be—and naturally are—violent.

Whose violence is it?

This story leaves out so much. I have a gun-toting heroine in my novel Second Sight, but it’s a tale of poverty and survival—or not—for women and men and the natural world. http://books.google.com/books?id=mz2rLc0rudEC&pg=PP5&lpg=PP5&dq=second+sight+a+novel+Rickey+Gard+Diamond&source=bl&ots=32g6Lihoqh&sig=hKEWh8D2L2QdCxvjvjkRxWHG8R4&hl=en&ei=E5aBSofzLJTeMdWwpKQL&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1#v=onepage&q=&f=false

Writing the book helped me to notice how language and the stories we tell help shape the way we think about our world and its genders There are two sexes in most of biology, yet vital stories of cooperation,  symbiosis and adaptation often get left out of our telling, overlooked or discounted in favor of drama. If we of the Western world don’t want an economic tragedy, then women must resort to comedy.

Financial worlds maintain a single-minded male story, full of tragedy and losers, an essentially biology-denying, violent tale. When business prospers, it is called a “boom.” But who feels good when a company “makes a killing” or executives “make out like bandits”? Why don’t women talk with their girl-friends about trade agreements with other nations? Why do they leave the economy up to experts? Women in all kinds of situations and stories need to begin to understand what  is going on right under our noses.

If even a math-phobe, like me, can learn to deal with budgets and money and the reality of numbers and their limits, then any woman can. Women need to think together about how our economic system locks us into a way of thinking about the world. Once women begin to see how monetary systems and this economy works to actively omit and discount biology and the work of what Hazel Henderson calls The Love Economy, I expect women will feel as passionately as I do about changing it.

Together, women can work in new economic consciousness-raising groups wherever they are. Women are already reclaiming the economy as theirs, too, many of them women of color in other nations.  More will claim the authority of women’s foundational place. Okay, right now we’re at the bottom of the dominator’s pyramid as the lowest of the low—but one day we will become foundational partners in exciting new exchanges for a more livable economy.

Women will create clear language, fresh metaphors, which other women—and the men who love them—will easily recognize and joyfully pursue. We need them to bring their creative resiliency to economic solutions with deep roots. The planet and a destructively bankrupt global economy demand it.

Together, people can birth a new economy with lots of moving parts. Like new Scheherazades, women can tell economic stories to save our lives and even invent tales with fresh new plots–and lots of laughter. The economic tale of our personal Eros, what psychologists call the sum of all our instincts for self-preservation, will value both sexes and life’s diversity—not exploiting and destroying and dividing, but enabling Gaia’s potential and ours. Eros in this sense can incite caring and commitment as simply the most practical way of conducting business—better than that war story being waged now, with damned few of us winning.