Feminist Perspectives on Population Issues

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Although feminists differ among themselves on many issues, most feminist activists share a commitment to equal rights and resources for women and men. Scholars of gender study the social forces that affect gender inequality. Many of them have pointed out that traditional scholarship in the social sciences, including demography, often ignores gender inequalities or assumes that they are "natural." Because of their critical attention to gender inequality, gender scholars are often referred to as feminist. Both groups of feminists–scholars and activists–have influenced policy debates, moving the issues of women's reproductive health and empowerment closer to the center of development and population policies.

Feminist Activists and Population Policy

Policy debates about population and related debates about economic development, environmental degradation, and inequalities of class, race, nation, and gender raise the issue of women's empowerment. Population policy raises the specific issue of reproductive rights. Feminist activists have made strenuous efforts to ensure that women's empowerment and reproductive rights have a central place in these policy discussions.

Feminists have always been divided on the importance of birth control to women's liberation. Early feminists such as Annie Besant (1847–1933) in England and Emma Goldman (1869–1940) and Margaret Sanger (1883–1966) in the United States were pioneers in the birth control movement. However, most U.S. suffragists at the start of the twentieth century dissociated themselves from birth control, believing that its advocacy was too controversial and might hurt their principal goal of gaining women the right to vote. In later years feminist activists in affluent nations supported access to contraception to allow women and couples to limit fertility, believing that this would improve women's lives and status.

The time and energy women spend in child rearing is a major factor limiting women's participation in employment, politics, and other public roles, and one way to reduce this burden is to have fewer children. (Another way is to increase men's participation in child rearing, but changing men's roles has proved difficult.) In recent decades women's access to legal abortion has been a key feminist issue in the United States.

Some feminists in industrialized countries (the North) have aligned themselves with activists in the population control and environmental movements who see population growth as an important world problem in its own right, threatening the environment and prospects for economic development in the South. These positions sometimes have caused disagreements between Northern and Southern feminists. Feminist activists in the South are often unconvinced that population growth is a high-priority problem. Like many others in their countries, they emphasize the role of poverty, underdevelopment, and unequal distribution of resources between the North and the South as key causes of high fertility rather than seeing high fertility as a major cause of poverty and economic backwardness. This difference of emphasis parallels a debate in the North's environmental movement about whether excessive resource consumption in the North or overpopulation in the South is the more significant problem.

Southern feminists also have been critical of the implementation of population policies, arguing that programs in many countries distributed contraceptive supplies and services with little regard for the health of the women who used them and were evaluated by the number of users or the reduction in fertility rather than by the health and satisfaction of program clients. They are particularly critical of any pressure on women to use birth control. Some regard the affluent northern emphasis on curbing southern fertility as racist or, at best, an excuse not to alter the distribution of resources between the North and the South.

This difference between northern and southern feminists mirrors the interaction of gender with other axes of privilege that arise in within-nation debates on population issues. For example, African-American, Native American, and Puerto Rican women in the United States, though favoring women's access to birth control, have deemphasized high nonmarital birth rates as a critical problem, preferring a policy emphasis on decreasing racism in health systems and employment, improvement of the social safety net, and state provision of universal access to health services. They are more troubled by women being unable to find the resources to raise children decently than by the prospect of women having too many children.

Feminists and the Cairo Agenda

Despite these differences in emphasis, most feminists are united in wanting reproductive freedom and reproductive health services, broadly defined, available to women as a basic human right even when this is resisted by men in their families or by political and religious leaders. The United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 saw the formation of an important coalition between southern and northern feminists. This world forum was a high point of feminist influence on international population policy. Many governments, international agencies, and influential nongovernmental bodies were persuaded of the instrumental value of women's empowerment (in the form of access to education and jobs and more control over all aspects of their lives) in decreasing fertility and promoting sustainable economic development. Beyond this instrumental approach, northern and southern feminists together were influential in winning support for language declaring women's rights and empowerment to be goals in their own right, not only means to stabilize population size. The conference document, known as the Cairo Agenda, supports family planning programs but denounces coercion or numerical targets for contraceptive practice or number of births. Moreover, Principle 4 of the Program of Action states:

Advancing gender equality and equity and the empowerment of women, and the elimination of all kinds of violence against women, and ensuring women's ability to control their own fertility, are cornerstones of population and development-related programmes.

Southern feminists concerned with reproductive health seek to improve maternal and child health programs, including family planning; offer treatment for reproductive tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, and breast cancer; make abortion available; discourage female genital mutilation; and provide sex education that contributes to a satisfying sex life for women that is free from coercion by men. The Cairo document, with its broad language, may make it more likely that some of the resources already committed to population programs will be used to achieve these goals.

Feminist Critiques of the New Home Economics

Feminist scholarship has been strongly critical of much of the "new home economics," the application of microeconomic theory to household behavior that is associated particularly with the work of the economist Gary Becker. Models in this tradition typically ignore issues of distribution within the family, assuming that the family "head" acts altruistically toward other family members and that each family acts to maximize a single utility function. They interpret marriage as an institution that allows men and women to capitalize on the efficiencies of specialization, with husbands engaging in market production for earnings while wives engage in child rearing and other production in the household.

As wage levels rise for both men and women, so does the opportunity cost of having a child and having a woman stay home to rear it. Neoclassical economists believe that higher wage levels lead families to shift to lower fertility, higher female employment, and more purchased child-care services. In Becker's view this also lowers the gains from specialization, which are a major motivation for marriage; therefore, increases in women's wages will lower marriage rates.

How have feminists responded to the new home economics? On the positive side they see it as an advance to recognize household production as real work, unlike the viewpoint of traditional labor economics. Indeed, they would want to follow this recognition to its logical consequence: adding household production to national accounts so that nations keep records on the total product of both their market and household economies rather than including only production involving cash exchange.

However, in many other respects feminists have been critical of the new home economics, particularly in its ignoring of male power over women in the family and society. Some men beat and rape their wives, laws are made and enforced by largely male bodies, major religions teach that women should "submit" to their husbands, a double standard of sexuality is common, and in some poor nations women and girls eat less and receive less schooling and health care than do men and boys, to the detriment of their health and longevity. The image of an altruistic male head who takes all family members' preferences into account disguises the realities of male dominance.

Gender scholars argue that men's greater access to money gives husbands power over their wives. They point out that women can ill afford to argue with their husbands when the husband controls resources in the family and when their economic alternatives if they leave a marriage are grim. In this view the specialization that economists might characterize as "efficient" and productive of "joint gains" disadvantages women relative to men in terms of how material well-being and decision-making power are distributed within families. Some economists are incorporating this perspective in formulating bargaining models of the household, drawing on game theory. Gender scholars argue that men's higher earnings result in part from sex discrimination in labor markets.

Men's power in the family is determined not only by access to money but by a combination of social, cultural, and political forces, including social norms that mandate that women should defer to men's authority, peer group norms among men that valorize sexual conquest and harass women who try to enter "men's" jobs, preferential investment in boys' education, employers' discrimination against women, and low funding of public support for single mothers. These broad social factors constitute and perpetuate gender inequality in the family and other arenas of life.

Many gender scholars agree with Becker that rising wage opportunities for women generally increase women's employment and reduce fertility. However, they point out another consequence ignored in Becker's perspective: When women have more control over a family's money, more is spent on children. Hence, empowering women may contribute to economic development through improvements in the health and capabilities of the next generation. Conversely, in settings where men receive more of the benefits and women pay more of the costs of rearing children, men may push their wives to have more children and there may be more gender specialization than women would prefer.

Feminist Perspectives on Low Fertility

Although patriarchy may encourage high fertility in poor countries, some gender scholars argue that in affluent nations aspects of the remaining gender inequality now have the opposite effect, contributing to continued fertility decline below the replacement level. Two types of gender role change would diminish gender inequality: Women could increase their participation in traditionally male activities (e.g., wage labor), and men could increase their participation in traditionally female activities. In fact, change in gender roles is highly asymmetric: Both material incentives and social norms encourage women to take on traditionally male pursuits much more than they encourage men to do more housework and care for young children. Women continue to bear more of the costs of raising children. Without changes in men's participation in child rearing, women may continue to reduce the number of children they have or raise children on their own.

Most child-care work–both the unpaid care of children at home and paid jobs such as child-care worker, teacher, nurse, and counselor–is done by women. The time women spend at home reduces their future earnings and pension entitlements as well as lowering their power within a marriage. When done in the market, child-care work has low pay relative to its educational requirements. The usual neoclassical economic explanation of wage differentials net of human capital is that at the margin the intrinsic satisfaction of helping people must compensate for the lack of pay for the worker. Gender scholars believe that this is only part of the explanation. They suggest that gender bias may pervade the labor market at many levels: Care work pays less because of crowding (women are kept out of "male" occupations) and because employers have a blind spot when it comes to the value of work done by women. Those who most need care (children, the sick, and the elderly) are often not able to pay much for this service. However, its social importance is undeniable: It increases the capabilities of recipients (their physical, mental, and emotional health and skills), benefiting both their own well-being and that of many of the people the recipients interact with, making them better parents, workers, and neighbors.

Because markets will not compensate caregivers for these diffuse public goods, feminist scholars have argued that there is a similar rationale for supporting all caregiving work as there is for state support of education. However, such additional claims on state budgets conflict with demands for limiting the size of the public sector. In nations in both the North and the South state payment of the salaries of care workers such as teachers and health workers, as well as the public safety net that provides a minimum income for those doing care work at home, has been challenged by politicians who believe the public sector should be downsized and markets should be expanded. In the South service cuts made under neoliberal structural adjustment policies have often fallen hardest on women. In the North state provision of income to single mothers is under challenge, although income and medical support for the elderly remains uncontroversial and takes up a large share of nonmilitary spending. The affluent countries have collectivized a major traditional benefit of having children while keeping the major cost of children–the opportunity cost of time–private. The extent to which the state collectivizes the costs (including opportunity costs) of rearing children may well affect both women's well-being and their fertility. A feminist perspective offers important insights into these and similar demographic dimensions of public policy.

See also: Evolutionary Demography; Family Bargaining; Gender; Reproductive Rights; Sanger, Margaret; Women's Status and Demographic Behavior.


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Paula England

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