During the most recent presidential election cycle, pundits on both sides of the political aisle insisted that voters paid too much attention to “social issues” and not enough attention to economic issues. The truth is that the “social issues” often are economic issues, a fact made clear in our cover page story on the forces driving prostitution in our home town of Trenton, NJ.
In Hanna Rosin’s recent book The End of Men she argues that women in the United States are enjoying increased standing in society in part because they now make up the majority of those going to college and earning degrees at every level. It is certainly true that more women are going to college and graduating in greater numbers than men –even at Mercer, the student body is 54 percent female– but the status of women in this country is nowhere near as positive as Rosin would have us believe.
There is, in fact, a war being waged against women. Red states have been working hard to curtail access to abortion and contraception through a variety of duplicitous means such as im- posing mandatory vaginal ultra- sounds for those seeking an abortion (yes, we’re looking at you, Virginia), forcing women to pay for their own forensic testing kits after a rape (Alaska), and shutting down abortion clinics that cannot meet building codes suited for research hospitals (Kansas).
On the one hand, it might seem we can take comfort that Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” comment and former senator Todd Aiken’s “legitimate rape” notion didn’t lead to them getting elected, and women helped give Obama a substantial margin of victory in the presidential election.
But plenty of right-wing, misogynist nut-jobs found there way back into office, including Paul Ryan, Michelle Bachman and others. There is a broad faction that maintains significant power and seeks to overturn Roe v. Wade and ensure that women enjoy no reproductive autonomy. Oddly, this is a group that also puts great faith in free market capitalism. In attempting to cur- tail women’s rights, they are act- ing against their own interests.
“The best known cure for poverty that we’ve come up with is something called the empowerment of women,” said Christopher Hitchens, the late columnist, and author of The Missionary Position, in a 2010 interview with Jeremy Paxman.
“If you give women control over their cycle of reproduction, you don’t keep them chained to an animal cycle…” Hitchens said. His point is a simple one and one that has been borne out: when a country liberates women, that country is able to enjoy economic prosperity.
An article in AARP The Journal entitled, “Women As Economic Drivers,” by Melanne Verveer cites a Goldman Sachs study showing that “a reduction in barriers to female labor force participation would increase the size of America’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 9 percent, the Euro Zone’s by 13 percent, and Japan’s by 16 percent.”
There is no shortage of additional data that backs up these claims. According to a study done by the Guttmacher institute, which seeks to “advance sexual and reproductive health through research, policy analysis and public education,” 64 percent of those surveyed said that being able to take birth control allowed them to keep their current jobs or have a career.
The study also said that “Every dollar spent to provide publicly funded family planning services saves almost $4 that would otherwise have to be spent on pregnancy-related care for the woman and medical care during the first year of the infant’s life.”
But as the empowerment of women reduces poverty, the disenfranchisement of women corresponds to economic ruin.
Women in Trenton are not becoming prostitutes because they wake up one day and think “Oh, that looks like fun.” They are trapped by poverty and surrounded by violence.
As Mercer expands its Trenton campus, perhaps it will make education available to some of the women who want to get off the streets. But the college will be forced to grapple with the social traumas and economic pressures facing these women. Mercer will have to decide if it will provide the kinds of health and child care services needed to ensure that our women can make it to class and stay in college long enough to graduate and have a chance at a better life.