Business, College of


Women and the Great Retrenchment: The Political Economy of Gender in the 1980s

Ann Mari May, University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Kurt Stephenson, University of Nebraska - Lincoln

Document Type Article

Published in Journal of Economic Issues Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, June 1994. Copyright © Journal of Economic Issues. Used by permission.


Policy analysts and scholars are only now beginning the serious task of sifting through the debris of the 1980s to chronicle the impacts of policy changes and to evaluate the policies as well as the policymakers. The 1980s will no doubt be remembered as having produced the worst recession since the Great Depression and perhaps, more generally, as a period of economic retrenchment [Dugger 1992]. While many segments of society were affected by the restructuring inherent in Reaganomics, the impact on women merits special attention, particularly in light of demographic changes in voting behavior. It has long been understood that discernable differences exist between women and men on issues, party identification, and candidate selection. Women tend to favor less military spending and more government spending on social services, to more often identify with the Democratic party, and to vote for Democratic candidates over Republican candidates [Matlack 1987; Shapiro and Mahajan 1986; Zipp and Plutzer 1985]. In the 1980s, however, women's participation rates exceeded those of men for the first time in U.S. history. Women emerged from the 1980s as a significant, although certainly nonmonolithic, electoral force.

At the same time that women have become more prominent electorally, there has been an increased recognition of the political nature of women's economic status [Nelson 1984]. Following the expansion of the late 1960s and 1970s, increasing numbers of women have been employed in government jobs associated with the social safety net. Moreover, the feminization of poverty has resulted in an increased attachment to the state at the very time that much of mainstream political discourse has reflected a distinctly anti-statist perspective. Finally, working women in all socioeconomic groups have become increasingly aware of the political nature of their economic status because of the protection offered to women through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the accompanying executive orders pertaining to sexual discrimination. The 1980s stand out, then, as a period when women's attachment to the state was increasingly at odds with the dominant political rhetoric.