Hillary Clinton’s coming feminist campaign

Hillary Clinton will soon be running for the presidency again, this time on women’s issues. Writing in Bloomberg Politics, Lisa Lerer and Jennifer Epstein point out that she is pushing issues such as equal pay, family leave, and government subsidized child care. She attended a number of events focused on women’s issues, brags about how as secretary of state she did a lot for women and girls, and sprinkles her speeches with comments on becoming a grandmother. Aside from yet another crass reinvention of herself just in time for the next election, the odd feature of a feminist campaign is that in the U.S. women are doing better than men.

Consider what makes a life go well. On one theory, how well someone’s life goes depends on how happy she is and how long she lives. On another theory, how well someone’s life goes depends in part on how happy she is but also on whether it is meaningful.

In the U.S., women are happier than men. University of Pennsylvania economists Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have found that over the last few decades (1972-2006), women are on average happier than men, although the gap between them is closing. Studies that focus on people in the European Union and studies of even larger blocs of countries also find women are happier. In addition, women live longer than men. A recent study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development found that, on average, American women live 5 more years (7 percent longer).

Hence, on average, women are happier and they live longer. If how well one’s life goes depends on, and only on, how happy she is, then women currently have better lives than men.

If, instead, how well someone’s life goes depends in part on how meaningful her life is, women’s lives again go better. On a standard account, how meaningful one’s life is depends on the degree to which one has family and friends, knowledge, and dignity.

Consider family and friends. Women have more family in the sense that they are more likely to live with their children than do men. While the studies vary, it also appears that on average women have more friends than do men, particularly friends who are related to them (kin).

Consider knowledge. When it comes for formal learning, women are more knowledgeable as evidenced by the fact that across all grades and academic subjects (including the sciences), women get better grades. They are also considerably more likely to attend and graduate from college.

Consider dignity. Large swaths of men lose dignity when they are caught up in the soul-crushing indignities of the criminal justice system. Also, men’s lives appear to more frequently lack dignity in that men commit suicide far more often than women. It should be mentioned that women more often attempt suicide and think about it.

The interesting question is whether there is something wrong about a political candidate focusing on a better-off group.

If the political marketplace is similar to the economic marketplace, then it is hard to see why there is anything wrong when a politician targets better-off voters just as there is nothing wrong when a business targets better-off consumers. A Lexus dealer doesn’t try to sell cars to the middle class and, morally, this is just fine. If Clinton doesn’t try to sell her candidacy to white men and, perhaps, even to married white women, this seems to be fine for the same reason.

Still, there is something odd about trying to benefit a group doing well, especially if the candidate is a member of it. Consider if Chuck Schumer (D-NY) were to focus his next senatorial campaign on benefitting Jews. The reason this would be odd is that Jews are the wealthiest religious group in America and it is not obvious that they need or deserve a larger piece of the pie. A 2008 Pew Forum study found 46 percent of Jews make more than $100,000 (more than double the rate of other Americans) and they are overrepresented in the Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, medicine, and so on. There does seem to be something strange about focusing on better-off groups, although it is hard to see why it is wrong. Women, like Jews, are a better-off group.

If one views politicians as subject to moral considerations that limit which voters they can appeal to and how they can appeal to them, then Clinton’s feminist campaign is problematic. After all, she is promising benefits to a better-off group and, if successful, it is hard to see how this will improve any of the things we value: liberty, equality, efficiency, or desert.

A Clinton apologist might claim that her proposed programs (for example, subsidized childcare, equal pay, and family leave) are the right thing to do anyway because they will make the country more equal. The feminist packaging is just a way of selling desirable policies.

Parenting is already so heavily subsidized in this country that it is hard to believe that the apologist can defend subsidized childcare with a straight face. The smorgasbord of free education, child-based tax credits and deductions, welfare programs, Head Start programs, and assorted other goodies make it hard to believe that yet another welfare program for parents should be created and lavishly funded.

Equal pay is already mandated by law and likely already characterizes the U.S. workplace. And even proponents of family leave seem to have a hard time explaining why businesses, especially small- and medium-sized one, should be forced to pay workers who don’t go to work for months on end, albeit for emergencies outside of their control. Even if these ideas weren’t terrible, they are hardly the most important issues Americans face.

Stephen Kershnar is a philosophy professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com