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Are women more useful to the economy in the bedroom or the boardroom?

Japan has a problem that foreshadows the future for many developed nations: a falling birth rate. Its fast-shrinking population means Japan’s future labor force and tax base will shrivel while its costs to maintain the elderly will grow. This looming economic crisis has forced Japan’s leaders to consider how younger Japanese women should be used to solve this dilemma. Are women more useful to the Japanese economy in the bedroom or the boardroom? Should more Japanese women be employed to grow the economy, or should they have more than their average of 1.3 children?

Japan is not alone. This discussion is part of most cultures today, including developing nations, where education and employing women is seen as the key to poverty alleviation. But ultimately this “bedroom versus boardroom” discussion is a shortsighted question. It arose largely after the Industrial Revolution changed the home from being a place of economic productivity to being a place of consumer goods consumption—and it became more pronounced in the late 20th century as modern businesses began to prize short-term profits.

Thus, this either/or question is a false feminine dichotomy, one that ignores the fact that in both scenarios, a woman is creating value. When viewed in strictly economic terms, the value that mothers create is the nurture and development of human capital. They bear and rear future workers. (Fathers are very important to this process, too, but they aren’t the focus of this piece.)

But mothers are invested in this process for only a segment of their adult lives. As the average life expectancy for American women today is age 81, that means most women will have 60 years as adults in which to create value through their own labors and their investment in the next generation. The challenge is how to do that wisely in a culture that largely views the work of parenting and income generation to be done in separate places.

Young women today need to understand that our current understanding of home and work are not how most of humanity has thought about it. Women were always economically productive, historically speaking—you had to be if you expected to be warm and well-fed. Historically, women’s work revolved around creating textiles and getting food to the table. These were not fluffy activities. They were vital to survival. They could also be done while bearing and caring for children.

As a person of faith, it has been helpful for me to look at what the Bible says. Surprisingly, you don’t find the either/or dichotomy there, either. The example of feminine productivity written thousands of years ago in the Old Testament Scriptures—the paragon of excellence in Proverbs 31—was a financially savvy woman who traded in textiles, managed employees, reared her children and honored her husband. She wasn’t a real woman but a portrait of what excellence looked like in the virtuous wife. Her profitable activities dominate this picture, and she was commended for them.

Travel through time, and you soon find industrious women like Kate Luther in the Reformation era and Sarah Edwards in colonial America. These women were married to men whose writings and teachings profoundly affected their eras (Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards, respectively). But their husbands were not the sole income-producers. Their wives managed the estates that generated their family’s income, and they did so while rearing large families and housing numerous guests.

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