Is North Dakota Really One of the Best States for Women? This Financial Website Seems to Think So.

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Commentary Media

Is North Dakota Really One of the Best States for Women? This Financial Website Seems to Think So.

Cinnamon Janzer

I was tempted to dismiss the post as another frivolous piece of content on the internet, since WalletHub is hardly the definitive resource on women's issues. But it reflects a broader cultural misconception about what constitutes a "good life" for women—one that doesn't account for housing, reproductive rights, or even job stability.

Earlier this month, Adam McCann, a financial writer at WalletHub—a website that offers its users credit scores and reports as well as “an artificially intelligent financial advisor that will truly leave your wallet full”—authored a post titled “2018’s Best and Worst States for Women“.

McCann reports as having compared data from the 50 states and Washington, D.C., across 23 “key indicators” of living standards for women. The results declared Minnesota, Massachusetts, Vermont, North Dakota, and Wisconsin to be the top five states for women while Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Alabama were relegated to the bottom of the list.

As a North Dakota native, I was at first amused and somewhat delighted by WalletHub’s findings. But still, it struck me as peculiar that North Dakota could be ranked as the fourth-best state for women. In 2015, for instance, the Washington Post noted that it was one of the worst states regarding access to affordable reproductive health care, women’s representation in office, and women’s work and family balance. The Guttmacher Institute found in 2014 that 73 percent of women in North Dakota lived in a county with no abortion clinic.

I was tempted to dismiss the post as another frivolous piece of content on the internet, since WalletHub is hardly the definitive resource on women’s issues. However, the post has been shared thousands of times. The WalletHub post certainly reached more than just the users who shared it—and it reflects a broader cultural misconception about what constitutes a “good life” for women.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Many of the elements that constitute WalletHub’s findings, like the share of women-owned businesses and median earnings for female workers, are focused on earnings and economics. This is unsurprising: It is a finance website, after all. On the surface it appears well-rounded, because social factors like women’s preventive health care and depression rate for women are also included. But it’s what WalletHub chose not to include in its list of indicators that says a lot about the conception of what constitutes a “good life” for women.

“It’s very limited what [WalletHub is] dealing with. There’s nothing on reproductive rights and there’s no differentiation about how class and race affect women or how women are affected by immigration status and age … nothing intersectional, really,” explained Professor Charlotte Bunch, the founding director and senior scholar at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University.

Without intersectionality, it’s impossible to analyze women’s lives, which are inherently varied and characterized by those differences. Chandra Childers, a senior research scientist at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, found the WalletHub post to be “not helpful in understanding the diversity of women, period. Different women have different needs and it just kind of papers over those different needs.”

When it comes to competently analyzing the quality of women’s lives, “it’s important to have a layered analysis. We don’t live our lives in a vacuum. We’re not just working mothers. We’re not all married. We’re not all living a middle-class professional lifestyle. If you just look at the narrow economic factors that affect a certain band [of women], we’re missing the big picture,” added Kirsten Sherk, the director of global communications at the International Center for Research on Women.

Elements like reproductive care and individual state policies regarding violence against women are just two examples of the absence of highly relevant factors that have a major impact on women’s economic well-being. “Reproductive care is central to the economic factors [included on WalletHub’s list]. If you can’t control your reproduction, you can’t control your life. Everything depends on having access to reproductive care from birth control through the full range of family planning options,” said Childers.

Furthermore, even from an economic perspective, some elements were lacking. For instance, Childers also considers access to welfare benefits like food stamps and public housing as an important economic indicator for women—which was excluded from the WalletHub post. States that make it either extremely difficult or impossible to access benefits keep women trapped in situations that hamper their economic prosperity, she argued. Without them, many women struggle to cover the cost of child care, get a job, or get on their feet. A Brookings Institution report on welfare and the economy found that labor force participation by single mothers with children under 18 increased from 69 percent to 78 percent between 1990 and 2000, adding that “an important component of this change was a significant increase in the number of women who were both receiving welfare and working.” Any economic analysis that excludes welfare from its purview becomes deeply incomplete.

Additionally, there are exactly three factors that WalletHub weighted double, all derived from previous WalletHub rankings: Friendliness towards working moms, baby friendliness, and friendliness towards women’s equality. The latter was culled from data sets that ranged “from the gap between female and male executives to the disparity in unemployment rates for women and men.” Two of the three are maternally focused, implying an outdated idea of what’s important to women. Emphasizing motherhood and “analyzing maternity leave but not paternity leave … sends a whole lot of gendered messages about motherhood,” Sherk adds. Prioritizing maternal elements suggests both an antiquated conception of motherhood as the focus of women’s lives as well as a misconception that maternal considerations are highly important to all women. In reality, not all women are, want to be, or will be mothers, and those who are may very well consider other elements besides “baby friendliness” and the like as the most important considerations when deciding where to live their lives.

After publication, WalletHub reached out to me claiming that the piece had addressed job security through a metric that counted the number of female employees in 2016 and 2015 and divided it by the number in 2015. Its representatives additionally felt as though including what they referred to as “the quality of gynecological hospitals” in addition to the percentage of women with up-to-date cervical and breast cancer screenings constituted an adequate consideration the issues I raised around access to the full range of reproductive care and reproductive rights.
They also noted previous blog posts they had written in a similar fashion (2017’s Best & Worst States for Working Dads2018’s Most & Least Ethnically Diverse Cities in the U.S.) as evidence that WalletHub does consider paternity and diversity, but added that they chose to “focus on these issues separately” from their analysis of women’s well-being. Lastly, they admitted to a focus on economic issues and an inability to “include all of the possible factors which influence women’s well-being” in their analysis.
However, I maintain that these blog posts do not truly grapple with the complex, layered, and systemic issues that affect women’s well-being.

The ultimate result of lists like this, even if only published by outlets like WalletHub, is a misconstruing of the complete and complex reality of women’s lived experiences in favor of a shareable piece of content that not only relies heavily on economic factors, but also on factors that are only pertinent to a certain subset of the female population.

By leaving out important tangential elements, rankings like this one make it appear that the myriad of overlapping, intersectional elements that factor into women’s existences can be reduced to and solved by a single economic solution. Women’s economic opportunity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, as the WalletHub post makes it appear—it’s the result of, among other things, on-the-ground organizing and electing more women (not just straight, cis, white women) into office, in order to create the structural support that buttresses that opportunity.

Finally, reductive lists like this can give the impression that some states have got it right, that women there are enjoying the good life, when in reality we have so much further to go in all parts of the country. As Rebecca Solnit writes in The Mother of All Questions, the war on women “is so woven into our culture that it provokes little outrage and even little attention; isolated events make the news, but the overall pattern is too pervasive to be news.” Seemingly harmless, useless lists like this are part of that pervasive pattern: They send out little messages about what it means to be living a good life as a woman and about who gets to dictate the parameters of the analysis that are easy to miss. Even disguised as frivolous pieces of internet content, they slip into our culture and make that war just a little bit harder to win.

Because of the source, Bunch called into question how seriously people take posts like this in the first place. Sherk echoed her sentiment. Still, she noted that “the danger is that it allows us to turn our backs on or neglect to consider deeper policies that have an effect” on the varied and complex lives of women.