Has the Gender Revolution Stalled, or Hit a Wall?

One could argue that the Women’s Rights movement in the U.S. began with the publication of the Feminine Mystique, written by Betty Friedan and published exactly 50 years ago today. (HAPPY BIRTHDAY FEMININE MYSTIQUE!!!!) The ideas put forth by Friedan led the feminist movement to argue that “the personal is political” and their individual lives must be framed within the larger movement for equal rights and equal social standing with men. But how far uphill have we come in the past 50 years to reaching equal standing with men?

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To be sure, women have made progress. Women’s earnings and labor force participation have creeped upwards in the long trend since the publication of Friedan’s Mystique. However, in more recent history, progress has slowed on many measures of gender equity, such as the gender wage gap, labor force participation, college integration. In a recent New York Times opinion piece by Stephanie Coontz, Why Gender Equality Has Stalled, she describes the long trend upward toward gender equality and more recent halts or even movement backwards (e.g. “by 2004, a smaller percentage of married women with children under 3 were in the labor force than in 1993.”). She writes,

Today the main barriers to further progress toward gender equity no longer lie in people’s personal attitudes and relationships. Instead, structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences. The gender revolution is not in a stall. It has hit a wall.

Coontz attributes these structural impediments to our family unfriendly work-life policies and cultural attitudes. Passage of the Family Medical Leave Act that provides for up to 12 weeks out for the birth of a child or family illness was hopeful, but it doesn’t cover all workers and doesn’t even ensure people are paid for time out of work for family reasons. This is just an example of a whole myriad of reasons it is still exceedingly difficult for women to excel in the workforce while under pressure from family responsibilities. She continues,

Women are still paid less than men at every educational level and in every job category. They are less likely than men to hold jobs that offer flexibility or family-friendly benefits. When they become mothers, they face more scrutiny and prejudice on the job than fathers do.

Coontz then describes what happens to people’s personal attitudes in response to political impediments, “the political gets really personal.” She refers to what sociologists call a “value stretch,” where people alter the expectations to reflect their realty.  Arlie Hochschild‘s The Second Shift tells stories of value stretching when (heteronormative) married couples who claim to be gender equal actually very much mirror traditional ideals – yes they both work, but she works part-time; yes they both clean the house, but he just cleans his den and she cleans the rest of the house. These coping mechanisms are personal to individual relationship and they are rational, but they are also reflective of larger social, political and economic issues at play.

It’s clear from all this that personal attitudes and awareness can only go far, especially when faced with continual disappointment or difficult reality. The solution really needs to be a political shift, with policies and programs designed to support all family members, but particularly mothers, in balancing their domestic responsibilities with personal life goals. Coontz reiterates a point made by Elizabeth Wurtzel that we discussed here, to have the opportunity to choose housework over market work is not sufficient, especially when these choices are more dictated by social constraints than many women often realize. Women really need the opportunity to excel and be equal to men in the economy and in society by passage and implementation of effective family policy.

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Categories: Angry Feminists, Girl Math, Means of Reproduction, Means of Reproduction-1, These United States

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  1. The Working World is Inhospitable to Women: So Why Work? « Lady Economist

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