After two steps forward, we were unprepared for the abrupt slowdown on the road to gender equality. We can make sense of the current predicament, however — and gain a better sense of how to resume our forward motion — if we can grasp the forces that drove the change in the first place, state a piece in today’s New York Times
“It’s difficult to imagine (or remember) American women’s world in the early 1960s, described to chilling effect by Stephanie Coontz in “A Strange Stirring: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.” Women responding to sex-segregated help-wanted ads (including in The New York Times until 1968) faced rampant — and completely legal — employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, age, motherhood, pregnancy and appearance. They faced obstacles obtaining loans or buying property without their husbands’ approval. Rape within marriage was not a crime, and domestic violence was just barely one. Divorce was relatively rare. Birth control was illegal in many places, and elective abortion was banned.
“Women organized against these injustices with increasing success in the 1970s, but one precondition for their gains was the postwar expansion of the market into new areas, especially education, health care, child care and other services. For women, that meant the monetization of fields of work that were traditionally their unpaid responsibility, spurring growth in jobs for which women were preferred and creating powerful incentives to enter the labor force. This in turn generated greater demand for services, from fast food to child care to couples therapy. In response to an upward spiral of employment opportunities, women pursued education in greater numbers, married later (if at all) and had fewer children.
“Rising demand in formerly male-dominated industries also drew women into the labor force. Consider the story of one woman whose working-class family did not expect her to pursue a career. With mediocre high school grades, she went to a community college. She decided to leave after a year to get a legal secretary certificate, which led to a law firm job, and finally a job as administrative assistant to a corporate executive, where she eventually earned about as much as her husband, an electrician.
“This experience, recorded in Sarah Damaske’s recent book, “For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women’s Work,” was not an isolated occurrence. In the 1980s, the demand for legal assistants doubled, so that when Angela finished high school in the early 1990s a quarter-million of these paraprofessionals were on the job, about 80 percent of them women. Opportunities she had not planned for — vocational training and a career track in a booming occupation — intervened to change her life plans. Her cultural attitudes were upended by economic developments.
“The entry of women into the labor force and into new fields of work — especially management — and the redivision of labor within families were seismic cultural shifts as well as economic ones. Women developed new self-images, and the daughters of their generation — my students today — would never consider forgoing a career.”