This is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s international best seller, “The Feminine Mystique,” which has been widely credited with igniting the women’s movement of the 1960s.
In 1963, most Americans did not yet believe that gender equality was possible or even desirable. Conventional wisdom held that a woman could not pursue a career and still be a fulfilled wife or successful mother. Normal women, psychiatrists proclaimed, renounced all aspirations outside the home to meet their feminine need for dependence. In 1962, more than two-thirds of the women surveyed by University of Michigan researchers agreed that most important family decisions “should be made by the man of the house.”
Over the next 30 years the emphasis on equalizing gender roles at home as well as at work produced a revolutionary transformation in Americans’ attitudes. It was not instant. As late as 1977, two-thirds of Americans believed that it was “much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” But during the second half of the 1990s and first few years of the 2000s, the equality revolution seemed to stall.
Between 1997 and 2007, the number of full-time working mothers who said they would prefer to work part time increased to 60 percent from 48 percent. In 1997, a quarter of stay-at-home mothers said full-time work would be ideal. By 2007, only 16 percent of stay-at-home mothers wanted to work full time.
One study cautioned that nearly 30 percent of opt-out moms who wanted to rejoin the labor force were unable to do so, and of those who did return, only 40 percent landed full-time professional jobs. In “The Price of Motherhood,” the journalist Ann Crittenden estimated that the typical college-educated woman lost more than $1 million dollars in lifetime earnings and forgone retirement benefits after she opted out.
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.
Is it any surprise that American workers express higher levels of work-family conflict than workers in any of our European counterparts? Or that women’s labor-force participation has been overtaken? By 2010, according to an economic research paper by Cornell researchers Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, we had fallen to 17th place, with about 30 percent of that decline a direct result of our failure to keep pace with other countries’ family-friendly work policies. American women have not abandoned the desire to combine work and family.
Our goal should be to develop work-life policies that enable people to put their gender values into practice. So let’s stop arguing about the hard choices women make and help more women and men avoid such hard choices. To do that, we must stop seeing work-family policy as a women’s issue and start seeing it as a human rights issue that affects parents, children, partners, singles and elders.
Source: The New York Times, February 17, 2013