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The Career Mystique

An excerpt from "The Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream"
by Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling

The Feminine Mystique

In the 1950s, things seemed simpler, at least for middle-class Americans. In the ideal world, men were the breadwinners, working full time in careers that promised security and a comfortable living for those willing to make work their top priority. Women were the caretakers of the home and family, supporting their husbands emotionally and socially so that they could focus single-mindedly on climbing career ladders or at least hanging on.

Although this lifestyle worked for some, it was never a reality for poor women or men, those on the fringes of the labor market. Still, the breadwinner/homemaker family became the icon of the American Dream. "Success" for men entailed a career that enabled their wives to stay home. "Success" for women meant being married to a "successful" man. Although not all families in the 1950s could afford this version of the good life, even those on the outside looking in -- poor families, immigrant families, divorced or single parents -- aspired to this breadwinner/homemaker lifestyle, replete with a house in the suburbs and a car in the carport, if not the garage. Books, movies, advertisements in magazines, and television shows depicted American women and men as homemakers and breadwinners, reinforcing and sustaining the gender divide.

But all was not well on the home front. Despite cultural consensus that marriage and motherhood are women's "master" roles, many emulating this archetype in the 1950s and 1960s felt a deep lack of fulfillment and a sense of unease. One of them, Betty Friedan, frustrated and depressed by the absence of opportunity to use her education and talents, actually began to write about this "problem with no name."

In the 1950s Betty Friedan struggled to be a good homemaker, wife and mother. Tucked into a residential suburb, she felt cut off from the mainstream, embroiled in her small world of full-time domesticity, of women and children isolated from the "real world" of business and industry. Frustrated by the absence of opportunity, she began to write about this "problem with no name," eventually calling it the feminine mystique (which became the title of her groundbreaking book). In that one phrase, Friedan captured the myth of middle-class womanhood in the middle of the twentieth century. Marriage and motherhood were touted as totally fulfilling, as a rewarding life peopled by children and other mothers in the new residential suburbs sprouting up in postwar America. Women were the family consumers, chauffeurs, cooks, and caregivers. They were also deft at handling contradictions, at being both sex symbols and the keepers of the nation's morals.

Leading to the feminine mystique were, first, jobs that paid a family wage (that is, enough to support a family on one income). A burgeoning post-World War II economy fit well with the beliefs and values honed on the American experience, the American Dream of individual achievement and self-sufficiency. The dream captures the frontier spirit of enterprise, energy and optimistic expectations so emblematic of the United States. Success can be earned, people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, anyone can move up the occupational ladder. For many in the middle of the twentieth century, this dream seemed within reach. Even blue-collar jobs with no such ladders offered a clear path to seniority and with it higher salaries, the wherewithal to own a home, and economic security. A measure of men's success became the fact that they could afford to support their wives as full-time homemakers.

In her book Betty Friedan showed the underside of this myth of domestic fulfillment. Many middle-class homemakers felt isolated, inadequate, alone, and unhappy. Sometimes living up to this ideal caused hardship for the rest of the family. Many girls saw their mothers grapple with being "just a housewife." Many families struggled to maintain a middle-class lifestyle on one salary.

The feminine mystique was only part of the story, half the gender divide. It was, paradoxically, embedded in the American Dream that anyone could make it through hard work. Only, that "anyone" was assumed to be a man. What emerged for American men following World War II was a lockstep template -- a one-way pathway from schooling through full-time, continuous occupational careers to retirement. This lockstep career path both enabled the feminine mystique and was sustained by it. Men could lead work centered lives precisely because their wives took care of the daily details of family and home. Wives even supported their husbands' careers by entertaining bosses and relocating from state to state as their husbands followed jobs or moved up company ladders. Although men expected to fall in love, marry and have children, their jobs were their main act, who they really were -- doctors, salesmen, plumbers, and members of a growing white-collar bureaucracy that worked in offices, not on factory floors. For most middle-class households, there was one job -- the paid one. Men's careers, thus, offered the only path to security, success and status -- for their families as well as themselves.

Women's lives in the middle of the twentieth century, by contrast, offered no such starring role. They were the stagehands, set designers, walk-ons, caterers and coaches of others' lives: their husbands, their children, their neighbors, their friends. Still, most worked for pay before marriage or motherhood, as well as during World War II. Growing numbers of women attended college and developed occupational aspirations of their own. This mismatch created the cultural contradictions of the feminine mystique, a mythical vision of womanhood that limited options and idealized the breadwinner/homemaker family, even as many young American women were entering colleges or the workforce as a matter of course.

Whether people achieved it or not, the breadwinner/homemaker template provided cultural guidelines about careers, families, and gender that effectively decoupled paid work from unpaid family-care work, creating a fictional divide between them, a divide that became embedded in occupational ladders and prospects, assuming someone else -- a wife -- would attend to the details of daily living. In this way, the imaginary divide between paid work and unpaid work became a very real gender divide. Today the borders are both fraying and more permeable than ever before, but the roles, rules and regulations about a lifetime of paid work remain in place, while care for the nation's families remains mostly women's unpaid work.

In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan pointed out the cultural contradictions of assigning full-time homemaking to half the adult population. But she paid scant attention to its mirror image, the career mystique, the expectation that employees will invest all their time, energy and commitment throughout their "prime" adult years in their jobs, with the promise of moving up in seniority or ascending job ladders. Some captured the reality of this mystification of occupational careers -- C. Wright Mills wrote White Collar, William H. Whyte described The Organization Man, and Sloan Wilson painted a vivid fictional account in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. But none of these recognized that the career mystique rested on the premise of a gender divide, with men occupying the jobs offering seniority and ladders and women making men's homes, nurturing their children, and providing them with support and encouragement.

The Feminine Mystique was a bombshell. With it, Betty Friedan helped usher in the Women's Movement of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, which, along with an expanding service economy, has literally transformed the lives of American women. But in rejecting the norms and values of the feminine mystique, much liberal feminism came to embrace men's lives as the yardstick of equality. The senior author recently overheard a young girl in a toy store saying she wanted boy's toys. This was, in essence, what feminism of the latter half of the twentieth century wanted as well: Many thought the way women could be equal to men was through affirmative action, enabling them to have men's jobs and men's career investments and to reap men's economic rewards, advancement and prestige.

This excerpt from "The Career Mystique" by Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling, published by Rowman & Littlefield, 2005, pages 3-6, appears by permission of the publisher. For more information, please visit the Rowman & Littlefield web site, www.rowmanlittlefield.com

Related reading:

The new possibility:
Beyond the lockstep life course

MMO review of "The Career Mystique" by Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling

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