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Reviving the feminist mystique

page three

How should we measure women's progress?

Like most conservatives and many feminists, Linda Hirshman assumes women's entry into the paid labor force from 1970 onward was largely a reaction to the feminist mystique. It's more likely the feminist polemic of self-fulfillment through interesting work had the greatest effect on the career ambitions and reproductive decisions of middle-class, college-educated women with liberal leanings -- a small and relatively privileged outpost among women circa 1970, when nearly one-half of U.S. women over age 25 had not completed high school and only 8 percent had a college degree [graph 1]. Other political projects of the women's liberation movement -- such as the articulation of rape as a crime of aggression, sexuality as a site of politics, sexual harassment and domestic violence as dynamics of power and control, women's entitlement to sexual pleasure and bodily integrity, the right to abortion and reproductive self-determination, and gender, race, class and sexual identification as complicated intersections in women's oppression -- were more troubling to society, but also fundamentally changed the way we think about the universe of women's lives.

Is it true that masses of women threw down their aprons and swarmed into the paid labor force in the last quarter of the twentieth century? If feminism was the driving force behind women's workforce participation, you'd expect to see a statistical spike between, say 1970, when 500,000 supporters marched for women's equality in New York City, and 1980, when pretty much everyone agrees the second wave was washed up. And the numbers are there, but are not nearly as dramatic as the mythology suggests. Overall, the labor force participation rate of women age 16 and over has increased steadily over the past 35 years, growing by 18 percent (from 43 to 51 percent of the population) between 1970 and 1979 and 11 percent from 1980 to 1989. Between 1990 and 1999, the proportion of employed women increased by just 2.5 percentage points, and since 1996 the number of women in the workforce has hovered around 60 percent [graph 2]. This adds up to millions of more women in the labor force (around 37 million more, to be exact), but when averaged over a 30 year period, the number of U.S. women in the paid workforce grew by about one-half percentage point per year. During the same period of time, men's workforce participation rates fell by 5 percentage points, from 80 percent in 1970 to 75 percent in 2000.

The change in mothers' employment patterns is a bit more striking. For women with children under 18, rates of workforce participation jumped from 47 percent in 1975 to 73 percent in 2000 (and have since declined to 71 percent) -- an average increase of over one percentage point per year. By comparison, the workforce participation rate of women without children grew fairly slowly, rising from 45 percent in 1975 to 55 percent in 2000; overall, labor force participation is lower for women without minor children (in part because women with children at home are more likely to be prime-age workers than others). In a parallel trend, the number of married couples with both husband and wife in the paid workforce increased by 26 percent (from 46.6 to 59 percent of married couples) between 1975 and 1990, but only grew by one percentage point over the next decade [graph 3]. By the year 2000, mothers with children under 18 had nearly the same labor force participation rate as men overall, and both spouses worked in 60 percent of married couples, compared to 17 percent of couples in which only husbands were employed. So why is Linda Hirshman freaking out?

It might be because mothers' rate of workforce participation is not the best or only way to measure women's progress. On some measures, like levels of workforce participation and the average number of hours women work per week, U.S. women have come far -- if the yardstick you're using is men's workforce participation rates and hours of work. But given recent research showing that infants and young children have better health and developmental outcomes when mothers have longer, paid leaves and at least one parent works part-time during the first year of a child's life, we might question whether an increase in the number of mothers (or fathers) who return to full-time employment less than 12 months after a child's birth is a good indication of women's progress.

Another common measure is educational attainment, and by that standard U.S. women are doing quite well -- even a little bit better than men in terms of high school graduation rates and undergraduate college degrees [graph 1]. In 2004, women held 50 percent of all professional and managerial jobs in the U.S., but were overrepresented in lower-paying occupations such as human resource management, paralegals and legal research assistants, nursing, teaching, social work and health care support, and underrepresented among workers with the highest earnings.

When we get to wages, things start to look pretty grim [graph  4]. Among men and women with the same educational qualifications, women are paid less, and at the highest levels of educational attainment they are paid much less [graph 5]. If you care to apply Linda Hirshman's theory of marriage as a system of bargaining, just imagine how much more clout wives would have in terms of not minding the butter or picking up dirty socks if they were being paid fairly (not to mention how much more they could contribute to the financial security and purchasing power of their households).

There are other critical measures of women's progress. One is health outcomes -- are men and women equally likely to have health care coverage through their employers? (No.) Do men and women receive similarly aggressive treatments for the same conditions? (Not always, but findings are mixed.) Do rates of maternal and infant mortality compare favorably to those in other affluent countries? (Dream on.) Of course, poverty is a serious social problem in the U.S., and by all indications older women and mothers are at far more risk than older men and fathers, and children are most at risk.

If we want to know more about how women are faring, we can count up the number of women in state and federal government (pathetic), and the number of women in prison (on the rise). We can study how well low-income women and women of color are doing compared to white and higher-income women on key social and health indicators (not so good). We can look at equality of leisure time (men have more) and of time spent on housework and unpaid caregiving (women do more). We can also look at women in families. One of the most distinctive social and demographic trends in the last thirty years is an increase in the number of never-married women who become mothers, which grew by 30 percentage points between 1976 and 2000 [graph 6]. Depending on your political outlook, this might look like progress (women feel less stigmatized for having children outside of marriage, are more able to support themselves through paid employment and are exercising their option to raise families without men) or the worst thing that ever happened to the country (because compared to married-couple families with children, families headed by single parent women are far more fragile and the prevalence of out-of-wedlock childbearing is a symptom of moral decline).

In short, there are many ways to calculate women's progress in addition to how many mothers are working and how many women have prestigious jobs in male-dominated fields. Like the causes and remedies for all intransigent social problems, the causes and remedies for women's inequality are complex. There's no real reason to believe that pressuring one group of women to change their private behavior would have a significant or lasting effect. To understand why, we'd have to go back the real radical roots of second wave feminism, and entertain the possibility that men have more access to social power -- not because they're more qualified for leadership or willing to work smarter and harder, but because they are men. And there's a good chance some people would like to keep it that way.

Which leads us to another of our thorny questions: How are collective attitudes about gender roles transformed? Do they change because we will them to change, or because societal conditions change? Or do the two forces interact?

stretching gender

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