SINCE THE women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the shape of American family life underwent colossal changes. While the Leave It to Beaver ideal of a single male breadwinner and housewife was never the reality in many households, it is all but extinct today. Due to a combination of changing attitudes about gender, the mass entry of women into the workforce, and declining men’s wages, today dual-income, single-parent, and other alternative family arrangements far outnumber traditional nuclear families.
For some, the consequences of this shift are unambiguous. In their recent book The Flipside of Feminism, conservative authors Suzanne Venker and Phyllis Schlafly argue that the women’s liberation movement was actually “the single worst thing that has happened to American women.” The basis of their claim is that as women have gained more power, freedom, and opportunity, they have become less happy. Therefore, the solution is for women to return to their traditional roles as mothers and housewives.
Two recent books challenge this argument, painting a much more complex picture of the realities of American family life and its implications for the future of work and gender. They contend that while undeniable progress has been made, both men and women remain constrained by social structures that undermine full gender equality, economic empowerment, and individual fulfillment.
In The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family Kathleen Gerson draws upon extensive ethnographic research to illuminate the new attitudes towards work and family. Gerson conducted in-depth interviews with 120 men and women between the ages of 18 and 32. Her subjects came from a wide variety of family backgrounds, and many experienced significant transformations in family structure over the course of their lives due to changes in employment, marriage and divorce.
Despite their diversity, some common themes emerged. “In contrast to the popular claim that this generation feels neglected by working mothers, unsettled by parental breakups, and wary of equality, they express strong support for working mothers and much greater concern with the quality of the relationship between parents than whether they stayed together or separated.”
Looking to their own futures, both men and women expressed a desire to have a stable, lasting relationship, but not one based on the traditional model of a gendered division between work and caretaking. “Instead, most want to create a flexible, egalitarian partnership with considerable room for personal autonomy.”
As Gerson points out, these attitudes undercut the basis for the culture wars of previous decades, as growing numbers of young people reject rigid definitions of family and instead embrace values of equality and diversity.
Nonetheless, Gerson’s interviews reveal a large gap between young people’s aspirations and ideals for family life, and the reality of more limited choices they confront due to a combination of inflexible workplace policies and lack of support for childcare. As one respondent put it, “sometimes I ask myself if it’s unrealistic to want everything. I think a lot of people will settle for something that is not what they wished.”
It is in examining these “second best” options that Gerson identifies diverging strategies between men and women, which helps to account for continued gender inequality in both the home and workplace. The majority of women emphasized the importance of self-reliance—despite the fact that this often entailed a double burden between home and work—as preferable to economic dependence on a relationship that may or may not last.
Men in contrast were more likely to opt for a return to a more “neotraditional” arrangement. Although dual-earner families are increasingly the norm, and men are taking on more work in the household, when the two conflict, men are more likely to see paid work as their primary contribution and expect their partners to take on a larger share of household labor in turn.
Gerson emphasizes that if these divergent fallback strategies tend to perpetuate gender inequalities, this is a result of people being forced to craft individual solutions to social and institutional pressures, not a deep-seated desire on their part to return to traditional family and gender norms.
“To the contrary,” Gerson insists. “In an era of economic and marital uncertainty, social supports for flexible, egalitarian blends of work and caretaking are essential to helping new generations care for their children and realize their own dreams. The answer to twenty-first-century conundrums is to finish the gender revolution, not turn back the clock.”
In Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, Joan C. Williams elucidates the institutional mechanisms by which gender divisions are entrenched despite shifting attitudes. As director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Williams draws on impressive depth of research to demolish the facile assumptions about work and gender repeated ad nauseum in the popular media.
She takes particular aim at the idea popularized by a 2003 New York Times article that we are in the midst of an “opt-out revolution” in which scores of women are choosing to leave their high-powered careers in favor of the more fulfilling role of stay-at-home motherhood. Williams argues that to the extent that women are leaving the workforce they are more likely pushed to do so by family-hostile workplace polices and lack of affordable quality childcare than lured by their maternal instincts.
These articles also ignore the high costs of even briefly opting out, “One study found that women who took just one year out of the workforce sacrificed 20% of their lifetime earnings,” Williams notes. “Women who took two or three years earned 30% less.” But those who attempted to combine full-time work and motherhood also faced severe disadvantages:
Social scientists have now documented that workplace bias against mothers is the strongest form of gender bias in today’s workplace. The leading studies find that when asked to rank identical resumes with just one difference—one but not the other listed membership in the Parent Teacher Association—mothers were 79% less likely to be hired, 100% less likely to be promoted, offered $11,000 less in salary, and held to higher performance and punctuality standards than non-mothers.
While male workers are not penalized for being parents, they are generally expected to work as though they have a full-time housewife at home, even if they likely don’t. While masculine workplace norms leave women in the cold, they also negatively impact men, who are under intense pressure to exhibit a single-minded devotion to work in order to provide for their families. “A surprisingly high number of men who live up to the old-fashioned breadwinner ideal do not endorse it,” notes Williams. “Only 17 percent of men report wanting to work fifty or more hours a week; about twice as many…actually do so.”
If wealthier couples can afford to have one partner stay home, or else pay someone else to help with childcare and housework, most working class families do not have this luxury. Instead they must combine full-time work with elaborate tag-teaming childcare arrangements that leave both partners frustrated and exhausted. To make matters worse, due to inflexible workplace policies, an alarming number of working parents are just “One sick child away from being fired”—the title of one of the book’s chapters.
Winning real equality for women in the home and in the workplace, argues Williams, requires addressing these real economic and institutional realities. This means transcending both “assimilationist feminism,” which focuses on gaining access for women into traditionally masculine high-powered roles, and “difference feminism,” which seeks to empower women in their traditional feminine roles. Neither approach recognizes the social pressures that compel both men and women to conform to either one or the other rigid gender role.
Williams dubs her own approach “reconstructive feminism” and argues for an emphasis on the ways in which progressive workplace and family polices will benefit both men and women. She concludes by reflecting on why such progressive polices have not been enacted in the United States—indeed, the past few decades have been marked by both a shredding of the safety net and an ideological backlash against women’s rights.
Her explanations focus on the rift between “progressives” (by which she actually means Democratic Party politicians and members of the liberal establishment such as herself) and the (white male) working class. While she is right to condemn the condescending, anti-working class attitudes of many “progressives” and acknowledge the real class anxieties that underlie the so-called “culture wars,” her vision is ultimately limited by an unquestioning dedication to the Democratic Party as a force for positive change.
Unfortunately, there is little recognition of the obvious: that the corporate class that funds both parties has no interest in implementing things like paid maternity leave, flexible work schedules, subsidized childcare, or any of the other laudable reforms Williams recommends, for the simple reason that it would cut into its bottom line.
That both these books are left grasping for real solutions to the unfinished gender revolution is perhaps a reflection of the fact that they were written in 2010, with the Tea Party ascendant and possibilities for progressive change seemingly distant. Luckily, the intervening year witnessed the rise of promising new movements both for women’s rights and economic justice. These books provide a valuable resource for activists looking to connect these two issues in the fight for a world in which both men and women are liberated from the gendered economic constraints that continue to hold us back.