Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

Question for Discussion: What are some of the
major problems women face trying to
balance their jobs and family in the late
1900s and early 2000s?

Reading: Hymowitz, pp. 361-373; Painful Choices (web);
Faludi "Blame it on Feminism" (web)

Video: Hillary's Class(1995)

Daily Class Web Links

The Backlash against Women in
the 1980s and 1990s

The Struggle for Women's Rights in
the 1990s

Women's Lives in the 1990s

Women and Poverty in the 1990s

Daily Class Outline

1. Women's Lives in the 1980s
and 1990s

Daily Class Questions

1. What are the major problems facing black and working-class women in American society?

2.  How did consciousness-raising groups affect the women's movement in the 1970s?

3. What does Hymowitz mean when she argues that "the underlying message feminists communicated was the women's liberation 'is as much a state of mind as a movement'"?

4. According to Hymowitz, how has women's lives and attitudes changed in the last ten years?

5. Do you agree with Hymowitz that one of the remaining obstacles to women gaining full equality is that responsibility for the home and children still largely rests with women?

6. If men are unwilling to share equally with women the responsiblity for the home and children, can women ever achieve full equality with men in American society?

7. According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, what are some of the major obstacles professional women face in developing their careers?

8. Why is being a woman all too often seen as an obstacle to advancement by American corporations?

Daily Class Notes

"The idea of equality  for women is supported in the  abstract, but the institutional changes needed to make 
that idea a reality still meet with great institutional resistance.
    "Women's place in the family and her position in the labor force remain the cornerstones of her oppression. 
 While feminists have encouraged women to reject traditional sex roles at home and on the job, there has
been little change in public policy to bolster women in this effort.  Child care and household labor are still
viewed as 'women's work.'

".....[T]here must be public recognition for the factthat the responsibility for home and children belongs
equally to both sexes."
(p. 372)


       "Americans in general remained hostile to feminism.  Other reform movements could be
 embraced abstractly; they called on people to change the world. The women's rights movement made people angry and frightened
 because it asked them to change themselves.
       "Feminism threatened the most personal relationships in people's lives. Feminists asked men and women to think of themselves in new ways and to relate differently to each other.  If wives, mothers, daughters changed, husbands, fathers, and sons would be called upon to change as well.  Home and family would be altered." (Hymowitz, p. 102)

"Any change in the nature of male and female roles
 thus automatically affects the home, the economy, 
the school, and perhaps above all, the definition of who we are as human beings."

......William Chafe, A History of Our Time (224)

The larger question we still need to answer is this: What is it about changing roles for women that threaten the larger American society and make it resistance to granting women full equality with men? Despite the passage of laws protecting women from social and economic discrimination, women still face widespread discrimination that tries to force them to accept their second-class status in American society. Chafe raises this very question in his survey of the changing roles and opportunities for women:

"But social change did not mean social reform, nor did it signify intentionality on the part of those with power in the society. As we have seen, all the structural barriers to equality remained in place. Women were still paid less, even in the war when government policy said otherwise; they were segregated--increasingly--into "women's work," especially in the clerical sales, and service fields; and to an ever growing degree, they bore the brunt of the country's social problems, whether divorce, impoverishment, teenage pregnancy, or domestic violence."

Chafe concludes that despite the fact that more women were working, and it was now acceptable for women at any stage of their life to work outside of the home, women's "status has deteriorated rather than improved. Average wages went down, poverty rates went up, discrimination remained." So how do we explain this deteriorating social status for women despite some of the major victories of the women's movement?

First of all, we need to recognize that as a result of these successes, the women's movement and women's rights have come under attack by both conservative men and women and religious fundamentalists. Susan Faludi refers to this conservative counterattack against women's rights as the "Backlash." For a good summary review of her book, Backlash, see Review: Backlash, The Undeclared War Against American Women, by Susan Faludi. Faludi argues that in the 1980s and 1990s conservatives and American business and economic interests worked to undermine the gains that women had won in the 1960s and 1970s.

The larger irony of this cultural and political backlash against women is that women are the majority of the population; women are about 52 percent of American society. So clearly, despite conservative claims to the contrary, women aren't a minority or a special interest. How, then, can economic and political forces attack women without fearing their political and social retribution because of their large numbers? The answer, as Chafe argues, is that women are not seen and do not act as a single political force. American women are divided by race, class, cultural, and religious lines. Many women of color and working-class women suspect, and are sometimes even hostile, to to goals of the larger women's movement, which they often see as white and middle-class. But these race and class and cultural divisions can't explain the real political and cultural weakness of women in late twentieth-century American society.

We need to now look at women's larger role in American society and ask this question: What is it about women's roles that makes changes in their role so threatening to powerful economic, political, and cultural interests in our society? We can answer this question, in part, by looking at the handout, "Painful Choices," and the video, Hillary's Class. The larger dilemma that women face is that despite their increasing economic opportunities their success is limited by the traditional roles that American society still expects that to carry out. In the 1970s, some advertisers were telling women, "you can have it all." Many young women in the 1970s believed that they could go out and compete with men in the business, political, and cultural world and have successful careers while at the same time being successful wives and mothers, raising healthy children, having happy, loving marriages, and finding personal satisfaction and happiness. Many middle-class women in the 1970s tried to have it all; and the media scornfully referred to these women as "supermoms," the implication being that you would have to be a superhuman woman to manage all these competing conflicts and needs.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, partly as a result of the conservative Backlash against the women's movement, cultural and political leaders were accusing women of being responsible for the increasing divorce rates, rising drug-use and delinquency, undermining family values, and threatening the true role of women, which was to be nurturing, caring, supportive, other-directed, self-effacing, and loving. Critics charged that in trying to become like men, women were undermining society and their true natures as women. In fact, some critics charged that if women would stay at home, their would be more jobs for men, who really needed the money to support their families.

But these criticisms in some way miss the larger problem: How had women's entering into the workforce, struggling to have successful careers and play larger roles in society, changed or threatened the traditional roles of men? American men traditionally have been able to rely on their wife's support for their careers, caring for their children, families, and marriages, and work maintaining the household. Relying on their wives' support, men were then free to sacrifice their children, their families, and their marriages for their careers. If men didn't have supportive wives, or were forced to play a larger role with the children, family, and marriage, they wouldn't be able to achieve success and status in our competitive, hierarchical, status-conscious society. Faced with increasing demands by their wives and girlfriends in the 1970s and 1980s, many men felt threatened by women's equality and women's changing roles. As a result, many marriages ended in divorce, families were torn apart, and men divorced their aging wives for younger, more submissive wives. But this still isn't the whole story.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as some women tried to successfully compete with men for high-status jobs and careers, they were confronted with a serious dilemma. If men's success was in part based on their ability to sacrifice their children, families, and marriages to their careers, how could women compete with men except by adopting the same strategy. This often meant that successful women didn't marry, didn't have children, or didn't have successful relationships with men. Because women had always played the supportive role that allowed men to be competitive in our larger society, who was now going to support women? But unlike men, many women realized that they weren't willing to sacrifice their children, families, and marriages to their career. So would could these women do?

Faced with this dilemma, many women chose to have children and support their families and marriages at the expense of their careers. Even after companies had spent thousands and thousands of dollars training and helping professional women climb up the corporate ladder, they would let them go when these women asked to be given flexible working hours in order to better support their children and families. At first this doesn't seem like a wise economic move, but think about it. Companies can always find both men and women who will work long hours and sacrifice their own lives, children, and marriages to their career. As long as women, like men, put their companies and careers first they will be able to climb up the corporate and social ladder.

The larger conclusion is that it is not just men's fault for refusing to accept women's changing roles. As long as the dominant American economic and social institutions pressure both men and women to sacrifice their families and lives for their careers, women will not be able to reconcile their competing desires for successful careers and and a happy marriage, children, and family. But the same holds true for men. Men won't be willing to spend more time with their wives, children, and families if doing so will threaten their careers and social status. Faced with this larger economic and social dilemma, women are now bearing the brunt of our society's lack of support and concern for children, families, and marriages. Raised to think that women are the ones who should always be the first to sacrifice themselves for others, professional women are more likely to quit their jobs to support their children and their husband's careers. And if they don't, their husbands and societies tend to blame them for juvenile delinquency, the breakdown of the family, divorce, drug-use, and every kind of social and cultural dysfunction.

Women will not achieve full equality with men in American society until our society changes its understanding of the importance of marriage, the family, and children. By not valuing and supporting both women and men who care for and nurture their marriages and families, American society is in part responsible for the breakdown of family values, divorce, juvenile delinquency, and other serious social and cultural dysfunctions. Faced with the results of society's lack of support for these growing problems, women are still the ones to sacrifice their lives and careers for the good of their families, marriages, and society. As a result, despite women's increasing legal equality, American women are seeing their economic and social and political status decline. As the American standard of living and the quality of life has continued to decline since the 1970s, women, children, and families have bore the brunt of the suffering and misery. How American men and society will respond to these problems in the future is still anyone's guess. Too often today, American men and society try to ignore women's, children's, and families' suffering. And this is a real tragedy for men, women, children, and the larger American society.

© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 6 Dec. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/back.htm
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