The Women’s Movement: Success at What Cost?

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Walk through any neighborhood on a sunny afternoon and you feel like you’re walking through a ghost town. No children are riding bikes, playing ball, or climbing trees. No adults are chatting together over the hedge. Houses stand empty all day. Even in the evening, people are sequestered away inside.

I barely recognize family life today. It looks nothing like the Leave-It-To-Beaver world that I grew up in. Instead of carefree and leisurely, modern American life is stressful and hectic: the cost of living is so high that two incomes are a necessity just to survive. And spending more than half of every day working and commuting leaves very little time for all the other necessities of day life (you know, cooking, cleaning, shopping, helping with homework). Few families can afford to hire outside help, so everything needs to be done by exhausted overworked parents. Kids feel the stress too. Their over-scheduled lives are filled with “structured activities” leaving no time for free play or childhood imagination. Neighbors don’t have time to get to know each other, so neighborhoods don’t feel safe any more, meaning that kids can’t be outside unsupervised. Inside and outside, everything feels out of balance.

Though dramatic, the changes in family life seem to have crept up on us over the past 20 years — almost without our noticing — as many different factors came together at the same time: technology, economic conditions, changes in social attitudes and expectations. And although no one is mentioning it, some of these factors came about as a direct result of the success of the Women’s Movement of the last half of the 20th Century.

Without question, the Women’s Movement was a success. It opened professional opportunities for women, bringing them out of the kitchen and into the workforce. It allowed us to rise to the top positions in virtually every field. Women in politics, at the highest levels of the corporate world, serving in combat, and so many more female firsts have occurred in America in just the past 40 years.

But for the better part of a generation (or even more), it’s been completely unacceptable for anyone to express any doubt about either the goals or the outcome of the Women’s Movement. To do so would surely invite being labeled sexist –or worse! As a consequence, we have never stepped back to examine the repercussions of our accomplishments. We never acknowledged that there might have been collateral damage from the social transformations that occurred. We never asked whether there were minor adjustments that should have been made along the way.

But it’s not too late. Now seems a perfect time — while we’re examining so many of our assumptions and beginning to carefully pick our way into a new future — to ask ourselves how we want our lives to look as we move forward. Enough time has passed for us to examine the results of our social experiment, if only we could find the courage to look objectively. I believe we declared Mission Accomplished too soon. It seems obvious to me that the Women’s Movement only did half of the work it set out to do. It got women into the workforce. Now it’s time to begin to work on the second half: we need to get men into the home.

In America, all men might have been created equal, but women didn’t even get the vote until 1920. Since then, it’s been a slow slog towards equality.

Before women were liberated, domestic life was the only option.
Good Housekeeping Magazine, August 1908.
The Women’s Movement sought to give women options outside the home.

Prior to the 1940s, it was the rare woman who could overcome the obstacles which prevented women from working. After the war, for a variety of reasons, women did begin to work outside the home in larger numbers, but women were still expected to find husbands, and most professional opportunities were closed once a woman married. A woman’s primary role was bearing children and caring for the home. Any jobs outside the home were considered supplementary to their husbands’ income (or a substitute for a husband’s income in the case of a divorcee or widow). And the positions filled by women were subordinate to men (such as secretaries, nurses, etc.) and available work was in traditional women’s fields like teaching, waitressing, typing pools, working in the garment industry, and so on.

Another gain towards equality came in 1960. The Pill revolutionized women’s lives by freeing them from the burden of nearly-annual pregnancies and raising large families. In the 1960s and early 70s the women’s liberation movement sought to extend this revolution by widening women’s opportunities outside the home, and although it wasn’t easily done, it succeeded.

By the time I was coming of age in the 1970s and 80s, every day brought new proof that women could do any job a man could do. No field was closed to us now. In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman Supreme Court Justice. Two years later, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. Geraldine Ferraro was on the Democratic ticket as nominee for Vice President in 1984. It filled our heads with crazy ideas: there could be more for us than life at home, and more at work than taking dictation and bringing men coffee. We could have not just jobs, but careers. We could be fulfilled. The new model was not just women working for men, but women working along side men in every field and at every level.

Those were exciting times. Women were pursuing careers and entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers. We were going to law school and medical school; we were entering the world of business and finance and science and the military and everything else. And indeed when I entered law school in 1984, my class was 50% women.

It was heady stuff for us young women. We found new ways of expressing ourselves and unbelievable excitement in breaking stereotypes and smashing glass ceilings. We were starting to see ourselves as equal to men in every way. We adopted the title of Ms. as a parallel to Mr. — losing the Miss/Mrs. and erasing the distinctions (and the stigma) of married, single, and divorced. Newly-married young women were hyphenating our last names to show that were maintaining our identities rather than permitting them to be erased when we became wives as previous generations had done.

We rejected domestic work, having been told that there was no personal fulfillment in it. Once we had our minds set on careers, we had neither the time nor the knowledge to run a household. Our lives weren’t going to look like our mothers’, so we didn’t learn how to sort the laundry, sew on a button, or bake a pie. We didn’t need to learn those things. Someone else (our partner? domestic servant? robot?) was going to do those things for us.

I think we saw it all as a temporary arrangement while in the mean time somebody was going to provide solutions to the dual shortages of time and expertise. Technology and entrepreneurial innovation were going to team up and revolutionize our lives. Where necessary, two incomes would provide us with the extra money necessary fill in the gaps where things were getting left un-done. And women’s salaries would rise to be commensurate with men’s, so that a family could get along on a wife’s salary alone just as well as it had on a husband’s. Companies would find creative solutions to the issues of maternity leave and long absences from the work force. And meanwhile women would climb the corporate ladder and gain footholds in all the right places. Men would adjust to the idea of having female bosses and of having wives with incomes.

With women and men approaching equality in every way, we expected that domestic life would also be transformed: as women found professional freedom, men would find a sort of domestic freedom. Everyone would have an education that prepared them for professional work, and then choose to work if they wanted to or they could choose to stay home. If they chose to stay at home, they could re-enter the workforce when their children were grown and pick right off where they left off. And men would have the same choices. Women who chose to stay at home would welcome those dads who chose to stay at home, so that play groups and coffee klatches would be made up of moms and dads in equal numbers, playing happily side by side just like their kids.

Women’s work and men’s work would be viewed as equally valuable, and domestic partners would decide which partner would tend to the domestic side, and which would tend to the financial side. Then we would finally find the equality we’d been looking for.

But it never seemed to work that way.

Mr. Mom: A stay-at-home dad is a punchline, not an aspiration.

Because while we were waiting, other pressures began to come into play. Economic recession in the early 2000s forced many women into full time work. And what started out as a temporary solution became permanent because the financial gains from that second income never seemed to materialize. For one thing, when the second parent works outside the home, fixed household costs increase: child care, commuting, meals out, after school and summer activities, and more. Additionally, the increase in household incomes that occurred when millions of women entered the workforce began to drive up the cost of housing, college tuition, and food, essentially negating any benefits from the additional income. Now women had to work in order for the family to survive. Women in the work force went from being a choice to being a necessity.

We told ourselves that we were fine with the arrangement. We used phrases like “quality time” to make ourselves feel better for the fact that we were spending about 30 minutes a day with our children. And we got used to being rushed, and used to taking short cuts on everything. And used to doing away with unnecessary extras like that 8th hour of sleep, and finishing thoughts. And reading anything longer than a tweet.

And another thing happened at the same time: rather than acknowledging that women’s lib had intended to give women choices, a new revisionist history convinced us that the goal of the women’s movement had been to free all women from the shackles of domestic work.

Why? I think guilt played a part. But I believe the pro-male bias in our society never went away. Instead of valuing women equally with men, we continued to view men as superior. Therefore we saw the traditionally-male role as superior to the traditionally-female one. And we didn’t readjust our belief that tending to the financial side of the equation carried much more status and personal satisfaction than tending to the domestic side. Men didn’t stop defining themselves by their career achievements or financial success but now women picked up the mantel too.

The option of working was replaced by the assumption that work outside the home was superior to domestic work. After all, if domestic work was so great, why did women need to be freed from it? So instead of women and men being equal at home and in the working world, staying home was defined as non-choice, one that only simpletons and unenlightened women would opt for.

Nor were men flocking to step in and fill the void, and who could blame them, since domestic work was viewed as drudgery and unfulfilling. We continued to look upon men who stayed home as aberrations, or worse: as failures.

So, as a result of economic and social pressure, instead of women exercising their newfound freedom of choice, and deciding along with their husbands which parent would work outside of the home and which would work in the home, both spouses simply marched off to work world together.

And in the course of a generation, American family life simply changed.

Now, no one is left at home to do the laundry, prepare meals, watch the children, run the PTAs, drive the carpools, or indeed hold communities together. Instead, children spend their early years in day care and their school years in after-care and summer camps, with driver services to shuttle them from one place to another. Pre-packaged foods, meal kits, and food delivery services substitute for home cooking, and no one knows their neighbors. More and more young couples are making the decision not to have children because no one can fit them into their schedule. And no one can afford to leave work.

No wonder the younger generation talks so much about stress and burn-out. No wonder they feel like the economy isn’t working for them. No wonder they don’t see a bright future for themselves and their children.

So what do we do? First of all, we’re never going to solve the problem until we admit that we have one. So the first step is that we need to get rid of the taboo of discussing the pros and cons of the Women’s Movement.

Let’s admit that we lost sight of our goal, which was to give everyone choices. As I said, we need to complete the work started by those well-meaning feminists. We need to return to the original vision of giving choices to both members of a domestic partnership. We need to begin to do the hard work of giving someone in the family the opportunity and the option of being the stay at home parent.

We need to recognize the value of healthy home lives and stop shaming people, women or men, who choose to stay home and raise their children, bake pies, and tend to hearth and home. Parenting is not “breeding.” It’s the important, difficult work of raising the next generation of human beings. To do it well, we need to spend time with our children, to nurture them, and to teach them our values our beliefs. And underpaid, overworked, untrained day care providers are not substitutes for parents.

Let’s admit that our economy is out of whack. Ever-increasing housing costs and constant focus on productivity and stock market gains are not a sustainable model. The cost of housing has got to come down. No one is hoping for another collapse in the housing market, but as families opt for simpler lives with one parent at home, maybe they’ll begin to move to areas where housing is less expensive. A steady trickle (or a flood) of people moving out of high cost areas, combined with other factors, might bring housing costs more in line with incomes.

Let’s admit that we haven’t achieved true equality in the work place. We need to demand equal pay for equal work, and that means equal opportunity for advancement too. So that if a family decides that it’s the woman that is going to be the breadwinner rather than the man, the family income doesn’t suffer.

We need to find a reasonable accommodation for people taking extended periods of time away from their careers and not penalize them when they are ready to come back into the work force. And we need to find better solutions for companies to deal with maternity and family leave. Recognizing that stable families make for stable societies will help us find the political will to address these issues, and we can look to other countries that have found creative solutions.

We aren’t going to solve this problem over night. After all, it didn’t pop up over night. But if we begin today, we might be able to solve it in time to save the next generation.

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