Women in America

Women in America

Nov. 30 2004 4:37 PM

Women in America

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Linda Chavez
7:42 a.m.  Monday  11/11/96

       Women enjoy more freedom today than at any time in human history. By the early 1970s, women had largely won the legal battle to be recognized as men's equals in the family, at school, in the workplace. In just over a decade, from the mid-60s to the late-70s, major changes in the laws secured equal rights for women in education and employment, outlawed discrimination based on family status and pregnancy, and guaranteed women equal access to credit. This legal revolution was coupled with a profound social revolution, fueled not only by changes in attitudes toward the sexes, but toward sex itself. For virtually the first time in history, women seemed truly free sexually. Safe and readily available birth control and abortion, coupled with changed social attitudes, made sex appear as risk-free to women as it has always been for men. What is more, women's newly acquired financial independence--the result of better education and more employment opportunities for women--made marriage less necessary, at least as the sole determinant of status and economic security. Women were empowered, liberated, free. Or so it seemed. Now, barely a generation later, instead of proclaiming their independence and power, many women (including staunch feminists) are feeling vulnerable--and for good reason.
       For all the gains they have made, many women today feel worse off. The freedom to work outside the home has become the obligation to so, regardless of whether there are still young children to care for. Most working mothers labor longer hours each day than their own, mostly stay-at-home, mothers did a generation ago, even with time-saving appliances and ubiquitous fast-food restaurants to lighten their burden. Employed mothers average 65 hours of work per week, including housework; and women with young children, professional positions, or more than one job work 70-80 hours per week. Although most mothers would prefer part-time employment, few have that option. Economic necessity drives many women into the labor force; ambition and peer pressure motivate others. But with nearly one out of every two marriages likely to dissolve, work experience has also become a necessary insurance policy against being left helpless in the aftermath of a divorce.
       Given these increased burdens and new insecurities, is it any wonder that women look for protection somewhere? For many women, Uncle Sam has replaced Mr. Right as protector and benefactor; and laws and regulations have replaced social convention and morality as arbiters between the sexes. As the party of government, Democrats have benefited in the polls from this growing dependence on government among women. In the end, however, this new paternalism may prove far more dangerous to women than its old-fashioned predecessor.

Barbara Bergmann
8:35 a.m.  Monday  11/11/96

       The women voters who put Clinton over the top were betting that he was lying when he said the era of big government was over. If big government were truly dead, women would be permanently in the soup, because they need more government spending and intervention than we have now, not less. Marriage is the traditional way of getting men to contribute reliably to the expenses of raising children. But marriage has been on the decline since World War II in most of the developed world. Single parenthood is rising fast. In many respects, it's a deplorable development. But that trend will not be reversed by cutting down on welfare, by toughening divorce laws, or by the preaching of family values by politicians, by the churches, or by Phyllis Schlafly, Minister Farrakhan, or Linda Chavez.
       Since millions of women will be raising children outside of marriage, with no private help, the public sector has to take charge of getting to them at least part of the resources that takes. More than half of single parents cannot earn enough to pay for a decent standard of living. The bad old system of providing support to them through AFDC, which discouraged job-holding, is being dismantled. A new and better system--based on getting mothers into jobs, and supplementing their wages with child care vouchers, health insurance, and the strict enforcement of child support payments--should replace it, and will sooner or later. Most women voters can see this only dimly, but they prefer that Clinton preside over this transition rather than the Republicans, many of whom want to replace the bad old system with a nonsystem of no help at all.
       In the labor market, women want to be treated with dignity, and to be freed from discrimination. There has been progress, but discrimination is still alive in many workplaces, frequently taking the form of sex-segregation in job assignments. Research has shown that 70 percent of workers do not have a single member of the opposite sex sharing their job title in their place of work. This degree of segregation could not possibly arise from women's voluntary shunning of certain jobs, since many of the jobs assigned customarily to men pay better, have better chances of promotion, and have easier and more pleasant duties. The continuation of affirmative action would allow faster progress. That has a better chance under Clinton than under Dole.

Katha Pollitt
9:12 a.m.  Monday  11/11/96

       Herb Stein's opening statement skims over enough topics to keep a graduate seminar going for a year. Maybe SLATE ought to look at the subject of "Women in America" more often! I detect, nonetheless, a question threading through Mr. Stein's remarks: has women's equality gone too far, hurting marriage, and children, and the military?
       Of course women--particularly middle-class educated ones--have made tremendous advances since the revival of the feminist movement at the end of the 1960s. But the fact is, job discrimination is not just a matter of being shut out from a few top corporate positions: Women are still steered away from careers in science and technology, and are underpromoted and underpaid both in fields where women are rare, like bond trading, and those in which they have long been ensconced, like publishing. Part of the reason is sexism--including sexual harassment, which Stein doesn't mention--and part is the refusal of the workplace to accommodate motherhood. It isn't equality if in order to keep pace with male colleagues, a woman has to forgo children (but the men, backed up by wives who shoulder most of the work at home, don't).
       Has women's increasing independence placed a burden on society? I would turn the question around. I'd say, we formerly had a system in which women outside the workforce did vast amounts of community and domestic labor--full-time childcare, housekeeping, volunteering. To the extent that those tasks are performed, it's still women who do them: At my daughter's elementary school, most of the moms work, but they still run the PTA. But society has not kept pace with women's changing roles--quite the opposite!--and most men still slight their half of the family chores. So there's a general sense of fraying social bonds and lack of time.
       This state of affairs bears directly on the just-concluded presidential election. It's all very well to talk abstractly about the evils of high taxes and big government (except the military, of course, which in these discussions never counts as part of the government). But what that means for women is that not only are they going to work, they are going to have to fill the gap when social services are cut: stay home with children for whom there's no preschool, give up everything to care for sick or senile parents. It really is a nightmare prospect for married women, let alone single mothers. That's why you don't hear too many moms talking derisively about "the nanny state." And that--along with the issue of choice on abortion, and dislike of the Christian Coalition for obvious reasons--is why the women's vote favors Democrats.

Kate O'Beirne
1:22 p.m.  Monday  11/11/96

       A careful look at exit polling from Tuesday's voting indicates that the gender jury is still out on what direction the country should move in. Clinton certainly trounced Dole in the overall women's vote, but his 17-point lead among all women was reduced to just a five-point lead among white women. The mean, nasty, troglodyte House Republicans had a far smaller gender gap than did Dole, and virtually tied with House Democrats among white women.
       William Weld, the poster child of liberal Republicans seeking to jettison social conservatism from the GOP agenda, had a 21-point gender gap in his unsuccessful race to unseat Senator John Kerry.
       It appears that the majority of California women supported Proposition 209, which eliminates state preferences based on race and gender, despite the scare campaign waged by its opponents, because they reject the politics of victimhood and are willing to compete fairly for jobs. Women are not interested in having their accomplishments diminished by the feminists' assertion that success can only be achieved through special favors.
       Barbara Bergman asserts that women voters are "dimly" aware that single mothers should be more generously supported by the public. In fact, polls indicate that working women support GOP-style welfare reform that seeks to discourage illegitimacy. Women who take responsibility for supporting their own families resent women who are unwilling to do the same. They also recognize that even more generous support would increase the tragic number of children born out of wedlock who face dramatically reduced life prospects.
       There are certainly women who supported Bill Clinton with the expectation that "he was lying when he said the era of big government was over." But millions of other women want to see less government and lower taxes--some of them trusting souls who took Clinton as his word.

Betty Friedan
2:07 p.m.  Monday  11/11/96

       What's becoming visible now is a quantum leap, an enormous quantitative and qualitative change in the entire political and economic picture in America as a result of the empowerment of women. The fact that the president of the United States was elected by women is indisputable. The gender gap during the presidential election according to exit polls was unprecedented. It was not just the fact that these empowered women elected the president. It's the political agenda that changed.
       Why did women elect Clinton? They elected Clinton because he fought for Medicare, for the Head Start program, for education, for environmental protection; because he was completely committed to women's autonomy, control of her reproductive system, the matter of choice in abortion, and has supported--at least until now--affirmative action. There's a danger of a misunderstanding of this in the White House. If they think that this enormous change in the empowerment of women (and the fact that women are the majority political power of the United States) can be treated with a few little pats on the head--a token appointment of a woman or two, or four more hours for unpaid leave to go to PTA meetings--they are wrong.
       We are at a juncture here where there may be a backlash against the empowerment of women. Take, for instance, the noises coming out of the White House. They want to appoint more white male Republicans, not more women, not more blacks. They are putting out feelers about privatizing Social Security, and about slashes in Medicare. Most of the beneficiaries of these programs are women. And the women, of course, will protest this enormously.
       I have seen figures that put the women that work as a great majority of women. Even married women with children are working outside the home today. Two-thirds are the main breadwinners of the family. There is a backlash against women almost implicit in this, because what we've seen in the last 10, 15 years is that women's wages are approaching parity with men's, not just because women's wages have increased. Three-fourths of that is because men's wages have declined. This is bound to express itself in a backlash against women. Women aren't causing it. Women are an easy scapegoat.
       Women have to join with men, black and white, in some new thinking beyond the gender and identity politics. For instance, I would like to see a move for a 30-hour workweek. This would suit the needs of women and men in the parenting years, people who have to combine education and work throughout life, and older people--who become an increasingly important part of the population. We need some new thinking that really confronts the problem of economic inequality in terms not only of higher wages for women and men who work, but in terms of new curbs on excess profits and the culture of greed. Take that dirty word "tax" and make it not a dirty word. We have to have new and more government programs to meet the new needs of people in society that individual resources alone can't carry. We are on the verge of translating the empowerment of women into a new political agenda. Not just a few sops for women, but a new sense of what the priorities of life are, which have to be the political and economic priorities for this whole nation. Not the culture of greed.

Herb Stein
2:17 p.m.  Monday  11/11/96

       It might be helpful to distinguish several kinds of unhappy families:
       1. Families consisting of a mother and children, no man present, whose income is so low as generally to be considered a social problem.
       2. Families consisting of a married couple, both of whom work, who have a middle-class income, but where the wife is overburdened by family responsibilities that the husband does not share.
       3. Families consisting of divorced women with children, whose income is less than it was before the divorce but is still above the family listed first.
       The problem of the first kind of family is the welfare problem. There is no disagreement, or very little, about that being a social responsibility, although there is considerable disagreement about just how that responsibility should be discharged. What should we make of the second two cases? Do we have any idea what part of the population falls into those categories? Chavez refers to nearly half of all marriages being likely to dissolve in divorce. But a lot of those divorces turn into marriages, because only about 10 percent of all women over the age of 18 are divorced.
       What should, or can, the government do about these cases? Bergmann says that more than half of single parents cannot earn enough to pay for a decent standard of living. But "decent standard of living" is a very vague concept. If it means only the standard of living that now confers eligibility for public help--essentially something like the poverty line--we are back to the welfare case. To what level of income would she want to raise the responsibility of the public sector? And who is to pay--are the married parents to pay for the single parents?
       What has become of the idea that husbands and fathers should share in the family responsibilities that traditionally were borne almost exclusively by wives and mothers? I thought that was part of the revolution.
       Does anyone disagree with Chavez's point that women now have more choices than ever before? There are references to economic necessity forcing women into the labor market. Is there evidence about this? I believe that families in which only the husband works in the labor market now have more real income than such families did, say, 20 years ago. Probably Bergmann knows whether that is correct or not