Working Like a Man, or How American Feminism Failed: Part 1

The majority of the information for this post was pulled from a chapter of my master’s thesis Social Capital and the New Motherhood (2007). I tried to condense what is a complex argument, but felt I couldn’t make my larger point if I cut anything else. So, I have broken this argument up into two posts. In addition, look forward to further future individual exploration of many of the topics introduced here.

Images of American motherhood have changed drastically over the last five decades.   From the extremes of the Donna Reed image of the 1950s, to the career mother images of the 1980s, to the present images of the dedicated, self-sacrificing mothers (see the recent “Are You Mom Enough” article in Time Magazine), the way women have approached motherhood over these decades has been characterized by its place in the larger context of the women’s movement.

Early feminism, such as the nineteenth-century feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony held motherhood in high esteem and felt that it was a noble pursuit specifically suited for women. Even the unmarried, childless Anthony was known for elevating parenthood to an almost sacred level. It is significant to acknowledge that the early suffragists belonged to the middle-class almost exclusively, which at the time had the benefit of an extended domestic staff. As such, their focus on equal rights seemed rational and legitimate because from their experience motherhood represented a marginal time commitment and little physical labor. They did not see motherhood as a burden or a legitimate focus around which a women’s movement could be organized in order to alleviate those burdens.

The early women’s movements were in many ways swept under the rug by the success of the women’s suffrage movement. Because of a depleted male labor force in World War II, women were pulled out of their homes to help in wartime factories and other employment opportunities. After the war, however, an ideological campaign to send women back to the homes began. The 1950s was dominated by the traditional male breadwinner/homemaker model.  As a rule, middle class women cared for the home and the children full-time while men worked. This “traditional model” was largely made possible by the economic reality of the family wage. A middle class man could make enough money on his income to not only own a home but also many new, modern time-saving devices such as vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, washing machines, and second cars. It was a time of economic boom and prosperity. The American dream was alive and well with a “can do” image permeating every aspect of life. (As a side note, the loss of the family wage is partially responsible for the current need to maintain a two-income family which places increased economic pressure on parents of young children who require child care, more so than families with school aged children)

It was during this time in the 1950s however, that many home-bound women began to develop their own economic independence. The memory of wartime women in the workforce was fresh and their re-invigorated participation was motivated by both a desire to afford more consumer goods and as a way of providing some economic independence from their husbands. In almost all cases the addition of even a small income was enough to elevate a family enough economically to secure a middle-class status. These incomes came from crafts and hobbies, Tupperware parties and sometimes part-time jobs.