Working Like a Man, or How American Feminism Failed: Part 2

As the 1960s dawned, so did the birth of feminism in earnest.  Many arguments exist in regards to how the women’s movement gained steam. One theory is that the jobs were there waiting, so the women’s movement was a reaction to market pressure combined with a loss of national focus on families and childbearing (such as Marvin Harris in his book Why Nothing Works). Another theory, associated with Joan Williams in her book Unbending Gender argues that the women’s movement was a reaction to an actual loss of status of women as homemakers toward the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s which was caused by women exiting the home and entering the workforce in increasingly larger numbers. It was at this time that the seeds of what we now refer to as “the mommy wars” was born (Anticipate an extensive exploration on that topic throughout the month of June). As the movement gained steam in the 1960s, American feminists focused more on redefining and redistributing gender relations which involved challenging the roles that women and men performed in the home and at work on both a public and private front. This in turn gave birth to the concept of equal rights, equal pay and being treated as equals in the workforce. Women at this time began challenging their entry into traditionally male professional positions as well. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett wrote in her book, A Lesser Life: the Myth of Women’s Liberation in America;

The slogans of the day were extraordinary: Marriage was hell, sex was political, coitus was killing, married women were prostitutes, babies were traps, intercourse was rape, love was slavery, families were prisons, and men were the enemies. 

The problem with this push for equality is that the workplace was not asked to conform to the addition of women, specifically mothers, but that the mothers were asked to conform to the workplace. As a result, women ARE treated equally. They are expected to work 40+ hours, they are expected perform at the same levels with the same time commitments as men.  In many ways they achieved their dream of equality:  they compete equally in a workplace that still assumes that someone is at home taking care of the children and the home but without the supporting addition of the family wage. Now there is the assumption that most households subsist off of two incomes, unless the family has enough economic advantage (or is disadvantaged enough to secure assistance) to subsist off of one.

At the same time in Europe, in the 1960s, women and feminists were challenging things on a drastically different front. European feminists contrasted with American feminists in that while they experienced a similar shift of mothers into the workforce it has been supported through government benefits while the United States offers less governmental support for child care than does any other industrialized nation.  European women focused their movement on the difference rather than equality and reconfiguring what would be considered the public and private spheres (what is considered private responsibility and what is considered public responsibility) rather than the American re-distribution of gender. In other words, they challenged that the family belonged in the public sphere and that instead of assuming that childbearing belonged within the privatized sphere of the family they fought for the idea that child care should be a publicly supported endeavor. As a result most European countries have generous, paid maternity leaves, easily available part-time jobs , subsidized child care and subsidized preschools for all children. The economic costs of these programs are offset by the reduction in turnover and the wider pool of labor looking to remain in the workforce (Ann Crittenden, The Price of Motherhood).  In other words, few of the choices that European women make create an undue burden on their long-term financial future, at least not in the way similar choices would affect women in America. For example, when a woman in America chooses to stay home, she does not just lose salary, but a long-term security because she is not paying in to social security, thus becoming economically dependent on her spouse.

In conclusion (just in case you were wondering if I would ever get here) there was American feminism and its focus on re-coding gender stereotypes through “equal rights”  and  European feminism which focused on providing specific help for women’s unique gender positions. The result for American women was that they are expected to compete “equally”  in a work environment that still operates under the assumption that all domestic labor (child care, domestic chores, house cleaning, laundry and other family maintenance) is being performed by someone who is still at home (an extensive subject to be addressed in future posts). So women are supposed to work 40hrs a week and compete equally without any compensation for having to place children in child care, or having to either hire a housecleaner or add a second shift. Meanwhile, in Europe, women are enjoying their “special status” as women and are much less conflicted in their roles as both mother and employee, seamlessly passing between the two.