Mothers are wonders! Or so said a Mother’s Day card I recently saw. One of many in the how-does-she-do-it? vein, this number featured a drawing of a rose with “For All You Do” scrawled in loopy red script. You get it: the recipient does a lot. In exchange, she gets this solemn acknowledgment and maybe a gift.
More than anything else, the hushed awe that gets trotted out at Mother’s Day each year makes me remember how completely unmoored our fantasies about mothers have become. Take the ridiculous though widely embraced notion, implicit in this card, that mothers give and give simply because they’re generous and kind. Ask most mothers and I think they’ll tell you that they’d prefer not to be giving quite so much.
The absurd corollary is that this “generosity” is never tapped out. We’re wrong there, too. Even the Giving Tree eventually just became a stump. American mothers are going to run out of gas at some point. In fact, recent data tracking the progress of women suggest that we already are.
Signs of sputtering were first spotted as far back as 2003, when sociologists David Cotter, Joan Hermsen and Reeve Vanneman made a startling discovery. Sifting through huge national surveys to determine how women were faring in the economy, politics and public opinion, they found that, in the mid-nineties, for the first time in three decades, the lines plotting women’s progress in areas such as annual earnings, hourly wages, occupational integration and public office holding weren’t headed upward anymore. Gender gaps in each realm had been steadily closing for much of the last quarter of the twentieth century, nearing though never reaching parity. But everywhere the trio of researchers looked, what had recently been hopeful inclines were inexplicably leveling off or even pointing down.
When Cotter and crew were digging through their data, Oprah was already the top earner on television. Madeleine Albright had already served as the first female secretary of state. A majority of college and medical school graduates were female. And countless women had muscled their way into the once gated professional communities of business, politics and the military. It’s not surprising that Americans expected a continuation of the rapid-fire series of achievements for women in almost every aspect of public life.
Yet, across racial, economic and ethnic categories, American women were apparently no longer catapulting forward. Progress hadn’t ceased all at once or even in the same way. But in every measure Cotter studied, including occupational segregation, participation in politics, the gender wage gap and overall participation in the workforce, the trajectory had been changing for women. Cotter mapped out the full, startling array of parallel trends in a 2006 paper he called “The End of the U.S. Gender Revolution.” Depending on where it was printed, the title was sometimes followed by a question mark, at other times a period, and any fate—a nosedive, a leveling off or a return to their previous ascent—still seems possible for American women.
There are plenty of reasonable theories as to why women’s progress might be stalling, but my personal favorite is—ahem—my own. I call it the bursting of the gender-equity bubble, for lack of a better term. By this I mean that women, in aggregate, are running up against the limits of what they can achieve given the lack of institutional and public support for families. Whether we are experiencing a major collective hiccup in our march toward gender equality or are headed for an inglorious mass landing, the shift in our trajectory has to be seen as a reflection of a lack of policies that would make the combination of work and caretaking feasible. It should skewer the fantasy that we’re a nation that truly enables women to be equal to men. Pop.