Katha Pollitt’s new book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, has just been published by Random House.

Working Women: Strength in Numbers

What a difference a recession makes. It seems like only yesterday the media were heralding the mass exit from the workplace of highly educated mothers, the mommy blogosphere was raging at veteran reporter Leslie Bennetts for stressing the risks of wifely dependency in The Feminine Mistake and faux stay-home mom Caitlin Flanagan was warning women their kids wouldn’t love them quite so much if they had jobs. Now it turns out that what New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin christened “the opt-out revolution” in 2003 was never the mighty trend she claimed. According to the 2007 census, stay-home moms are disproportionately younger, less educated, low-income, Latina and foreign-born. Well, that makes sense, doesn’t it? That mothers who have a hard time getting stable jobs with decent pay and conditions would stay home if they could, while those who can get better jobs at higher pay would have more incentive to keep working?

Hard on the heels of this revelation comes another: the big headline from A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, a major report by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, is that for the first time in our history, women are now 50 percent of the paid workforce. And they aren’t working just to buy Christmas presents: four in ten mothers are primary breadwinners (that includes single mothers); among women generally, 80 percent contribute a major chunk of the family income. Shriver’s claim that “the Battle Between the Sexes is over” is overly optimistic: her own polls show women sense much more discrimination, at work and in the home, than men believe exists. But they also show that majorities accept working mothers, and even women earning more than their husbands. And yet, the report notes, although “workplaces are no longer the domain of men,” our society is still organized as if they were, with everything from doctors’ office hours to school schedules to Social Security organized around the outmoded stay-home mom/breadwinner dad model. This is not exactly news, of course–how long have feminists been pointing this out?–but maybe our mighty numbers can finally get us some daycare.

The Shriver report’s central point is a truism of women’s history: women’s social, economic and political power is directly related to their presence in the workforce. The gains of the last forty years–in political representation, reproductive rights, education, combating violence against women–would never have happened without the steady and massive increase in the number of working women and the transformative effects of all those paychecks. Some might be tempted to spin the magic 50 percent to suggest that feminism’s job is done. First it was dead because it was a failure; now it’s dead because it was such a success.

Maybe too much of a success. As Reihan Salam worries in his article “The Death of Macho,” “The problem of macho run amok and excessively compensated is now giving way to macho unemployed and undirected–a different but possibly just as destructive phenomenon.” If 78 percent of those who have lost their jobs in this recession are men, that must mean women’s gains are coming at men’s expense, right? Actually, no. Women may have a bigger slice of a shrunken pie, but because the labor force is still quite gender-segregated, mostly they are not competing with men for work. The top ten jobs for women are, in order, secretary, nurse, elementary- and middle-school teacher, cashier, retail salesperson, health aide, retail supervisor, waitress, bookkeeper and receptionist. Men have lost more jobs than women in the recession because the ax has fallen more sharply in heavily male fields like construction and manufacturing than in female ones like healthcare and clerical work. As economist Barbara Bergmann wrote in an unpublished letter to the New York Times, “An important reason for the failure to reduce the gap between women’s and men’s average wages is that little progress has been made in reducing gender segregation in jobs that do not require a college degree.” Interestingly, according to the Wall Street Journal, on the professional end of the workforce, where men and women are more likely to have the same or similar jobs, as many women as men have been laid off.

It is indeed remarkable that women are half the workforce, but there’d be more to cheer about if they also earned an equal share of the pay. It may be easier to find a job as a home health aide than a welder, but male jobs tend to pay a lot more than female ones (and, one might add, do not involve a lot of deferential smiling). Men are still paid more, and promoted more, in virtually every field. American women are also the only women in the industrialized West with no legally mandated paid maternity leave. Mothers have half the chance of being hired as childless women, and for every two years they spend at home, they lose 10 percent of income–for life. In a recent New York Times Magazine piece, Belkin manages to note these and other dispiriting facts without ever acknowledging that it was her piece, “The Opt-Out Revolution,” that promoted, to much acclaim, both the notion that women don’t “run the world” because “they don’t want to” and the wacky idea that by quitting their jobs to tend the home, elite mothers would force employers hungry for their skills to make a family-friendly workplace. Neither is true. In a Washington Post online discussion of the census figures on stay-home mothers, sociologist Pamela Stone wrote, “The women I studied were NOT returning home primarily for family reasons, but were effectively being shut out of their jobs once they became moms.” As for flextime, shared jobs and other innovations Belkin thought employers would adopt to lure high-skilled mothers back to work, the recession has made such accommodations, always rare, unnecessary.

A woman’s nation? Hardly. But not quite a man’s world anymore either.