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.