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Women at Work

Most women work because the money they bring home makes the effort worthwhile. A family allowance that would allow those who want to do so to stay at home would have to be fairly large, considerably more than current welfare stipends, which leave 83 percent of their recipients below the poverty line. Figures for 1984, the most recent we have, show that families headed by women who work full time average $22,799 in earnings. I suspect it would take allowances close to that to induce them to quit their jobs.

Among married couples, more than a third have already accepted that only the husband will work, and they have done this without expecting subsidies. Moreover, this arrangement is as common among lower-income families as among the affluent. Indeed, for many of the families Fallows has in mind, allowances would bolster an already comfortable living standard. The one subvention we currently have, child-care credits toward the federal income tax, is used mainly by families in the middle-income brackets.

Both Hewlett and Fallows are espousing what might be called a “postfeminist” position, one also voiced by Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer.3 In their view, the movement not only oversold the joys and benefits of careers, but underestimated the importance of other experiences in women’s lives. Indeed, they contend, many younger women are coming to realize that being a good parent cannot be combined with demanding work. In this connection, Hewlett and Fallows remind us that many women still put their households and husbands first, and have no wish to enter the job market. Nor are they attracted by talk of equality and rights, at least as usually phrased.

Jane Mansbridge analyzes these attitudes in the forthcoming Why We Lost the ERA, an original and perceptive study of the ill-fated amendment. Ronald Reagan notwithstanding, few men had strong opinions either way. The real battles took place among women. Those most strongly for the amendment tended to be better educated, interested in careers, and liberal or radical in outlook. While most women told pollsters that they favored ERA, in fact many had misgivings, which were passed on to legislators. Virtually all the anti-ERA mail came from housewives, whose concern was less the actual amendment than their feeling that “the social respect once accorded to homemakers was eroding.” Indeed, progress in opening up employment reinforced this resentment:

When employers opened good jobs to women, the beneficiaries were highly educated women who had decided not to become full-time homemakers…. For less-educated women, homemaking remained the job of choice, but it lost social standing as high-status women abandoned it…. A job once perceived as noble now seemed distinctly plebeian.

Mansbridge portrays the bitterness of women who found themselves replying that they were “only” a housewife, not only to men but to other women. What they sought to defeat was not simply an amendment, but an attitude and an atmosphere that seemed to devalue their lives.

Lenore Weitzman identifies another group that has not been well served by recent reforms. With the advent of “no-fault” divorce, it is now possible to end a marriage without setting out the reasons. Evidence of adultery and cruelty no longer lead to alimony, not least because such awards were deemed demeaning to women. Judges now regard the two spouses as equals, with the corollary that an ex-wife should be able to support herself. However, the problem, as shown in The Divorce Revolution, is that only a third of all wives had worked full time before they were divorced. And most of those had modest jobs designed to bring in supplementary income. The group that rouses Weitzman’s greatest concern are older women, the fastest growing group among those being divorced. “My husband decided he wanted a younger woman,” a wife of thirty years told Weitzman. “But I’m the one who is being punished.” Another spoke for many when she said, “There is no way I can make up for 25 years out of the labor force.”

Weitzman says, “Divorce is a financial catastrophe for most women,” citing a study showing income declines of 75 percent. Since her book’s interviews took place within a year of the breakups, we never learn how many landed on their feet. In fact, most “displaced homemakers” find jobs and manage decently, albeit at a lower living standard. While they were married, I suspect many held the views Mansbridge describes as defeating ERA. Their experience with the illusory equality of no-fault divorce may have confirmed that opinion.

Kathleen Gerson’s Hard Choices is the best book I have come across on the subject of women and work. She uses her interviews with sixty-three women to uncover varying experiences and attitudes, all of which she analyzes with sensitivity and insight. In so doing, she shows how theories about “gender” obscure much of the reality of women’s lives. According to the so-called structural approach, since men create and control most major institutions, they delineate the choices open to women. “Socialization” theories, on the other hand, stress the ways personalities are shaped, so youngsters accept aspirations deemed suitable for their sex. Gerson points out that actual conditions do not always reflect these hypotheses. You may be raised to expect that motherhood will be the center of your life. However, facts like a divorce and children to support soon counteract that kind of upbringing. And while men still have dominant power, many women are finding not only that they like working, but that chances for advancement are greater than they ever realized. Hard Choices reveals “rising work aspirations” and “ambivalence toward motherhood” among all classes:

I discovered I had lots of skills and talents I didn’t know I had…. There was this whole new me I didn’t know existed.

I got to be an expert at working with field crews and engineers…. I had always just wanted to be a clerk, but I decided I would like to be a boss.

Work makes me feel like a whole person. This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt so good.

Some of Gerson’s respondents found they weren’t cut out for full-time motherhood, while others decided not to have children at all. Several were dubious about marriage:

Little babies aren’t what people tell you they will be. There isn’t a whole hell of a lot you can do with a child four or five months old…. I tried staying home six months. I was ready for the looney farm.

Staying home was not for me. I loved my children dearly, and…I loved my husband dearly. But I wasn’t going to sacrifice my life for these individuals.

I’ve never been interested in children. I’m really scared of kids, scared of the responsibility, scared of what I could do to their minds, to their lives.

I have a tremendous skepticism about men.

I don’t know anybody who says he wants an egalitarian relationship.

The women Gerson spoke with strike me as extremely sensible. Many of them put in doubt Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s dictum that all women “yearn to have children.” Far too many people become parents for the wrong reasons, or no reason at all. Women who give priority to careers are no more “selfish” than parents who press their offspring into preconceived molds. Nor is it a service to youngsters to bring them into the world if you lack the temperament to raise them properly. The title of Hard Choices is meant to be taken literally. Women who choose full-time employment must make daily decisions about which corners to cut. Like whether you will jeopardize your job if you take time off to see your child in a school play.


Three recent court cases have considered the conditions women confront in the world of work. Whether they “need more than equal treatment” was the issue in California Federal Savings and Loan v. Guerra. The question was the kind law professors love: Would the principle that all workers must be treated equally be violated by requiring extra benefits for employees who become pregnant? The Federal Pregnancy Disability Act of 1978 simply states there cannot be any discrimination against women in this condition. They shall, the statute reads, “be treated the same for all employment-related purposes” as other workers who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.” However, a California law went further, specifying that women who give birth may take a leave of several months and must have their jobs kept for their return. This could be construed not merely as equality, but as special treatment, since the law made no parallel provision for men. Thus a man who had a heart attack could not demand his job back when he recovered. The statute was upheld by California courts, and the Supreme Court has decided to hear an appeal next year.

Both the Justice Department and employers’ groups have asked that the California law be nullified, since it affords one group of citizens preferential treatment. As it happens, both the National Organization of Women and the American Civil Liberties Union also support that view. “What we women have been saying all along is we want to be treated equally,” Dianne Feinstein, San Francisco’s mayor, stated. “I don’t think the work market has to accommodate itself to women having children.” Nor are those taking this position necessarily being callous. Opponents of maternity benefits worry that once women are taken to be a different class of workers, they can be discriminated against. Special provisions have a long history. Women were not allowed to work at night, or take jobs lifting heavy loads, allegedly for their own good or to protect them from exploitation. Such laws are now held to be demeaning and prejudicial. Moreover, if added benefits mean extra costs, employers may choose not to hire women who could end up having children.

This issue is not one of biology or, for that matter, language. Obviously men and women differ, just as variations may be found within either gender. The question—which we have had to face with racial issues—is whether taking note of certain differences can have results it would be better to avoid. One solution is to get rid of maternity benefits altogether, and replace them with parental provisions that do not depend on disability. Thus fathers or mothers, or both together, could be allowed specified periods to care for an infant while their jobs were being held. Not surprisingly, the Swedes are sensible on this score. According to Ruth Sidel, more than a quarter of eligible fathers take parental leave at the time of childbirth.4 Swedish law also permits employees to stay home to care for sick children, with almost as many fathers as mothers taking on this task. Insofar as there are medical reasons why mothers should take time off before and after a birth, that part of the leave comes under generic surgical benefits, as would a prostate operation for a man.

  1. 3

    Betty Friedan, The Second Stage (Summit, 1982); Germaine Greer, Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility (Harper and Row, 1984).

  2. 4

    Ruth Sidel, Women and Children Last (Viking, 1986), pp. 181–182.

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