This year marks the 45th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Today, many social conservatives still blame Friedan and feminism for inducing women to abandon the home for the workplace, thus destabilizing families and placing their children at risk.
But feminism was always more of a response to women entering the labor force than its cause. In Western Europe and the US, early capitalism drew huge numbers of young, single women into industries like textiles. Mill owners often built dormitories to house young female workers. Many of these workers became early supporters of both the anti-slavery and the women’s rights movements, while middle-class women were energized by (and sometimes envious of) working women’s vigorous participation in the public sphere.
By the time Friedan’s book was published in 1963, capitalism was drawing married women into the expanding service, clerical and information sectors. Friedan’s ideas spoke to a generation of women who were starting to view paid work as something more than a temporary break between adolescence and marriage, and were frustrated by society’s insistence that the only source of meaning in their lives should be their role as housewives.
Wherever women enter the labor force in large numbers, certain processes unfold. Women begin to marry later and have fewer children, especially as they make inroads into higher education or more remunerative careers. They are also more likely to challenge laws and customs that relegate them to second-class status in the public sphere or mandate their subordination within the family. Often, governments and employers then find that it is in their interest to begin to remove barriers to women’s full participation.
The dramatic decrease in laws and customs perpetuating female subordination over the past 40 years has been closely connected to women’s expanded participation in paid employment. Societies where women remain substantially under-represented in the labor market, such as in the Middle East, remain especially resistant to women’s rights.
Political scientist Michael Ross argues that the extreme gender inequality found in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is not caused by the intractability of Islamic tradition. Rather, it is the result of how oil wealth shifted economic development away from manufacturing jobs that have historically pulled women into the labor force, while promoting jobs in construction, which tend to be dominated by men. Within the Muslim Middle East, the oil-rich states score much lower on indices of gender equity than oil-poor states such as Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon and Syria.
Social conservatives are wrong to blame women’s entry into work on feminism. But women who work are much more likely to adopt feminist-inspired agendas and to reject traditional ideas about marriage. And when women gain economic and political clout, traditional family life is, indeed, destabilized. In Western Europe and North America, divorce rates soared as married women poured into the workplace in the 1970s and 1980s, with women initiating most divorces. Although divorce rates leveled off in the 1990s, cohabitation and unwed childbearing have continued to rise.
Nevertheless, the best hope for improving family life today is not to roll back women’s rights, but to further women’s economic and political integration. Increases in women’s power and resources are most threatening to family stability in societies marked by gender inequality, where successful women often rebel against marriage. In countries such as Japan, Italy and Singapore, where the terms of marriage remain favorable to men, and women have a hard time combining work and family, working women postpone marriage and motherhood much longer than in the US, leading to declines in birth rates that threaten these societies’ future.
As women gain collective rights, and especially as men accept women’s changed roles, many of the disruptive effects of family change are ameliorated. In the US, divorce rates for well-educated women are now much lower than for less-educated women, and women with good jobs or who have completed college are more likely than more traditional women to be married at age 35. In the past, when a stay-at-home wife went to work, the chance that her marriage would dissolve increased. Today, going to work decreases the chance of divorce. In families where the wife has been employed longer, men tend to do more and better child-care, with measurable payoffs in child outcomes.
Of course, marriage will never again be as stable or predictable as when women lacked alternatives. But even where family change continues apace, it has far fewer negative consequences when women have access to economic rights than when they do not.
In the Nordic countries, out-of-wedlock births are much higher than in the US, but children of single mothers are much less likely to experience poverty, and spend more time on average with both biological parents, because cohabitation there is more stable than in many US marriages.
In poorer countries, women’s access to paid labor is a better predictor of children’s well-being than the stability of marriage. In parts of Africa and Latin America, children are better nourished and have more access to education in female-headed households where the woman has a job than in two-parent households where the man earns the income. Children from female-headed households in Kenya, Malawi and Jamaica, for example, do as well or better than children from male-headed households in their long-term nutritional and health status, despite lower household income.
Far from being a threat to family life, the further progress of women’s rights may be our best hope for well-functioning families.
Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families.
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