Works in Progress - Summer 2011

Feminism, Plus 50

By Stephanie Coontz | June 24, 2013


Stephanie Coontz is professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College and author of the recent A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. We asked her to pose questions on the status of women in the age of Hillary Rodham Clinton and on the prospects and expectations of men and women today.

1. In 1963 Betty Friedan famously decried the prevailing culture’s feminine mystique that was encouraging women to give up their individual aspirations and seek complete fulfillment through the achievements of their husbands as sons. Today most girls and women feel entitled to take on any challenge that interests them and see no need to choose between work and love. But the masculine mystique is still alive and well. While girls are encouraged to aspire to traditionally male activities, boys are bullied and penalized when they gravitate toward traditionally female activities and problem-solving techniques. How can we validate the positive aspects of traditional masculinity without encouraging the chauvinism that is often attached to “chivalry” and the patriarchal attitudes that were for so long the flip side of protectiveness?

2. We have made extraordinary progress since 1963 in rooting out the legal disabilities and unfair social treatment of women. But has this undercut the sources of solidarity among women? All women share an interest in controlling their own reproductive decisions and reducing their vulnerability to sexual exploitation, rape and domestic violence. Most women support equal pay for equal work but also want more time and support for their care-giving responsibilities. Yet women make diverging assessments about how to protect these common interests, relative to their position in the class structure and their current family arrangements. And as middle-class women gained access to desirable jobs and promotions, many could not sustain their rewarding work lives if they had to pay their domestic help what that difficult labor is really worth. Is there a feminist agenda that can meet the differing needs of women all along the class hierarchy, or do we need to ask, in the words of the old labor union song, “Which side are you on?”

3. Is it time to discard the feminist critique of marriage? Domestic violence rates have been halved since 1980. Husbands have more than doubled the time they spend on housework over the past 35 years and tripled their time doing childcare. On average, women still put in more hours at home (though one-third of American wives now say their husbands do half or more of the housework and/or the childcare). But men put in more hours at the job. The result is a work week that is approximately equal. Still, most women snap into “default parent” mode when childcare requires one partner to cut back on work, and they pay a heavy price for this in long-term earnings and promotion prospects. This often traps them in low-quality jobs, and makes them especially vulnerable to poverty afar a divorce or a husband’s death or disability. Meanwhile, these patterns reinforce a father’s second-class status at home, depriving children of paternal time and attention. Can we construct family policies that encourage more equal sharing of breadwinning and nurturing without penalizing families that choose or are fired into more traditional divisions of labor?

4. Is it time to retire the term male privilege? As late as 1970, the average female college graduate, working full-time year-round, earned less than the average male high school graduate. Men were guaranteed access to the best jobs, and they faced few social penalties for “bad behavior,” whether it be sexual harassment, domestic violence, or infidelity. Even today, men earn more over a lifetime than women, largely because women generally assume the responsibilities of childrearing and housekeeping. While women commonly pay a “motherhood penalty” at work, most married men get what might be called a “fatherhood bonus.” But for many working-class men, what R.W. Connell calls “the patriarchal dividend” has been drastically cut back. Women’s real wages have risen in all educational levels, but those of men without a college degree have been falling. By 2007 the average employed 25- to 29-year-old man with a high school degree earned almost $4 less per hour (in constant dollars) than his counterpart did in 1979. He was also three times more likely to experience job insecurity or lose benefits than in the past. A man who uses physical force or sexual aggression against a spouse or coworker to compensate for these economic threats to his manhood no longer gets an automatic pass and may now find himself jailed for behaviors that used to be male prerogatives. Do we need new tools for analyzing the intersection of gender, race, class, and family inequities?

5. Is the rise of gender-equal marriages increasing other forms of social inequality? Individuals have become more likely to marry a spouse with similar education, and highly educated Americans are far more likely to have dual-earner marriages than less-educated couples, widening the income gap in society. What will it mean for social mobility if low-income couples and individuals continue to be outbid in the market for quality childcare, houses in neighborhoods with good schools, enrichment programs, and affordable college tuition?

6. Friedan argued in The Feminine Mystique that a preoccupation with sexual gratification or fulfillment often reflected the absence of other sources of meaning in a woman’s life. Was Friedan’s view just another instance of second-wave feminism’s “antisex prudery,” or was it a prescient critique of our culture’s preoccupation with sexuality–one valid for men as well as for women? When does a focus on “sexual empowerment” actually benefit women and when does it contribute to a skewed and limiting definition of self?

7. While divorce rates of college-educated Americans have been falling, relationship instability among those with a high-school degree or less has risen. This reflects a cycle of economic and interpersonal insecurity that challenges successful child rearing. How can we strengthen relationships of lower-income Americans without restigmatizing divorce and single parenthood or pressuring women to stay in bad relationships?

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus