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September 1, 2011

You thought feminists had to focus on empowering women? Stephanie Coontz on why, after a sustained assault on families and unions, that just isn’t enough anymore.

coontz300wide.jpgOver the last half century America has made much progress toward equality of the sexes. Young women today are more likely than young men to have a college or master’s degree. Working-age women and men are in the workforce in nearly equal numbers. And overall instances of violence toward women have decreased significantly. “We’ve picked the low-hanging fruit,” says Stephanie Coontz. But now we have to reach higher.

Coontz is a historian and professor of family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and author most recently of A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.

“While before it was important to emphasize equal jobs and equal pay—not that we want to stop emphasizing that,” she says. (Women still earn, on average, only about 75 percent of their male counterparts’ salary.) “But now we have to recognize that most of the gains have been provided to the top 15 or 20 percent of the earners.”

Indeed, reproductive rights, child care, and education are available… to women who can afford to pay for them. But these services remain out of reach for women who can’t.

Further, and perhaps more importantly, these inequities don’t only affect women but whole families. After all, a woman who can’t afford day care can’t work either, leaving her family short one income, which creates a bigger burden for her partner.

In this way, Coontz argues, gender issues have entwined themselves with class issues. As have union issues: stripping the unions of bargaining power erodes middle-class job security. Those jobs belong to men and women who need to make enough money to support their families.

In this hyper-partisan age rife with threats to entitlement programs and reproductive rights, with Bush tax cuts and corporations calling themselves people, we are doing ourselves a disservice by keeping these issues separate.

“It’s extremely important for us to start talking more about how to answer this campaign, and not to divide things into a ‘woman’s issue’ over here and a ‘unions issue’ over there,” says Coontz. “It’s a full-scale attack on all the progress we made right after the Depression and then built upon in the ’60s, toward actually creating a social safety net and improving the security of all Americans.

“I get upset when I hear women’s groups talking about women’s poverty without linking that issue to the problem of declining real wages and increasing economic insecurity for less-educated men.”

In the end, it’s the American working-class family that suffers.

I heard Coontz, a confident and persuasive speaker, at KGB Bar in Manhattan not long after the publication of A Strange Stirring. The book begins by explaining the situation of women entering the 1960s, moves through Betty Friedan’s effect on women in America, for better and for worse, and ends with the precarious situation of the American family today. I spoke to her after about what exactly is at stake and how we found ourselves here.

—Katherine Dykstra for Guernica

Guernica: In your book, you mention that women were forced back into their homes and stripped of their jobs post–World War II. I wonder if there are any parallels to be drawn to what’s happening today with the Republican attempt to roll back social services.

Stephanie Coontz: Well, when you look at what happened after World War II, I think it’s a little more complicated than just forcing women back into their homes. Yes, one priority right after World War II was to get women out of the jobs that they had joined during the wartime emergency. Many of them were in “men’s jobs”—jobs that paid good wages and were challenging, physically, mentally—and there was a huge campaign to get women out of those jobs and to convince them to focus on making home life more comfortable for the husbands coming home from the war. Many women regretted leaving their jobs and losing the independence of their paychecks, but there was also a strong desire to start a family or focus on building the kind of comfortable home life that had been denied people during the war and was now possible with the explosion of home building and consumer goods in the postwar boom. So women were ambivalent themselves.

The benefits of feminism have been unequally distributed, because the move toward gender equality and gender neutrality has been countered to a large extent by the increase in economic inequality.

Then, as the postwar economy expanded, many government and business leaders began to believe that women workers were needed to fill shortages in the service sectors of the economy. So there was a campaign to get wives to rejoin the labor force after their children had reached a certain age. Of course this was not done for the sake of women’s emancipation, but from the need for a lower-paid, non-union segment of the labor force that could more easily be hired and fired or mobilized as part-time workers.

So there were these contradictory messages for women. You weren’t supposed to compete with men, and you were supposed to stay home when your children were young. But then you were supposed to stop being a “parasite” and go get a part-time or low-paid job that would contribute to the gross national product and our ability to out-produce the Soviet Union. But you shouldn’t get a job that paid enough to threaten your husband’s identity as the primary breadwinner or interested you enough to compete with your total absorption in your role as wife and mother. Advice books in the 1950s and 1960s actually said this!

There are equally contradictory messages today. Now middle-class women are encouraged to enter the rewarding and challenging careers that used to be reserved for men. But once they have children—which is typically just as their careers are hitting their strides—there is still a tremendous sense that becoming a full-time mother is the way to go. So there is all this social approval of career women “opting out.” But low-income women—the ones whose jobs make it much harder to combine motherhood with full-time employment—are now the ones considered parasites if they try to stay home with their kids. Instead they are pressured to find jobs, any jobs, no matter how ill paid or how long the commute and the work hours. Middle-class children are thought to “deserve” full-time mothers in the home; poor children are not. And at the same time many conservative legislators are pushing to restrict the ability of women, especially low-income women, to control when and if they have children. These mixed messages are too contradictory to be any kind of a conspiracy, but they end up harming both the mothers who want to go back to work and the ones whose jobs and neighborhoods are so rotten that they and their children would benefit from taking more time off from work.

[T]here has been such a wholescale, vehement attempt to dismantle the very last vestiges of the New Deal and the Great Society. And it’s been accompanied by so much misinformation and outright lies.

I don’t think the current pushback against women’s rights is going to take us back to the blatant inequality of the 1950s and early 1960s. We really have changed the cultural as well as the legal environment so that it’s no longer possible to engage in the outright gender discrimination that was so widespread then. One thing that writing [A Strange Stirring] showed me is how much we have to celebrate—what a tremendous way we’ve come in less than fifty years. And the gains of feminism were good for all women: millions of working women, of all races, have been able to move out of jobs they used to be stuck in, and women’s real wages, even among the lowest-paid workers, have been rising.

Still, the benefits of feminism have been unequally distributed, because the move toward gender equality and gender neutrality has been countered to a large extent by the increase in economic inequality. So when you look at the push against women today, it tends to run down the channels of class. Women who can afford it are probably still going to be able to get birth control and abortions. Educated, economically secure women are going to be able to put more cracks in the glass ceiling.

But the historical weight of gender inequality has tended to concentrate women in lower-paid jobs with fewer benefits and at the same time made them primarily responsible for care giving. And in our heated-up, stripped-down laissez-faire economy, women are not being provided the social support systems they need to get out of that cycle—things like affordable, quality child care; national health; decent parental-leave policies, for women and for men. So low-income women remain especially vulnerable.

In a sense we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit, getting rid of the blatant gender discrimination that used to relegate women to certain jobs and pay scales and exclude them from parts of life purely on the basis of gender. But now we have a more complex issue, and that is, how do we get equality for women who don’t start with the educational and economic resources they need to survive and thrive in an increasingly competitive and polarized economy?

Guernica: So what is standing in the way of completing the gender revolution?

Stephanie Coontz: I think there’s a very complex set of barriers. There is one group of people—social conservatives, religious conservatives—who honestly feel that women’s place is in the home and that wives should submit to their husbands. They make exceptions, in the case of Sarah Palin, for example, but that is their firm belief. They want to reestablish a kind of male breadwinning family in which women submit to their husbands and to their biological “destiny.” Even these people have been influenced by feminism, whether they know it or not. They condemn domestic violence and marital rape, but they believe that a strict division of labor between male breadwinner and female homemaker is the ideal family and so they oppose reforms that make it easier for women to remain single or to be working mothers.

Then there’s another group of people who oppose the family-friendly support policies we need to complete the gender revolution for different reasons. They are totally accepting of women controlling their own bodies if a woman can afford to do so through the private market. Gay marriage doesn’t bother them much. Women who can afford nannies are welcome to work outside the home. But they oppose social programs and want no restrictions placed on the private sector. So they are against family-friendly work policies and child-care programs and nationalized health, not so much to control women—though it often works out that way—as to push their agenda to privatize all of America.

For a while in postwar, unionized America it looked like we were moving toward a society where more people could build a secure life and raise a family on a forty-hour workweek with a pension waiting at the end.

Guernica: How should we react? What should we be organizing around right now?

Stephanie Coontz: Well, I think people are feeling fairly paralyzed right now because there has been such a wholescale, vehement attempt to dismantle the very last vestiges of the New Deal and the Great Society. And it’s been accompanied by so much misinformation and outright lies—think “death panels”—orchestrated by a very sophisticated PR machine that has the advantage of not being the least concerned with the accuracy of its claims.

I think that at this point it’s extremely important for us to start talking more about how to answer this campaign, and not to divide things into a “woman’s issue” over here and a “unions issue” over there. It’s a full-scale attack on all the progress we made right after the Depression and then built upon in the ’60s, toward actually creating a social safety net and improving the security of all Americans. I get upset when I hear women’s groups taking about women’s poverty without linking that issue to the problem of declining real wages and increasing economic insecurity for less-educated men. And I also think liberals have to stop talking so much about “compassion” for blacks or women and should pay equal attention to the crisis of working people who do have jobs. It’s a sad day when the main people talking about defending the working class are right-wing ideologues whose social programs are destroying the security of working Americans and fostering the concentration of wealth among the richest 10 percent of the population.

Guernica: You mentioned that the other night at KGB. Would you explain?

Stephanie Coontz: There’s a working-class tradition in this country of taking pride in working with your hands and being able to support your family. Sometimes that tradition has excluded women and blacks, but the point is to make that tradition more inclusive, not to devalue the idea that working hard to support yourself or your family is a good thing. The right wing has been really good at making it seem that liberals and feminists and antiracist activists are all looking for handouts—that we favor people who want handouts over people who want to work their own way through life. For a while in postwar, unionized America it looked like we were moving toward a society where more and more people could build a secure life and raise a family on a forty-hour workweek with a pension waiting at the end. But that whole way of life is being destroyed now. What the right wing has done is to single out the people who are still holding down jobs but are worried that they won’t have security in their old age or that their kids won’t get those jobs, and tell them that their problem is the poor people who are sucking off them. They’ve mobilized that rhetoric brilliantly to reach out to many of the same working and middle-class people whose position they are in fact eroding. I think [a lot of people] truly believe that if your job gets taken away from you because some industry moved away, you can start a small business of your own as long as there are no taxes, no kinds of restrictions on free enterprise.

Guernica: And are those the same messages that ultimately support huge corporations?

Stephanie Coontz: They do. But many people think free enterprise would work great—and big corporations would get cut down to size—if only government would get out of the way. It’s true that government regulations supposedly designed to help the little guy actually benefit big vested interests. But instead of blaming the corporations and lobbyists for corrupting the regulations, many people blame regulation in general. They see the government as an enabler of unfair economic practices, and liberals, I think, have been for the past thirty years so concerned with getting the trickle-down benefits of such government intervention that they’ve really been very neglectful of taking on the extent to which there has been corruption and misuse of the programs that we pay for with our taxes.

We are told, “You can be anything and you should be everything, but you have to do it without any support from society.”

Guernica: I watched a TED talk by Courtney E. Martin. Her speech was about where feminism stands today. She’s a young woman, and her talk crescendos with the word “overwhelmed.” She was saying she was overwhelmed by expectations that she should be successful in her career, be a good mother and wife, and change the world. In a way there is so much opportunity that she’s paralyzed by it. You end your book on this same note, where it’s not only women who perhaps feel overwhelmed but men as well—that men need to be successful in their careers and also help out at home and with the child rearing.

Stephanie Coontz: I think almost everybody feels overwhelmed by the number of expectations and choices we have in theory but the constraints we face in practice—and this is directly related to the lack of collective support or social support for working people in America today. We’re told, “You can be, as an individual, anything you want to be, but it must be at something else’s—or somebody else’s—expense.” Women are told that we can have the most exciting, glamorous, demanding, rewarding careers ever—but we also have to be constantly sexy and sexually interested, and when we have children we have to spend more time with our kids than homemakers spent with their kids back in the 1950s and early 1960s. Of course you can’t really do all three of those things at once, so we feel this tremendous stress. And even as men are also expected—and actually want—to pitch in more at home, they are still expected to be available 24/7 to their employers. At the same time, America has the least family-friendly work policies in the advanced industrial world, so both men and women in America report higher levels of work-family stress than in other countries.

And the privatization we’ve been talking about feeds into a vicious cycle that is really overwhelming. We are told, “You can be anything and you should be everything, but you have to do it without any support from society.” And as the middle class hollows out, with more people joining the ranks of the wealthy and the ranks of the economically insecure, we increasingly believe that the only way to maintain or work your way into an economically secure life is to go it alone.

I read this fascinating series of interviews in USA Today with people in all these job sectors that have been destroyed by the changing economy—people who used to have decent, well-paying jobs that didn’t put them in the upper crust but left them secure enough that they weren’t constantly scrambling to get more hours, to get more money, or to open another business on top of it. They interviewed this one guy who’d lost his former job, lost his pension, lost his health insurance, and was trying to work his way up again. And the reporter asked him what lessons he’d learned. His answer was he’d learned that the only thing you could rely on in life was yourself. That’s the opposite lesson that people took out of the Great Depression. What people learned from the Great Depression was that they had to rely on other people, and they had to allow themselves to be relied on.

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