Not Everything Has Changed

The Unfinished Revolution: How a New Generation is Reshaping Family, Work, and Gender in Americain America by Kathleen Gerson, Oxford University Press, 297 pages, $24.95

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins, Little, Brown and Co., 480 pages, $27.99

My upbringing was something of an anachronism. My dad went to work every morning at the family business (where his father and grandfather had both worked), and my mom spent her days at home with me and my brother and sister. She made us breakfast, drove us to school, did all of the housework, picked us up, shuttled us to piano lessons or basketball practice, and when my dad came through the door again at 6 P.M., she had a solid, Midwestern dinner (meat, potatoes, vegetables, bread -- sometimes all combined conveniently in casserole form) ready and waiting. My parents rarely, if ever, fought in front of us. We went to church every single Sunday, no exceptions. That's the way it was for all 18 years of my childhood. And as far as I'm aware, my parents were both happy with this arrangement.

Even though I was born in 1982, I grew up much the same way both of my parents did in the late 1950s and 1960s -- but very differently from the majority of my peers. At 27, I'm in the middle of the generation that is the subject of Kathleen Gerson's book, The Unfinished Revolution. American men and women who are between ages 18 and 32 have "no well-worn paths to follow" when it comes to navigating the complexities of career and family, Gerson says, because of economic and social shifts that have made the male-breadwinner, female-caretaker model nearly obsolete. Even women who were raised in such an arrangement, like me, understand that work will be a part of the rest of their life, for both personal fulfillment and economic reasons. Across race, class, and gender lines, my generation sees work as absolutely key. This is perhaps why those of us who were raised by stay-at-home moms are much more likely than children raised by working mothers to feel conflicted about our mother's choice. The majority of us don't desire that life for ourselves.

The economic and social shifts that have made arrangements like my parents' increasingly rare are chronicled with a broader scope in When Everything Changed, Gail Collins' 480-page attempt to tell the history of American women over the past 50 years. Broadly speaking, Collins and Gerson seem to get it right: When it comes to how our society is organized along gender lines, everything is indeed different than it was in the 1950s -- but the transformation is far from complete. We are today, and have been for the past several decades, stuck in a bit of a lurch. Most women are not able or content to confine their lives to the domestic sphere, and most men recognize that. Yet we are still very far from implementing the kinds of social programs and workplace changes that would make it possible for all Americans to simultaneously raise children and be successful at work. Something's gotta give.

What usually gives is women's work lives -- usually not in the form of women retreating from the work force but in the form of them working lower-paid and less prestigious jobs. "The mommy track," as it was dubbed in the 1990s, still seems to be the way middle- and upper-class couples reconcile the work/family squeeze. Most men and women Gerson talked to -- gay or straight, coupled or single -- say they want to be in committed but autonomous relationships that offer both them and their partner a happy balance between work and home life. But young men and women have very different backup plans if (or, more likely, when) they are unable to achieve that egalitarian balance. "Reversing the argument that women are returning to tradition," Gerson writes, "men are more likely to want to count on a partner at home. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to see paid work as essential to providing for themselves and their children in a world where they may not be able to count on a man." Given that men's default position is women's careers taking a backseat, is it any wonder that, despite a raft of chick flicks and New York Times Style-section articles that say otherwise, women are more likely to be wary of traditional marriage arrangements?

Gerson dubs these women "self-reliant" and the men "neo-traditional" -- though I'd argue there's nothing "neo" about men who see their own career as most important but are happy to have the income their wife brings in. Throughout most of the decades covered in Collins' book, young people professed an interest in constructing relationships that were more equitable than their parents'. And so far every generation has fallen short. In one late 1970s survey, Collins writes, men said their ideal was "an equal marriage of shared responsibility," but in another poll they largely agreed with the statement "It is more important for a wife to help her husband's career than to have one herself." Collins acknowledges that, by the 1980s, "for all its achievements, the women's movement had not managed to solve the work/family divide." This is what Gerson finds, over and over. Yes, progress has been made but, contrary to Collins' title, not everything has changed. True, less than a third of the men Gerson interviewed say they want a relationship with strict gender boundaries. (Only one in seven women says the same.) But aspirations are only a sliver of the story.

This is why I found myself wishing Gerson had interviewed a slightly older cohort. It's all very interesting to read about the plans and hopes of young people raised in the feminist era who have yet to start juggling children and career. It would have been another thing altogether to hear about these issues from 30-somethings who were also raised in an era of feminism but are already in the process of trying to reconcile their ideals with reality. Some of the women Gerson interviewed have yet to start a family, while others have yet to start a career. She notes that a "mommy gap" is developing between middle- and upper-class women who defer childbearing (the birth rate for women ages 35 to 44 has increased steadily over the past 30 years) and working-class and poor women who are more likely to have children first and build their careers later. "Both groups," Gerson writes, "are underemphasizing marriage." And both groups "feel caught between domesticity's drawbacks and equality's elusiveness." As one young woman said to her, "When people find out I stay home, they look at me as less of a person. But when they enter the working environment, women still have to work twice as hard to get the same recognition as men. I know I did."

Is it any wonder heterosexual men are generally less skeptical than women are about marriage and parenting? Women (especially those with children) still face considerable workplace barriers in many professions, while marriage brings men a raft of personal, financial, and social benefits. Young men are not so naive as to think their partner will never hold a job, but when it comes to making the hard choices about balancing work and family, a majority tell Gerson that their wives will be the ones to "shift down" their careers, which the men see as "extra" or "non-essential." Although they pay lip service to the idea of egalitarian relationships, many seem to think equality means offering their partner the option of holding a job -- not taking on 50 percent homemaking and caregiving responsibilities themselves because they view their partner's career as equally valuable. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Collins notes that the households that most successfully navigate the work/family squeeze are those headed by lesbian couples.)

The title of Collins' book refers to the 1960s and early 1970s, a time when a unique confluence of political and social events led to a push for "amazing" gains for women. She's absolutely right that economic factors, along with the civil-rights and anti-war movements, created an environment primed for women's liberation. But while it has not had the benefit of what Collins calls a "perfect storm" of factors, feminist activism has continued every subsequent decade. Collins completely misses this thread of continued women's-rights activism -- and how women's rights have become increasingly intertwined with efforts for gay rights, civil rights, and labor rights. If her book were the whole story, we could assume that all agitating on behalf of women ground to a halt in the late 1970s. She doesn't mention the 2004 March for Women's Lives, which drew half a million marchers to Washington. She cites the popularity and circulation of Ms. magazine in the 1970s but fails to mention how widely read feminist blogs are today. (Feministing.com, where I am a contributor, is read by 600,000 people each month -- more than Ms.' readership of 500,000 in 1977.) There remains widespread interest in furthering the status of American women. Still, Collins quotes Erica Jong lamenting that "the things I fought for are now considered quaint." But as Gloria Steinem likes to note, this is precisely what many of 1960s feminists were working for: to have their daughters start from a better place than they did and work forward from there.

Today, Collins writes, the biggest factor contributing to the wage gap is not likely to be overt sexism or discrimination, though there is some of that (just ask Lilly Ledbetter). It is "almost certainly" due to women's "tendency to drop out of the workforce or to scale back to part-time employment when they had children." As women's work-force participation steadily climbed in the decades following World War II, men may have felt they were losing standing at work by competing with women for jobs, but they stood to gain at home. A wife with a nonthreatening wage-earning job eased the economic burden. In the 2000s, Collins writes, "the question was no longer whether [women] would have jobs but whether they would be able to stick with them consistently enough to make real progress when it came to paychecks and work satisfaction." We have come to a point where women will be able to achieve fulfilling careers only when we make clear that families -- and, by extension, men -- stand to gain when parents are willing to make equal sacrifices.

This is not a battle that can be won with legal challenges or legislation. Yes, it would undoubtedly be greatly aided by the passage of major social policies such as universal child care. But at its core, this is a fight that plays out within homes and between partners. And as Gerson's research makes clear, the fight has not changed all that dramatically in the past 30 years. The public revolution may be unfinished, but the private revolution has barely begun.

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