It’s been 45 years since Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. Via The Global Sociology Blog, I’ve just read this op/ed by historian Stephanie Coontz – author of Marriage, A History – writing in the Guardian to mark the anniversary. Coontz deftly turns many of the usual anti-feminist narratives on their head.
Today, many social conservatives still blame Friedan and feminism for inducing women to abandon the home for the workplace, thus destabilising families and placing their children at risk. But feminism was more of a response to women entering the labour force than its cause.
In Western Europe and the United States, 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 energised 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 labour 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 labour market, such as in the Middle East, remain especially resistant to women’s rights
A couple of observations are to the point.
First, there’s a very striking issue here for those who would argue that the status of women in Middle Eastern societies is to be primarily attributed to religion (a discourse which itself disempowers and disdains the validity of the choices many Islamic women make) and falsely attribute women’s gains to some sort of hyper-secularism, resembling French laicite much more closely than anything that goes by that name in countries with an English heritage. That – of course – completely ignores that the status and position of women in France and Turkey (the only other country that historically really does secularism in the essentially anti-clericalist way it’s done in France) is not particularly well correlated with public discourses and practices about the religious, but rather with economic and consequent social change.
In fact these same people – let’s call them “feminists of convenience” – are often most reluctant, to put it as charitably as I can, to endorse any legislative change which would expand women’s rights in the domestic workplace, and to want to simultaneously declare Western societies to be post-feminist and to blame “Western Feminists” for the absence of women’s rights in Middle Eastern societies (again completely effacing and silencing actually existing Middle Eastern women, except for a select few who provide object lessons in some sort of weird political game). Instead we get all sorts of back to the kitchen mantras, panics over fertility, and attributions of selfishness to women who want to lead a professional or vocational life, and generally function within the public sphere.
Secondly, the association of the needs of capitalism for an expanded labour force and various rights movements is not highlighted – neo-liberal “cosmopolitan” arguments are relatively upfront about the functionality for the economy of sucking in as much labour as possible – including that of women and often migrant women (as spectacularly in the US but also in many other countries including this one), but seek to deny that collective social movements and struggle have anything to do with our advancement once we get there. There’s a “business case”, but no feminist movement, or there shouldn’t be a feminist movement. In fact the historical dialectic of the expansion of the social relations of labour under capital is closely interlinked with working people’s own struggles for a fairer share, and feminism – historically – can be seen (but not reductively) in this light. But in the sphere of globalised human capital, it’s always enlightened employers who deign to grant rights, and the plight of many working women is completely overwritten and turned around by an exclusive concentration on the middle class professional women and her apparently selfish choices. The women who clean the CEO’s office and change the sheets in the Human Resources Manager’s hotel room conveniently fade from view.
Coontz has something else interesting to tell us:
“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 favourable 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 less 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 American marriages.
In poorer countries, women’s access to paid labour 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.
I’m no defender of the “institution of marriage” as such, and indeed my hesitation about the campaign for same sex marriage relates to a belief that we should give voice to and name all sorts of pluralistic forms of relationship which don’t fit into the trad family mould, but it’s interesting to see that the “defence of marriage” in the United States should actually revolve around championing the rights of women to education and to careers. On the evidence. I’m not familiar with any comparable statistics or studies in Australia, and I’d be very interested if anyone could point me to any. But I’m not surprised to find further evidence for the proposition that most of the talk in the public domain about women is completely out of kilter with reality.
And I want to tip my hat to Betty Friedan! For her contributions to continued Enlightenment… 😉
Elsewhere: Skepticlawyer picks up on Coontz’ work to argue divorce may be a good thing.