We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Nothing transformed American lives in the last century more than the gender revolution. The empowerment of women redefined courtship, sex, marriage, and child-rearing. Women’s entry into the paid workforce, in particular, upended the bourgeois Victorian family model in which he battles in the marketplace and she nurtures in the home. In 1950 about one in five married women went off to work; in 2000 about three in five did. Now, after decades of such astonishing change, the gender revolution appears over—before its completion.
Last summer, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former high-flyer in the State Department, wrote a declaration of dependence, “Why Women Can’t Have it All,” which stirred up blogo-pandemonium. She argued that the gender revolution will never be completely won, because the emotional tug of family on women is too great, and the domestic urge of husbands is too slight. Then Marissa Mayer, the new head of Yahoo, returned to the office only two weeks after giving birth. “The baby’s been way easier than everyone made it out to be,” she proudly announced, signaling, to the outrage of struggling mothers that, for her at least, the revolution had already succeeded.
Several weeks ago, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg turned the Mayer moment into what she hopes will be a social movement. Her new book Lean In argues that “ [Women] hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” Her Lean In Community provides confidence-building and hand-raising sessions for women. Critics charge that she is blaming women for their limited ascent in the corporate world when the problem is sexism in the suites. Critics also fault her for overvaluing careers themselves. Former Facebooker Kate Losse made both those attacks in a recent essay, explaining, “I decided to leave Facebook because I saw ahead of me . . . an unending race of pure ambition, where no amount of money or power is enough and work is forever. While I am not unambitious, this wasn’t my ambition.”
Anne-Marie Slaughter is not the first to declare that the gender revolution would fall short and that total victory might not even be worth winning. A front-page New York Times story from 1980 (when Sheryl Sandberg was only eleven years old) reported on a survey of thousands of women attending elite colleges, with the takeaway that these late baby-boomers would delay or submerge careers for their children. For them the revolution was over, finished or not. Some “resented . . . pressures imposed by feminism: to work, to marry, to raise families without providing the answers to how all this should be done.” A 1982 Time story on how professional women were stepping out to have babies quoted columnist Ellen Goodman: “You find women who have believed work is the end-all and be-all. But after eight years, they say, just like the housewives, ‘Is this all there is?’” Feminist analysts worried that the revolution had stalled because employers—and male partners—had not yet really accommodated working women. Wives, in particular, faced what sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1989 called the “second shift” of family duties at the end of a long workday.
Nonetheless, the revolution kept on rolling, through schools, offices, and our cultural assumptions. But not anymore.
I focus on young, college-graduate women, between the ages of 24 and 44, labeling them for brevity YCGW. Their enthusiasm for joining the workforce appears to have peaked in the 1990s.
Data from the Current Population Surveys, courtesy of the University of Minnesota’s IPUMS Center, show a modest but real reversal in employment. Around 1965, 67 percent of YCGW, today well into old age, were in the workforce. Around 1990, about 86 percent of them, largely baby boomers, worked for pay—a momentous nineteen-point increase. But around 2005, before the Great Recession hit, only 81 percent worked or looked for work, a drop of five points. In the mid-2000s, few of the non-workers among them said that they wanted a job—7 percent, down from 9 percent ten years before.
By the late 1960s, 54 percent of the married mothers among the YCGW were already in the labor force; that rate soared to about 75 percent in the mid-1990s. A decade later, however, the rate had fallen to 72 percent. (By contrast, at least 98 percent of comparable fathers were in the labor force.)
But are we seeing a rebound? Once the Great Recession hit, YCGW’s labor force participation returned to levels of the mid-1990s. Circa 2010, as in the mid-’90s, 9 percent of those not in the labor force said that they wanted to be in.
Which of the two trends—the post-’90s drop in work or the current rebound in work—augurs the future? Has the gender revolution been re-energized?
The rate of young, college-graduate women joining the workforce peaked in the 1990s and has since declined steadily.
Birth rates suggest not. More college graduates are having babies, and they are having them earlier. According to Vital Statistics data, in 1995, 54 percent of first-time mothers with four or more years of college were over 30 years old, continuing a three-decade trend of delayed parenting. By 2002, however, the figure had dropped to 50 percent. Economists Qingyan Shang and Bruce A. Weinberg conducted a thorough analysis of childbearing through 2008 and found that college-graduate women in the 2000s had more children than comparable women did in the 1990s.
YCGW’s attitudes about work also suggest that the gender revolution has peaked. In the 1970s, 98 percent of YCGW approved of married women earning money even if they had an employed husband. This fell to 91 percent in the 1990s. Other data also point to little change in the last generation in YCGW’s views on women at work.
In sum, the evidence on work, births, and opinions together suggests at least a leveling off, perhaps even a decline, in YCGW’s commitment to work since the heyday of the late twentieth century. To what extent this shift resulted from changing YCGW or from battle fatigue on the family-work front remains unclear.
Perhaps we have reached a new equilibrium. Given the constraints of our economy and social programs, given the norms of our culture, about 80 percent of highly educated young women, and 70 percent of the mothers among them, will work, give or take economic cycles. Maybe the great wave of social change has simply crested.
Or perhaps our current economically fraught years foretell the future. More YCGW will work, like their less-educated sisters do now, because the new economy does not provide sufficient male employment. (Less-educated women did not work any less after the mid-’90s.) Americans will have to accept female breadwinners and maybe even male caretakers, although Philip Cohen’s article in the last issue of this magazine strongly rebuts the claim that the rise of women will soon make men economically dispensable.
Or perhaps once we are past the current crisis, YCGW will continue the swing back toward an older gender system. Returning to the ’50s is hard to imagine, but the late ’60s might not be. How could this happen? Many of the YCGW may look at their own second-shift mothers and declare that they will not make the same personal sacrifices. Many may decide that undoing the “motherhood penalty” in the workplace is too hard. Rising costs for informal childcare thanks to immigration reform and renewed economic growth may keep many YGCW at home.
Or perhaps one more big social policy push can bring full gender equality. Mothers in northern European countries work at rates about ten percentage points higher than American mothers do. However, they largely work at “feminine” part-time jobs because Scandinavian policies make it easy to work part-time but costly to stay home. American mothers mostly work full-time or not at all because part-time jobs here, sociologist Alex Janus suggests, have difficult hours, low pay, and negligible benefits. The Scandanavian model seems, despite great egalitarian efforts, to reinforce female-first care-giving.
Even if American YCGW are recalculating the work-family balance, the proportion opting out of the workplace is, so far, small. Moreover, other aspects of the gender revolution appear firmly fixed. For example, YCGW continue, in ever greater numbers, to endorse sexual freedom and women’s political participation. But while highly successful mothers such as Slaughter and Sandberg carry on heated arguments about having it all, last century’s greatest wave of social change does seem to be ebbing.
Editor’s note: this is a revised edition of Claude S. Fischer’s March/April 2013 print column titled, “Is the Gender Revolution Over.”
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
David Hogg and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz discuss replacement theory, the gunman’s manifesto, and how we organize against violent white supremacy.
Companies are unreliable allies in the fight for queer rights and social justice. We must rebuild a working people’s movement.
Decades of biological research haven’t improved diagnosis or treatment. We should look to society, not to the brain.