Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reading Notes: When Everything Changed, Part 3

Like I mentioned about Part Two of Gail Collins' When Everything Changed, any movement of social change can generally be described as backlash against backlash against backlash. And the first chapter of the final Part Three—"Following Through"—is aptly titled..."Backlash."

All the extreme feminism you think of about the 1960s—the hairy armpits, protests, and free love—stayed in the 1960s. The 1970s were a lot more realistic. Remember that Equal Rights Amendment? Well, it still hadn't been passed and ratified by the early seventies, because people were turned off by the extremism the feminist movement seemed to have taken. And unfortunately for women's liberation, the ERA got tied to a whole lot of other controversial social movements at the time...such as abortion and gay rights. The ERA kind of became a symbol of a new liberal society and lifestyle, and there was strong backlash from the traditional side. [A note from the future: The ERA was never ratified. It was granted an extension until 1982 but the movement lost steam in that time. As Collins states, " was apparent that anxiety was triumphing over hope."]

Despite a backlash from traditionalists, the women's movement was still going strong in the 1970s. One woman symbolizes this decade perfectly, and that woman is Mary Richards. Yes, Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

In the 1970s, the American economy TANKED, so women had to go to work. Yes, an increasing number had joined the workforce by choice (or to maintain a higher standard of living) ever since the early sixties, but now it was economic necessity as women brought in an estimated 40% of a family's income. Suddenly, housewife was something almost looked down upon. Where women of the 1960s said, "Woohoo, I made it to the working world," women of the 1970s said, "Well, of course I'm here, dammit. Why wouldn't I be?" Women had gained a lot in the sixties, and now they were figuring out how to use all this new power to "set off on a new course." And this was Mary Richards. They became career-driven, rather than just aiming for a day job; they sought other personal goals before tying the knot; they dressed in heels and mini-skirts for themselves, not to impress men.

But the gains from the sixties still made way for reform in the seventies. It's as if women became a part of a much bigger world and then realized things weren't really fair for them. So, lots of legislation was passed in the seventies. Title IX banned discrimination on the basis of gender in schools that receive federal funds; Congress banned sex discrimination in lending (as in bank loans); and hello, Roe vs. Wade, the still-to-this-day controversial Supreme Court case ruling abortion legal. Another big one: the adoption of "Ms." as a universal title for women. And that wasn't even adopted until the 1980s! The discrimination against women wasn't so blatant as it had been 10-20 years prior...but it still presented itself in subtle ways.

By the 1980s, career-driven women were a standard in society. In 1960, 62% of American households consisted of a working dad and stay-at-home mom, a figure that dropped to only 10% in the mid-eighties. Further, women married later, divorce counts and unwed mothers skyrocketed, and more people started living together without being married. With liberal divorce laws, women prepared to take care of themselves. A fascinating observation: "The women who pioneered the American suburbs in the 1950s had often completed their childbearing before they were 30. Now, 30 seemed more like the starting gun than the finish line." Women had fewer children, and more children ended up in childcare.

But you know, despite women working just as long and hard in careers as their husbands, somehow the domestic duties still befell them. [The other day, I just happened to flip onto 1987's Baby Boom starring Diane Keaton, which is textbook example of the eighties and a working mother! How does she manage a high-ranking corporate position and motherhood? What timing!]

In fact, when working women did decide to get pregnant and have children, they weren't even guaranteed job security throughout maternity leave until a 1987 Supreme Court case. There was no such thing as a nationalized daycare system like the public school system. A bill (the Comprehensive Child Development Act) passed both the Senate and House in 1971 that would make childcare available to every family who wanted it, but amidst Watergate and Vietnam, Nixon vetoed it, stating it undermined the family-centered approach. And later, in 1975, when it was reborn under the more neutral name of the Child and Family Services Bill, people actually feared it would given children power over their parents and "breakdown family order [and] increase delinquency." [Silly! That is still why there is no universal childcare system!] And did you know that equal-pay legislation wasn't even signed into law until 2009? Yes, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the very first bill signed by President Obama!

In the new millennium, Betty Freidan said on the women's movement:
"There's a lot of silly talk that the women's movement is dead. Well it's not dead; it's alive in society! The way women look at themselves, the way other people look at women, is completely different, completely different than it was thirty years ago...Our daughters grow up with the same possibilities as our sons."
In fifty years, women went from housewife to productive, and equal, member of the workforce. The eighties brought the first woman on the Vice Presidential ballot (Geraldine Ferraro) and the first woman on the Supreme Court (Sandra Day O'Connor). The elections of 1992 put a record number of women into the House and Senate. And the election of 2008 put two women running for office in the political spotlight: Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin—two women on complete opposite sides of the political spectrum (ho ho!). But, the headlines were on political differences, not the fact that women were in politics. They perfectly illustrate the progress of women, the changing norms of society in the past fifty years, in particular, how society views women.

I've grown up as a product of early feminism, and society is constantly finding new ways to get the "I am Woman, hear me roar" message of the early seventies to younger generations. I encountered Girl Power with the Spice Girls as a kid; strong, kick-ass females characters like Buffy in my teens; and girl groups like Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, and Miranda in young adulthood, that tell me men will come and go, but girlfriends are forever. Women of my generation take for granted that things weren't always the way they are now. The life I live was the life that the early feminists envisioned for future generations. While the balance between work and men and children is still never an easy one, women can at least have both.

I don't know whose kids these are. I Google Image-searched 'girl power' and this came up.


Aarti said...

Each time I read one of your fabulous detailed reviews of this book, I get excited about America's Women sitting on my shelf for me to read. If you get your hands on it, it might be fun to do a joint read :-)

Amy Reads said...

I really need to read this book. Another great section recap! It is so hard to believe how recent a lot of those changes are, isn't it? I always find it shocking when I find out the dates on some things...

nat @ BL&S said...

i enjoyed your previous reviews on this book and am always surprised by just how far we've come as a society in the last 50 years. i never realized the scope of the MTM show--i was just a little kid--but in retrospect can see how she really was a role model.

my mom stayed at home with my little sis and me until we were both in junior high. she went back to work part-time but was always home to greet us at the end of our day.

there's much to be said for working women, though in my family i've seen a different trend. i'm one of 10 female cousins, five of whom have kids. the women all worked prior to giving birth to their first kids but after that, they became stay-at-home moms.

this sounds like a great read--educational and eye-opening. thanks for the series of reviews.

Lindae06 said...

This was such an informative book for me, even though I was a teenager in the mid-60s and experienced life as a female much as it described. The book effectively summarized what took place during the past 50 years, the cause and effect of the women's movement, and where it stands today. It was all about the RIGHT to those opportunities that were earlier denied. Women may not want to take advantage of those opportunities, but we have that choice. I thought it was interesting that today so many women are going to undergrad and grad school, becoming professionals, then choosing to become stay at home moms. As professors commented early in the book, was that education wasted? Not likely, since it gives women training and experience that could be very valuable later in life. Also, with current technological advances, women (or men) can stay at home with the kiddies and also stay in the workforce. There are so many opportunities out there now--the sky's the limit. That's what the women's movement was about to me. Great book!