Stephanie Coontz on the ongoing Gender Inequality Project of American capitalism –
Is it any surprise that American workers express higher levels of work-family conflict than workers in any of our European counterparts? Or that women’s labor-force participation has been overtaken? In 1990, the United States ranked sixth in female labor participation among 22 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is made up of most of the globe’s wealthier countries. By 2010, according to an economic research paper by Cornell researchers Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, released last month, we had fallen to 17th place, with about 30 percent of that decline a direct result of our failure to keep pace with other countries’ family-friendly work policies. American women have not abandoned the desire to combine work and family. Far from it. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1997, 56 percent of women ages 18 to 34 and 26 percent of middle-aged and older women said that, in addition to having a family, being successful in a high-paying career or profession was “very important” or “one of the most important things” in their lives. By 2011, fully two-thirds of the younger women and 42 percent of the older ones expressed that sentiment.
Under present conditions, the intense consciousness raising about the “rightness” of personal choices that worked so well in the early days of the women’s movement will end up escalating the divisive finger-pointing that stands in the way of political reform.
Our goal should be to develop work-life policies that enable people to put their gender values into practice. So let’s stop arguing about the hard choices women make and help more women and men avoid such hard choices. To do that, we must stop seeing work-family policy as a women’s issue and start seeing it as a human rights issue that affects parents, children, partners, singles and elders. Feminists should certainly support this campaign. But they don’t need to own it.