If you find yourselves troubled with too strong a competition from female workers, just prove yourselves worthy to be their husbands, marry them, provide good homes, and thus remove them from competition with you.—Horace Greeley to the New York Typographical Union No. 6.
According to the United States Department of Labor, by 1970 there will be 30,000,000 women in the American labor force. This number (predicated, of course, on a “normally” expanding economy) would represent an increase over the present of 25 per cent, that is, 6,000,000, as against a predicted increase of only 15 per cent for men in the same period. Now such figures stated flatly tend to conjure up an image as misleading as it is frightening to the popular imagination, an image of men and women coming to be less and less differentiated, elbowing one another for room in some kind of sexual and occupational jungle. Whereas the fact is that as yet women do not—nor does it seem likely that in the foreseeable future they will—have the same relation to salaried employment as do men: they do not upon leaving school enter the labor force and remain there permanently to support themselves and others, nor as a general rule define themselves by what they do, nor try to be as successful as possible. As it has become more common (to the point, now, of near universality), and as it has begun to assume a rather uniform, predictable pattern, female employment outside the home has become all the more casual and voluntary—and, what seems at first glance paradoxical, more than ever before dependent on the role of women as homemakers and mothers.
What the current statistics on the whole question of womanpower (a somewhat ambiguous though useful term for which we are indebted to studies by the National Manpower Council1) reveal about the crisis in the inner life of the American woman is not so certain as some psychiatrists and social workers would have us believe—for to judge by the literature in popular magazines and professional journals, American society is about to be confronted by nothing less than the eventual castration of its entire male population. The statistics do, however, tell us a good deal about critical changes in many of the American woman’s practical plans and expectations. More than one-third of all women over fourteen years of age can be found at work either full or part time in any month; during a whole year the number is as high as two-fifths. A young girl in school will probably have had some kind of part-time working experience—summers or Saturdays or afternoons—by the time she has completed her studies, whether this means at the end of college or only high school. (And since research findings do not even include the ever widening occupation of baby-sitting, the figures above are undoubtedly far too modest.) Once out of school, the same young girl will as a matter of course have a job until she marries. There is no longer any social prestige to be gained for the family making its way into the middle class, and certainly none for the family already entrenched there, by keeping its unmarried daughters at home: a society whose paragons are not the idle, but the active, rich liberates its aspiring members from this costly and uncongenial necessity. Nor by the present system of household economy is the adolescent girl of much use to her mother; there are not apt to be any real tasks, such as the care of several younger children, for her. So she will work, in a factory or an office or, if she is one of a small minority, in some profession, at least until she is married and often after that. It is becoming more and more likely that she will work until her first child is born.
All this will not take much time, though—probably only a little more than two years—for if she is anywhere near that compelling abstraction, “the average,” she will be married by the age of twenty or twenty-one and will have had her last child by the age of twenty-six or so. The economists tell us that in the most prosperous period of the American woman’s early married life, when she and her husband are jointly bringing in the family income, her patterns of consumption get set. She is well dressed and well entertained. All or part of her income may be used for the purpose of furnishing the house or buying such luxuries as television sets; some of it may be saved for the purchase of heavy household appliances at such time as she assumes the full role of housekeeper. Her husband’s income will not reach its highest level until he is forty-five. Therefore just at the point when the family’s minimum financial requirements suffer a sharp rise, that is, when there are little children to be housed, fed, dressed, and given medical care, a fair part of the family’s income is cut off.
Somewhere in her early or middle thirties our average woman sends her youngest child to school. This is generally the point when she will go back to work or busy herself with voluntary civic activities or both. One-third—more than seven and a half million—of the working women in America are mothers with children under eighteen (though it is important to keep in mind that this figure includes all women working, whether full or part time).
The picture just presented is naturally oversimplified. Among the working mothers of minor children is a notable number of widows, divorcees, and women separated from their husbands. These women are obliged to support themselves and in many cases, at least in part, their children. In 1946 one-fifth of all women workers in non-farm families were found to be either the sole support of their families or the major wage earners.
But the trend in womanpower that seems most startling and is therefore in some way necessarily the most significant, regardless of its momentary ratio to an over-all statistic, is the one now bringing a number of married women with young children, though under no absolute economic pressure, to leave their homes and find jobs. The widow who suddenly finds herself with no means of support and sets about to insure her survival and that of her children, often with nothing but the crudest and poorest paid skills, has always existed and has continued to elicit the feeling of compassion and even admiration. The working spinster, too—and if she passes the age of thirty-five in America she will belong to only 7 per cent of the entire female population—is an age-old figure. The divorcee, subject to a certain lingering, vestigial disapproval, has again always been expected to work. Also, the existence of the driving career woman is a thing now generally taken for granted—far more generally, in fact, thanks to the ceaseless public discussion of “women’s rights” and to such glamorizing image-makers as the movies, than her numbers would warrant.
Even if no more than their present number are ever caught in the trend, however, the fact that a certain percentage of young married mothers in America have come to seek employment, as part of a matter-of-course development of their lives, speaks of something irrevocably taking place in our society. However much this process may or may not be truly cause for alarm, it is being viewed with at least some measure of alarm by spokesmen for the public interest (except by economists like the members of the National Manpower Council, whose concern with the question is one of finding ways to tap all of America’s available manpower resources). But the working wife is not, it seems safe to say, unless through some unimaginable social reversal, going to disappear; one might as profitably continue to be alarmed about the automobile.
What is it that women do when they go to work? The answer to this question, if laid out in lists of occupational categories, would be: everything. Women, though not as physically strong as men, seem to be strong enough to manage most jobs in our technologically improved industry. The things that men alone, or that women alone, are considered fit to do, as anthropologists have long taught us in connection with primitive societies, is a matter determined quite simply by prejudice. World War II, in addition suddenly to setting millions of badly needed female hands to new tasks, created an enormous shift in American sexual-occupational prejudices. The huge accession of women into heavy industry during the manpower crisis of that period found, and left, them competent operators of assembly-line machinery and most of the tools and equipment pertaining thereto. After the war, many women left the factories, but the adjustment in personnel practices had been permanently effected. There were new jobs and new kinds of jobs for the returning veterans to take, or if they insisted on having back their old jobs, for the women they displaced.
Shifts in prejudice can work both ways. For instance, women can now be waitresses in all but the most elegant restaurants, while men, with the rapid decline in the number of domestic servants, can under the right selected conditions be housecleaners. Retail selling of everything but men’s haberdashery and automobiles has within the last four or five decades come to be taken over almost completely by women, as have such things as employment agencies, bank cashiering, bookkeeping. Being involved in the canning and packaging of food, on the other hand, is now acceptable employment for men. Certain once exclusively feminine precincts of the textile mills have, as a result of the introduction of much heavier machinery, been invaded by men. And the examples multiply. One interesting handicap men seem to suffer in the competition between the sexes for jobs is that women are willing to regard anything open to them as proper, while men will often avoid work once classified as “women’s,” no matter how good the pay. The case comes to mind of certain sewing operations in the men’s shirt-making industry, the machinery for which would be better operated by men but will not be touched by them.
But although there are some women doing nearly every kind of work in existence, and although the going prejudice has turned in their favor in certain formerly hostile industries, it is not yet correct to imagine that they roam freely over male territory. “Rosie the Riveter” may no longer be the heroine she was in the comic song in 1941; she is still no more likely than before to be advanced to foreman. Just as the girl behind the bank teller’s cage will not be moved to the loan department, nor the girl joining the ranks of a large corporation be eligible for executive training. There are sound reasons for this, and therefore the situation will not easily change: employers hesitate to invest the time, and the money, required for training women to assume responsibilities which they will chuck for marriage, or to have a baby, or to answer the urgency of some other family need.
The work women can do may be redefined here and there, then, but in the main it will continue to be what it has always been. More jobs for women still largely means either the expansion of their peculiar areas of operation or the elevation to professional status of work that has been theirs all along. We have the simple evidence of our senses for this. Nurses, schoolteachers, librarians, laundry workers, sewing-machine operators, social case-workers will doubtless always be women; such jobs are merely translations either of basic household functions no longer performed in the home or of the American woman’s idealized historic role as the tamer of rough men. (Men do of course teach school, but usually in high schools; male librarians are almost always to be found in the upstairs offices.)
Probably the single largest source of new employment for women is the filing cabinet. Offices in our vastly bureaucratized society pile on top of one another and spread from one end of the land to the other; and offices are places filled with “girls,” often four or five to a man, typing, filing, keeping books—setting up records in a system unprecedentedly intent on recording itself. Strictly speaking, office work can be counted as something taken over from men. However, the sheer volume of inter- and intra-office communication by which today’s corporations and institutions operate makes clerical work an industry totally different in kind from that of the days of the clerk and scrivener. Historians of the subject claim that the advent of the typewriter was responsible for the creation of the female secretary, one of the common notions about women as employees being that they have a much higher degree of manual dexterity than men and a good deal more patience with monotonous detail work. The typewriter may perhaps be a more naturally feminine tool, but certainly a no less reasonable explanation for the presence of women in offices is that the file has become a sort of combination closet and dust-bin, and filling it, a form of national housekeeping.
In factories the situation seems to be more complicated. There the work of men and women may be parts of the same process. But one has only to watch the “Help Wanted” sections of the newspapers (still duly segregated by sex) to see that, at least within a given geographic region, men and women will not be performing the same task together nor even any particular task interchangeably.
It naturally makes an enormous difference to the fortunes of a female job aspirant whether she is white or colored, how much education she has, or how old she is—in this she obviously differs very little from a man. However, the very rhythm of her life as a woman will itself play a peculiar part in determining her age and the state of her education when she goes out to seek work. The relative weights of the three factors mentioned have changed very rapidly in the past few decades, so rapidly they are by now rather difficult to sort out in any fixed order of importance. As we are forever being told, age in this time of penicillin and lighter work loads no longer means what it once meant, for good and ill. The question of color and employment, certain to be with us and significant for decades and decades to come, is happily at least getting to be a tangled one, admitting of many more variables. Education therefore remains the most manageable factor in calling the turns of women’s employment (even granting the dour prediction that soon virtually every adolescent in America will be going to college).
The education of young girls has certain essential characteristics. More girls than boys attend and are graduated from high school, and they are also better students there. Girls generally conform more closely to the school’s demands on them, and they get, on the whole, better grades. There are powerful cultural influences which make it possible for them with honor to be nicer, quieter, better behaved in school than boys and so inevitably to achieve a superior grade average. Nevertheless, while girls are disproportionately represented in the top 50 per cent of any graduating class, boys predominate in the top 5 per cent. Again, when it comes to the so-called “hard” subjects—mathematics and the physical sciences—girls generally display a lesser gift, or a weaker mastery, or perhaps both. Following from this, their showing in college entrance examinations and scholarship competitions is significantly poorer than that of the boys they have been besting academically for years. Without entering any theoretical dispute about whether male intellectual superiority is divinely ordained or merely culturally determined, it is easy to see that the girls’ expectations play a crucial part here. For one thing, many fewer girls are enrolled in academic or college preparatory courses (probably their number will increase considerably in the next few years); the majority still take commercial courses, planning to work, and largely unambitious about it, until they marry.
Nor is there any reason to suppose that of the girls who do go off to college more than a handful are powerfully motivated by the idea of a professional future, or in any case a career outside the traditional feminine professions. Attention to studies like physics and mathematics presupposes, in addition to what might be called a talent for them, ambitions in the direction of medicine, engineering, or science. Going to college for girls, far more than for boys, is still an assertion of economic privilege; it is after all a more interesting, and more carefree, way of whiling away the time before marriage than being shut away in the filing rooms and typing pools of large corporations. And the young men one meets there are in the long run more eligible. A college degree does entitle a girl to a better job: she can, if she wishes or needs, be a schoolteacher or social worker or nurse (though it comes as something of a shock to be reminded how recent, and for many regions of the United States how vaguely enforced, is the requirement of a college education for the pursuit of these professions). The most telling importance of a degree for girls, even today, however, is that it attaches its possessors to a higher and wider standard of living.
If one considers that the lengthening of years of education in this country has been accompanied not by a commensurate delay in, but rather a hastening of, marriage, the bald statistics of female education take on a rather different meaning than might have been attributed to them. Spiritually they mean that girls take their intellectual achievements and broadened perspectives back into the home, there to ferment some new kind of family existence. While practically, by a somewhat ironic twist, the statistics mean that a majority of the women who will be entering the labor force will be doing so with very little specialized training, few skills, and a considerable lapse of time since even these skills have been used.
Educators are beginning to show a good deal of concern about such problems. The National Manpower Council, for instance, at its conference on womanpower held at Arden House in October 1957 devoted a session to the question of secondary education. The entire discussion concerned itself with suggestions about how better to prepare American girls for the work they will almost inevitably be doing some day. A new form of vocational guidance in high school was suggested, as was the setting up of special courses to keep non-working young married women in training. On the level of suggestions like these, it is hard to believe that any plan or series of plans can aid in overcoming the situation. Perhaps some, or even a large number, of girls can be effectively encouraged to allow ahead for the new pattern of their lives; which may or may not involve simply more education for them—for some kinds of training, e.g., stenography and nursing, can be laid away for a time and with a little “brushing up” be put to use again, and some cannot. Certainly for a woman in her thirties with growing children to begin training for something would involve a psychological wrench, really a form of humiliation, that only the most pressing will to make something of herself could justify. The real difficulty in organizing their training for work seems to be that, in the very teeth of their emancipation and hard-won freedom, girls go on dreaming of being married and loved and happy, in fact, more than girls have ever done before.
A woman must still live where her husband’s job takes her, and live largely in the style that his work imposes. These things have nothing to do with the “inequality” of women or with prejudices against them, and they have almost everything to do with the kind of opportunities a woman will find for work. If, for instance, she lives in a mining town in Pennsylvania, or a steel town in Indiana, chances are she will not be able to find a job. If her family is settled in a suburb some distance from the city, her choice will be limited to what is available without sacrificing too much precious household time to travel.
It does not promise to be the case, either, that wherever and whenever possible the women who have careers will pursue them straight through, stopping to have children for only as long as is medically required. Though the number of working women with children under eighteen is growing, the number with children under six is getting proportionately smaller. A mother’s care for her infants, precisely to the extent that it is being threatened by other possibilities, has been elevated from an unconscious process to an overwhelming national piety. There are of course some women, those with a profound commitment to the nature of the work they do and the success it brings them, who make arrangements for their child-bearing years that permit them to continue working; but they are too few and too special to be considered here. It is enough to note that among the rest of the group who make up the figure for working mothers of pre-school infants—and because of higher rates of poverty, desertion, or non-support by husbands, its majority is Negro—any improvement in economic condition brings with it a decline in their number.
For employers of women, their pattern of work poses two related problems. First, as the number of women in their employ increases so does the average age. As of 1960, according to the Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, the average age of the working woman was forty. Although because of Social Security benefits the number of working women over sixty-five (these, again, are largely Negro) has sharply declined from, say, 1890, the percentage of those between the ages of forty-five and sixty-five has risen during the same period from a little over 10 per cent to nearly 40 per cent. Second, the proportion of women who do not absolutely need to earn their living but are merely trying to supplement the family income is also on the increase.
Most employers would seem to have mixed feelings about these problems. Mature women in many ways make better employees. They tend to be more responsible, less skittish, and less disproportionately ambitious. On the other hand, they are also a good deal harder to handle. Unaccustomed as most of them have been for so many years of their lives, or perhaps for all, to conditions in the world of work, they are both touchy and rigid about necessary changes of pace or all the countless minor emergencies that can occur on the job. And while women who are neither totally dependent on their jobs nor vitally concerned about advancing themselves make a useful manpower cushion—a labor supply that can be taken on and let off rather casually—they are by the same token given to a troublesome amount of absenteeism and various other forms of unreliability.
Perhaps the radically shortened work week promised for America’s future will shift the entire question of women’s employment into another realm. But for the present the situation seems to hinge on the following proposition: more women marry, and marry younger, in the United States than any other Western country; and since a married woman’s first obligation is to her family, she is unable, and unwilling, to make a man’s commitment to work. If she must stay off the job when her children are ill, or leave it altogether when, for instance, her husband is transferred to another place, the terms of her employment are bound to be not so much “unequal” to a man’s as different in kind. Assuming that some of the economists are right, and America can indefinitely expand its exploitation of manpower resources, the American economy must make its adjustment to a new quality, as well as a new source, of labor.
When the individual mother in her middle thirties waves her youngest child off down the road on the school bus and decides that it is time to look for a job, she will offer various explanations for her decision. She will say that there are accumulated debts to be paid or that she wants to find better housing in a better neighborhood; or she will cite all the “extras”—orthodontia, music lessions, summer camping—that she means her children to have and that her husband’s present income cannot provide; or she will simply announce that time now lies heavy on her hands, which is to say, that she wants to get out of the house. If she is like most people, one crucial explanation for her behavior will probably not even occur to her: namely, that she is part of a national trend, that she is going to work because her culture now enables her to take for granted the possibility of doing so.
In any case, when and if she finds an acceptable job, she will be putting herself and her family under a great deal of new physical and moral pressure. She may work only part time, during the morning or a couple of days a week, in which case her life and the life of those around her must become a carefully timed affair, with household chores, marketing, laundry, meals, etc., on a close and fixed schedule. A good part of her daily existence will be governed by the clock, and run-of-the-mill difficulties, like sniffles or bad temper or an automobile that needs repairing, will become major problems requiring immediate solutions. If she gets a full-time job, she will have to find someone to help her with all or part of her housekeeping, which is expensive and means the family’s adjustment to a new personality in its midst. She will be apt to demand more help from her husband and more responsible cooperation from her children. She will come home tired and in moods imposed by events outside her home to which her family will be asked to be sensitive.
The money she can make under such circumstances may or may not seem worth the trouble. As we have seen, she will not except in a rare case find particularly lucrative work. And in addition to the strain and inconvenience, her expenses will increase enormously. Quick shopping, for easy-to-prepare or packaged or frozen foods, can add as much as 10—15 per cent to her food bills. She will need a larger and a better wardrobe. Lunches and transportation for her will now have to be included in the family budget. If she has a maid or babysitter to look after the children, even only part of the time, a sizeable portion of her salary will be committed before she has taken it out of its envelope. And the family income taxes will go up, while most of her working expenses are not deductible.
Chances are, then, it is precisely those outlays required for her to be able to work that are the very extras and luxuries she is seeking with her new income: new clothes, meals in restaurants, certain labor-saving devices, help with the housekeeping, the possibility of giving her children over for at least part of the day to someone else’s care. She will be paying her way, as it were, for a bit of freedom from a purely domestic existence.
The question of why it is that the American women can find it preferable to do any amount of routine drudgery on some assembly line or behind some sales counter rather than involve herself in all the physical details of caring for her husband and children has become a matter of grave concern to observers of American society—and even to herself. For her new pattern of living is undoubtedly plunging this country into a domestic crisis of major proportions, from which it will emerge with a good number of traditional family arrangements no longer intact. One of the reasons offered for her feeling so impelled to get out of the house is that the terms of her culture no longer place sufficient value on what she does there; and this is surely true, in part. The girl in school is being educated to believe herself a “person,” someone with full responsibility for the affairs of her country, her world, the quality of her life, and someone fully obliged to prepare herself to meet it.
But though in some ways her functions as wife and mother are no longer given their proper weight, in others they are given too much. If her husband grumbles that she should be content to look after him, his home, and his children, and if on his behalf the social experts are inclined to regret the vanishing woman of yesteryear—they might both be reminded that our young mother is also forced to live up to entirely new demands. The number of hours she must devote to her children’s welfare may be shortened, thanks to automatic washing machines, store clothes, canned foods, but she is to an extent undreamed-of by her own mother held accountable for every aspect of their psychological and emotional development. She has been made aware that, whether she stays at home with them or not, her children’s habits, pleasures, and feelings are given over directly into her keeping. Similarly with her husband: she has been taught to believe in both his right to personal happiness and the dependence of such happiness on her own success or failure to provide it. Insofar as she is a “good” wife, whether she spends hours preparing her husband’s meals or throws them together from the food freezer, she is his companion. She must be at least conversant with what interests him; she must be attractive to him; she must be his partner in sex. American families, falling apart though they be, are not nearly such natural and casual arrangements for women as they once were. And the houses in which they dwell have become peculiarly crowded, intimate places.
In addition, the young woman today is a creature plagued with choices—and it is choice, not the lack of it, that breeds restlessness. Much has already been said on the subject of choice and love in contemporary marriage. We know that such decisions on the part of young girls or boys as whom do I love, whom should I marry, are never altogether genuine, that is, never independent of the influence on their attitudes of the world all around them; nevertheless the very illusion of having chosen freely lends its quality to their lives. In this connection, not nearly enough has been understood about the meaning of birth control for the new condition of women. That they now choose to be mothers, and when to do so, for all its very great physical benefit has created a disruption in the natural order of their lives that perhaps cannot yet be measured. When babies were inevitable—unasked for, unlooked for, and totally expected—so too was the way of life that followed from them. In their study of the use of contraception in the working class,2 Lee Rainwater and Karol Kane Weinstein point out that most lower-class women cannot be interested in birth control because they regard sex as their husbands’ business and therefore the making of babies as not their responsibility. Though these women dread the arrival of more children, and know very well that they will be the ones to suffer most concretely from it, they carefully keep themselves off the one hook that catches their middle-class sisters: life is decided for them. They do not have to be good mothers, good wives; they do not have to be anything. And they rarely go to work—though food and shelter often have to be provided by welfare agencies.
The middle-class woman, however, particularly if she has had any education (and by now all have), will feel she is choosing a job, a mate, a style of life, to have children, how many to have, whether or not to nurse them, how to bring them up. As soon as she reaches the first relaxation in pressure, she often discovers she doesn’t know what to do with herself; so she looks for some definite employment.
While the job she finds will be definite, thus telling her how her life must be organized, it will not be defining. Her husband is a steam-fitter, a lathe-turner, a lawyer, or an engineer; she, unless she is an exception of some kind, will be still a woman, a wife and mother, who happens to be doing x, y, or z.
Many working women complain of this, complain they are not taken seriously, are discriminated against. And a few of them have a right to such a complaint, for of course there is still a good deal of prejudice against women in the men’s world. A woman who does the same work as a man for less pay—and there are some, though many fewer than there once were—is a victim of it. A professional woman with the same training and qualifications as a man, say an engineer or chemist, who must take an inferior job is being, to say the least, unfairly treated. But there is a good deal more involved in commitment to work than seriousness or talent or even educational qualification. It is easy to forget that the dedicated career woman is doing something much more than sloughing off the special responsibilities and burdens of her womanliness: she is also staking her pride, her vanity, her very ego on the great fortune-wheel of success in America, just as a man does. She is, in short, risking failure. If women suffer the disadvantage of being deprived of opportunities to hold the best jobs on the highest echelons, this very circumstance grows out of their one irrevocable privilege: they always have a place of retreat when failure threatens—this is not what they really are, what they really do. The men who on their side complain that if women are to become a permanent part of the labor force they will soon become full competitors, might remind themselves that regardless of what women think they think, their ultimate feminine advantage is one not easily given up in the dark jungle of work.
1 Womanpower, by Eli Ginsberg et al., 1957; Work in the Lives of Married Women, Proceedings of a Conference on Womanpower, 1958; and Women and Work in America, by Robert W. Smuts, 1959; Columbia University Press.
2 And the poor get children, by Lee Rainwater assisted by Karol Kane Weinstein. Quadrangle Books, Inc., 190 pp., $2.95.
Women at Work
What the current statistics on the whole question of womanpower reveal about the crisis in the inner life of the…
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