IN RECENT MONTHS a spate of articles has appeared concerning the growing doubts of some women that paid work is a sure source of fulfillment or that it is easily integrated into women's lives. Work outside the home, these women argue, is an overrated activity, and often creates more problems than it solves, especially for mothers of young children. Are such women harbingers of an era when large numbers of women will choose to work only intermittently in adulthood, subordinating work ambitions to the pursuit of stable family lives? Will young women eventually reject the career-centered lives of their older sisters, much as today's undergraduates seem to have rejected the political activism of an older generation of college students? Both Alice Kessler-Harris and Julie Matthaei say no.
They argue that the rapid movement of wives and mothers into the labor force over the past 20 years is the product, not of feminism, but of historical and irreversible forces that date from the 19th century. For good or ill, the changes in family life and relations between the sexes-- changes linked in the popular as well as the academic mind to women's employment--are here to stay. Women in this country have always earned low wages, always had limited job opportunities, always been defined as socially different from men. But, ironically, sex-segregated work has fostered experiences and opportunities for women that have undermined the sexual division of labor, not only in the work force but in the family as well. How this has happened--more precisely, how each author thinks it happened --is the subject of these two very good books.
Both authors open with a fairly brief survey of colonial women's work--work which, although clearly essential, was not accorded the same status as men's work, making women socially inferior beings. Matthaei makes the more extreme argument, devaluing women's work more, I suspect, than many 18th-century men would have done. Women, she says, were perceived as "natural, animal-like" creatures whose only work was often-crude production for household use, and whose child-bearing was seen not as the first step in an honored career as mother but simply as a "biological activity."
She sees industrialization as the force behind the rise of an affectionate style of family life, one centered about a wife whose principal duty was protective nurturing of the young. And she wants to locate the birth of this affectionate family in the early 19th century. Her neat model, however, simply doesn't work; too many facts of colonial life contest it. Long before there were factories, there were women and men able to cherish their children and live affectionately as husbands and wives. The popularity in recent years of arguments like Matthaei's suggests that as historians have found it increasingly difficult to chart inevitable progress in the political sphere, they have turned to the private arena of the family to demonstrate that, emotionally at least, our world represents progress over that of our ancestors.
It is when they come to consider the Victorian family that the two authors differ substantially. Both agree that in the 19th century a growing number of Americans articulated and subscribed to a highly romantic view of family and femininity, a view that placed a self-effacing mother at the heart of a home that specialized in love and service to its members rather than production of goods. But they disagree about the meaning of this role for women. Kessler-Harris sees it as a radically limiting one, frustrating the aspirations of young women who in the early 19th century were ready to move outside the family to seek personal independence through employment.
Matthaei, on the other hand, argues that this "ideology of domesticity" was liberating, for it enhanced the status of women and gave them a sphere--the home--where they might have authority and create an independent indentity. Men and women, in her view, were redefined by 19th-century culture as "separate but equal" social beings, and much of what has happened to women in our century has occurred because women, accepting their equality, have steadily expanded the sphere of "home"--into politics and professional life--until there is little to separate man's world from women's place.
Kessler-Harris, while acknowledging both the comfort and authority women might derive from a celebration of domesticity, maintains that women have accomplished change in their lives only by ignoring or battling against the prescriptions bequeathed them by the 19th century. And, in her view, the work experience has provided considerable ammunition with which to do battle against the claims of home.
Because they differ on this important issue, the authors pursue different strategies in the central chapters of their books. Matthaei discusses women's domestic work in great detail; Kessler-Harris has little to say about housework but much to say about a variety of paid occupations in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Matthaei sees the typical woman worker as a consciously temporary worker, earning wages to help her family, preferring undemanding jobs with female co-workers to competition with men for high wages and jobs where promotions are possible. (These attitudes, she argues, are especially characteristic of women before World War II, but affect many women even today.) Kessler-Harris, by contrast, emphasizes the militancy of wage-earners in the 19th and early 20th centuries, arguing that many women joined unions and went on strike to improve their lot. Women, of course, have always joined unions in relatively smaller numbers than men, and the vast majority of working women in our history never went on strike. Still, Kessler-Harris would argue, given a powerful social prohibition on female aggressiveness, given the strong inducements for women in the past to regard their work as casual and temporary, even a small minority of female trade unionists is a significant social fact.
Once into the 20th century, the authors are in substantial agreement. Both see the 1920s--a time of rising real wages and increased social freedom for the young--as a critical time in the development of a new female identity. Young, educated women especially began to show signs of ambition at work, to want more from the job than subsistence and a useful means of passing time until marriage. Many began to ask why they must surrender their career ambitions when they married. According to both authors, this slow revolution in female identity continued during the Depression, despite considerable public hostility in those years to married women who worked. During the Depression and the war years that followed, large numbers of women learned that their family obligations necessarily included wage-earning, and many families survived only because wives and daughters were willing and able to work outside the home. The increasing numbers of married women who went to work in the '50s and '60s, then, were simply extending the logic of their mother's lives. They went to work because their families aspired to a standard of living a single breadwinner could not provide, because they enjoyed their jobs, because married women's work had begun to undermine the prestige of the non-employed homemaker.
Thus the social change that disturbs our world today has deep roots. It will not easily be reversed. And both authors are clearly pleased with this conclusion. It has been difficult lately for American leftists to see themselves on the winning side of history, but this is apparently not true of many feminists. Matthaei is even willing to argue that the inevitable rise of truly egalitarian marriage may well lead to a more equitable and less violent society.
And yet it is hard, without the eyes of faith, to ignore the burdens that recent social change has placed on women. For some women, it is true, the loosening of family bonds has meant a welcome freedom: interesting careers, companionable marriages, the ability to survive on one's own if necessary. But for many others, the loosening of family bonds has created a new set of psychological burdens to replace--or augment--an older and by now familiar set of grievances. And for some women, the loosening of family bonds means poverty. For all of us as a political community, moreover, the anxieties bred by social change has meant a politics of confusion and resentment, the domestic fruits of which, ironically, are bitterest for poor women and their children.