One major goal that feminists in the 1960s established for the women's liberation movement would now appear close to realization. "The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person," Betty Friedan had asserted in "The Feminine Mystique" (1963), "is by creative work of her own. There is no other way." Women's satisfactions, indeed their sense of identity, were to come from their positions in the labor force. Careers would provide "a new life plan for women." Confidently and optimistically, feminists set out to expand occupational choices: Women would enter the labor force, and their talents and energies would quickly break down traditional barriers.
Fifteen years later, the number of women in the labor force has dramatically increased. The most telling figure is the percentage of working women with preschool-age children - a full 41 percent (in 1948 the figure was under 15 percent). In fact, over 58 percent of women with school-age children are working (up from 31 percent in 1948), and 48 percent of all married couples are both in the labor force.
Clearly, the women's movement has successfully altered the images that once composed the "feminine mystique." The model 1970s woman in television advertisements and on magazine covers has a full-time job. So, too, women have made inroads into many professional schools that heretofore were closed to them. In 1973, the number of women enrolled in law schools was three-and-a-half times greater than in 1969 and the number of women attending medical schools had doubled. During the 1960s, women also entered traditionally male white-collar and blue-collar occupations. In 1974, the number of women engineers was 19,600, up from 7,000 in 1960. The percentage of women carpenters rose from 0.7 percent in 1960 to 1.8 percent in 1970, the percentage of women auto mechanics from 0.5 percent to 1.4 percent.
Yet, when examined closely, the changes in women's position in the labor force are less than revolutionary. Some of the increase in participation rates may reflect misleading census reporting. During the late 19th century and early 20th century, when respectable married women would not work outside the home, women who served as domestics or took in laundry or went out to clean office buildings would not admit to the census-takers that they were "working women." Today when young women, particularly those with preschool children, believe they should be working, they may again be misleading the census-takers, this time by telling them that they are "working women." Then, too, work for women is often part-time work. In 1970, only 41 percent of the total of women workers were in full-time positions.
More important, the disparity in wages between men and women has widened, not declined> over the past 15 years. In 1963, the median earnings of full-time year-round women workers were 63 percent of those of men. By 1973 the national average had dropped to 57 percent. (Among clerical workers, for example, women in 1965 earned 72 percent of the salaries of men; in 1973 they earned 61 percent. Women in professional and technical work in 1962 earned 66 percent of men's salaries and in 1973, 63.6 percent.)
Those figures may not indicate a simple male bias, but rather the play of market forces. The number of women entering the labor pool, particularly in the less skilled positions, has been so great as to depress the pay scale; women with higher educational achievements are in greater demand for skilled positions and hence have fared better. Put another way, the crowding of women into a few occupations has reduced their earning power.
That crowding, of course, means that sex-stereotyping in jobs has not been eliminated. Tokenism may be marking the progress that women have made. The efforts to enforce anti-sexual discrimination rules have been half-hearted; the record of the major federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), has not been very satisfactory as far as women are concerned. EEOC's accomplishments are so meager as to warrant the feminist charge of "a deliberate policy of non-enforcement." In 1975, the agency had a backlog of more than 100,000 cases; in 1978 the number reached 130,000. And the agency's field work, according to a Government Accounting Office report, was "very poor often resulting in unsuccessful conciliation."
The EEOC has had a few success stories, but even those have not been without a darker side for some women workers. The precedent-setting agreement with AT&T provided "an affirmative-action plan incorporating goals for achieving full utilization of women and minorities in all levels of management and nonmanagement." AT&T consented to award back pay not only to the litigants but to many women and minority workers who had never sought promotion because they were discouraged by the company's discriminatory practices. But the outcome of the agreement revealed a troubling aspect. By 1977 the number of women holding management positions with salaries of $30,000 or more had increased from 382 to 888. But at a time when the total number of AT&T employees was declining, the percentage decline of women employees was twice as great as that of men. Thus the implementation of a decree to end sex-stereotyping led to a decline in opportunity for the average women worker.
Furthermore, a curious dynamic has at times worked against women. A reduction in sex-stereotyping of jobs at the very moment when unemployment has been rising has had the effect of bringing more men into positions that were once exclusively women's. Although banning discrimination on grounds of sex properly cuts both ways, it does mean that the gains that women have made in some occupations are offset of losses in others. Thus the number of male elementary school teachers rose from 14 percent of the total in 1960 to 16 pecent in 1970 - counterbalancing the advances made by women carpenters and auto mechanics.
Despite the persistence of such problems, ample room does exist for optimism. Economist Victor Fuchs argues persuasively that the very fact that women did not loss considerable ground in their earning power at a time when large numbers of women were entering the labor force augurs very well. The influx of so many women workers might have driven down wages and salaries. And token advances can encourage real ones. The publicity that accompanies the advancement of a few secretaries into higher-paying and more prestigious administrative positions may well prompt others to compete for those jobs.
The prospect for change through federal agency action is not altogether bleak, either. The presence of a large pool of women in law schools today may mean that the EEOC could well be staffed tomorrow by a group far more sympathetic to enforcing compliance on sexual discrimination. The present commissioner, Eleanor Holmes Norton, comes to her post with a reputation for integrity and effectiveness, although it remains to be seen whether she will be able to move the EEOC bureaucracy to assist women.
The ease with which progress can be measured in this field is also an asset. The most difficult task is not to define what constitutes discrimination but to implement corrective actions. The response of a corporation or a university that the available pool of qualified women is too small to permit promotions is already suspect, and it is very likely to become still more so in the future. And for all the debate and the ambiguity in the Bakke decision as to whether affirmative-action programs constitute just or unjust practices, whether quotas and goals are identical, and whether measurements should be based on equality of outcome or quality of opportunity, a fundamental agreement remains on the principle that equal pay and equal rights are fair, that women should not suffer discrimination.
Finally, feminists and, not coincidentally, other advocates of minority rights share a new determination to advance their own interests as they, and not experts or surrogates, define them. The willingness of these activists to do battle a second, a third, and fourth round will help to fulfill their ambitions. The women's movement is becoming another - and not altogether weak - vested interest group, and this transformation is likely to bear results in the American political system.
Thus, it is not enough to have an EEOC; feminists will have to make certain that the agency protects the right of all women. It is not enough to change laws to eliminate gender classifications; feminists will have to set up monitoring agencies and staff them to make certain that discrimination does not persist. It is not enough to let the victories of a few women stand for the progress of all. Gains have come most quickly to the middle classes; feminists now must make certain that women in traditionally sex-stereotyped and less skilled occupations also enjoy opportunities for advancement. In that way, the gap between rhetoric and reality may be closed - at least for the next generation of women if not for this one. Over the past 15 years feminists have successfully challenged the ideals of the feminine mystique. Perhaps over the next 15 years feminists have successfully challenged the ideals of the feminine mystique. Perhaps over the next 15 years they will also be able to abolish the practice that accompanied it.