For two and a half decades, from the 1970s to the mid-1990s, every year, a rapidly growing number of Americans began to think that women could bust out of their traditional homemaker roles, take on more public roles and work outside the home and their kids and family wouldn’t suffer for it. More women joined the labor force every year. More got college and advanced degrees. The wage gap between men and women narrowed. And American support for egalitarian marriages rose.
Then something happened. Progress toward gender equity stalled. Then reversed. More highly educated women began “opting out” of high power careers to stay home with children. Far fewer women entered the workforce. The wage gap grew. And more people told pollsters that working mothers couldn’t form close relationships with their kids, and that women weren’t as suited to politics as men.
The “puzzling pause,” as some academics dubbed it, came to be known as the Stalled Gender Revolution. And some argue the revolution’s been stalled ever since.
But now, a group of scholars is releasing a new report through the Council on Contemporary Families, “Gender Revolution Rebound Symposium,” that they contend shows that the stall is over and that revolution is, once again, on the march. They found:
• It’s not just younger Millennials who are embracing gender equality. David Cotter, a sociologist at Union College, and his co-authors found that support has been rising since 2006 among all age groups, among both men and women and among conservatives and liberals. Conservatives, actually, though their total numbers are lower than liberals, show the greatest increase in support.
• Less than one-third of Americans now say male breadwinner-female homemaker families are the ideal. (In 1977, 66 percent did.)
• Sixty-five percent of Americans answering questions for the General Social Survey said they disagreed that preschool children suffer if their mothers work, up from about 30 percent who disagreed in 1977 and about half in 2000. (The language of the question itself, first posed in the 1970s, suggests none too subtle a bias. Respondants are not asked whether children suffer if their fathers work.)
• In couples marrying in the late 2000s, 60 percent of the wives had more education than their husbands. And while in the 1980s, couples like this were more likely to get divorced, by the 2000, they were actually less “divorce prone,” reports Christine Schwartz, sociology professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison. And she and her co-authors found that only 28 percent now think it’s better if the husband outearns his wife, down from 40 percent in 1997.
• Both men and women, regardless of their education or income, still expect the guy to make the first move, and for him to propose.
• Couples who share the laundry, really do have more sex. Sharon Sasser, a professor of the Department of Policy Analysis at Cornell University, found that egalitarian partners reported more frequent sex and greater satisfaction than couples in traditional domestic arrangements.
• The least satisfied in the sack? Partnerships where the men do the bulk of the housework. “Apparently, completely reversing gender roles in housework was not a sexual turn-on to either the men or women involved,” she wrote.
• Good news for Hillary: More than three-fourths of Americans now say that men and women are equally suited to politics, up from just 48 percent in 1977.
Where will this continuing revolution lead?
Although surveys show that young men want to be more involved fathers at home, and that more men and women support gender equality at work, their wishes may be thwarted by a very particular American phenomenon: overwork.
Youngjoo Cha, sociology professor at Indiana University-Bloomington, has found that in the 1970s, workers who put in more than 50 hours a week earned less per hour than those who worked the standard 40-hour shift. But by the 1990s, wages began to rise rapidly for the workaholics. By 2009, overworkers were earning 6 percent more per hour than full-time workers, she writes, creating a “substantial incentive” for overwork and a “substantial penalty” for working 9 to 5, not just financially, but psychologically, in who is perceived as the “good” worker.
Men, therefore, feel they have to meet this standard. And more women are unable or unwilling to overwork because they still shoulder more of the children and household duties. In 2007, 17 percent of men, but only 7 percent of women worked 50 hours or more a week.
Cha argues that, without financial reward for overwork, the gender gap in wages would be 10 percent smaller.
Scholars say they don’t really know why the sputtering revolution has starting moving again. The Great Recession, surprisingly, may have had something to do with it, said Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College and director of Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families.
“This is a real sea change in attitudes. Women worked during the Great Depression, but afterward, there was so much misgiving about women working that laws were passed to give men preference in getting hired, and bar married women from working and married couples from being hired at the same place,” said said. “It may be that this time, the recession reminded people of women’s labor and they respected them for it.”