Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Back to the 1950's?

To a world of breadwinning men and housewife women? That's what young women in the U.K. appear to want, based on the writeups of a new survey done for the New Woman magazine. The survey asked fifteen hundred women in their late twenties questions about their career and family plans. Or so I surmise. It appears impossible to get hold of the actual survey which means that everything I say about the survey must be treated with caution.

Anyway, these fifteen hundred women have some very old-fashioned values: Two thirds of them thought that men should be the main breadwinners of the family. One in four of the respondents planned to stay at home with children full time, whereas only one in ten expressed an intent to stay working full time after children arrive. Seven out of ten respondents didn't want to work as hard as their mothers had.

The way this is written up is most fascinating, and I don't mean the obvious wingnut reactions or the obvious "Feminism Is Dead" stuff, but things like this:

Margi Conklin, editor of New Woman magazine, said the findings reflected "a fundamental shift in young women's attitudes towards life and work.

"They've watched their own mothers trying, and often failing, to 'have it all', and decided they 'don't want it all'. They don't want to work crazy hours while their children are put into nurseries and their relationships disintegrate under the strain.

"Young women today are increasingly putting their personal happiness before a big salary or a high-powered career. Above anything else, they crave a work-life balance where they can enjoy a fulfilling relationship, raise happy children and have a job that interests them, but doesn't overwhelm them."

Come again? How is it suddenly the case that all these fifteen hundred respondents had mothers who were in the upper eschelons of the society? Who had high-powered careers and big salaries? I beg to disbelieve this. It's much more likely that the mothers of these women were a cross-section of the British society (if the survey was properly done to begin with), and that therefore most of them were not very well-off or with very interesting careers. They just had the double-day of many working women.

What we see here is the usual myth-making about feminism as the business of upper-class career women. Everything that relates to women and work must be seen through such a crooked lens. Let's inject a little more reality here. How many men do you think would like to stay at home with their young children if they could? I suspect quite a few. Here the patriarchal traditions favor women in that it is more acceptable for them to state such a desire. On the other hand, it's less acceptable for them to express an interest in continuing career-minded when children arrive, so I'd interpret all these answers with some care. Public opinions are not the same as private opinions. Neither are wishes and dreams the same as reality. The vast majority of these women will not be able to afford staying at home for very long, even in the welfare state of the United Kingdom.

My title for this post is misleading. The 1950's was not the way it is often portrayed. For example, a large proportion of married women always worked and there was an increase in married women's labor market participation rate by the end of the decade. That was the real 1950's. The imaginary one is the 1950's that the wingnuts always look back to with fondness: the time when men were men and women were at home. Many wingnuts can hardly wait until these times return and every study that suggests they might is greeted with joy in Wingnuttia.

I have always suspected that the wingnuts are much more interested in getting women out of the labor force than they are interested in enabling them to stay at home, but that's just me. Well, sadly for the wingnuts they are not going to get their version of the 1950's back any time soon. The economy is far too dependent on the labor input of women and the cost of living far too high for most families to have just one wage-earner.