The Second Century of Struggle

Lunch Plenary, November 4, 2010
by Stephanie Coontz

Stephanie CoontzThis year is the 100th anniversary of Washington women winning the right to vote. It’s the 90th anniversary of the national woman suffrage amendment, the 44th anniversary of the founding of NOW, and the 40th anniversary of the Women’s Strike for Equality. And it’s been 162 years since Seneca Falls. Not a day has gone by in those 162 years when women weren’t working to overcome the legal, economic, and social discrimination they faced. It’s certainly a good time to celebrate both the struggles of our foremothers and the efforts of women’s historians – of so many of you here in this room – to rediscover and record those struggles.

One of the things we know as historians is that individual acts of heroism or even convulsive outbreaks of collective action don’t accomplish much if their demands and goals are out of touch with long-term political and socioeconomic trends, or they can’t find a social base in which they can root themselves to work for change. But we also know – and this is especially true when it comes to groups whose second-class status has long been built in to societal structure, groups like women and racial-ethnic minorities -- that “objective” historical trends are not enough to produce the kind of changes most beneficial to the groups involved.

In the 1950s, for example, both domestic and global transformations were rendering Jim Crow obsolete and counter-productive, even for many of the same social and economic interest groups that had installed it, but the battle against segregation took years of mass mobilization and personal sacrifice by black Americans and their supporters. The breakdown of 19th-century gender segregation may have been inevitable, but suffrage was hardly handed to women, either by an enlightened elite or a chastened nation eager to embrace gender equality. Many people in this room have chronicled the incredible organizing efforts it took to win the vote here in Washington. It took another 10 years of constant, often gut-wrenching, struggle to get the national amendment pushed through Congress.

And even after that, women were not “destined for equality.” Women may have been destined to rejoin the workforce. Marriage and childbearing may have been destined to organize a smaller portion of their lives. And these trends may even have made many women destined to recognize and resent their inequality. But until the second wave of feminists organized a struggle explicitly in women’s interests, women had very few opportunities to take advantage of those broader economic, cultural, and demographic changes for their own benefit or on their own terms.

So my original goal today was to remind you of how far we’ve come since that Second Wave, and to counter critics of the left and right respectively who argue either that the feminist movement has failed to dislodge patriarchy or that in destroying patriarchy, it followed a scorched-earth policy that has left women worse off than they were back in the 1950s and 1960s.

Last month I was on a radio show with a man who pointed to polls showing that women said they were happier in the past. I know those polls, and they pose complex questions about how people assess happiness, depending on their own past, their reference group, and their changing expectations. But thank goodness, I didn’t have to resort to long drawn-out sociological and methodological arguments, because he quoted a poll that I had happened to read while researching my new book about the women who were – and were not – influenced by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique back in 1963 and 1964.

On December 22, 1962, just a month before The Feminine Mystique hit the bookstores, The Saturday Evening Post published a cover article, based on nearly 200 interviews and extensive polling by the Gallup organization, purporting to offer a portrait of the typical American woman. The opening page featured a photo of “Mrs. Charles Johnson,” surrounded by her husband and children. “I just want to take care of Charlie and the children,” the caption explained, summing up what the reader soon learned was the collective attitude of “American women, in toto.”

“Few people,” the pollsters concluded, “are as happy as a housewife,” and the author, George Gallup, proceeded to explain why. Unlike men, he said, women do not need to “search for a meaning in life.” They “know precisely why they’re here on earth” -- to be a good wife and mother. I’ll describe how society defined a good wife in a few minutes, but first note how these women, themselves, described a good husband. He “must be the leader” of the family they said repeatedly. One woman who had worked at a paid job for 10 years before quitting her job at marriage explained that “a woman needs a master-slave relationship whether it’s husband and wife or boss-secretary.” Another commented that “being subordinate to men is a part of being feminine.” A third declared that what made her feel “equal” was spending her spare time developing interests he approved of, “so I won’t bore” him. And not one said that a good husband should be an involved father. In fact, family experts suggested that men who changed the diapers too often or puttered in the kitchen probably had, in the memorable words of one sociologist I read, “a little too much fat on the inner thigh.”

Women’s expectations of their rights were so much lower in the 1960s and their definition of their duties so much higher that comparisons of reported happiness are not very useful. Consider the lack of options for a wife who admitted to any discontent in that era. In 42 states and the District of Columbia, earnings acquired during marriage were owned separately. This meant that if a couple divorced and the wife had been a homemaker, she was not entitled to share the earnings her husband had accumulated. In most states a wife had “no legal rights to any part of her husband’s earnings or property during the existence of the marriage, aside from a right to be properly supported.” The definition of what constituted “proper” support was often very limited. In one case that made it to the Kansas Supreme Court, a wife whose comfortably-off husband refused to install running water in her kitchen was rebuffed when she tried to make the case that this constituted less than adequate support.

Only four states allowed a wife the full right to her own separate legal residence. If a female in California married a fellow student from out of state, for example, she would lose her in-state tuition. The husband had the right to determine the couple’s joint residence, so if he moved and she refused to follow, she could be said to have deserted him in a divorce case.

When there were problems in a marriage, experts agreed, the answer was not mutual negotiation but wifely capitulation. Even if her husband was cruel, unfaithful, or alcoholic, therapists encouraged women to figure out what they were doing that perpetuated this behavior. After four counseling sessions at Ohio State University’s marriage clinic, a 20-year-old pregnant wife dutifully concluded that her husband’s infidelities were probably due to her failure to take enough care with her own appearance and that of her home, and she resolved to be “better groomed, cleaner.” For cases where such immersion in domesticity did not reform the husband, “resignation,” social workers advised, was the best “protection from excessive frustration.”

In fact, there was often no real alternative to resignation, even in cases of abuse. Many states required police officers to actually see a man assault his wife before they could make an arrest. In some places, the police used the “stitch rule,” arresting an abusing husband only if the wife’s injuries required more than a certain number of sutures. I was especially stunned to discover a 1964 article in the Archives of General Psychiatry, published by the American Medical Association, which reported on a study of 37 women married to men who had physically abused them. The authors found that the wives typically did not call the police until more than a decade after the abuse began, often following an incident where a teenage child intervened in the violence. But rather than lamenting the women’s long delay in seeking assistance, the authors explained that the child’s intervention disturbed “a marital equilibrium which had been working more or less satisfactorily.” To hear them tell it, most problems in such marriages were the fault of the wives, whom they described as “aggressive, efficient, masculine, and sexually frigid.” In many cases, the psychiatrists suggested, the violent incidents served as periodic corrections to the family role reversal, allowing the wife “to be punished for her castrating activity” and the husband “to re-establish his masculine identity.” Small wonder that wives counted their blessings, even the smallest ones, rather than asking for more. As late as the 1970s, Lillian Rubin found that the working-class women she interviewed defined a “Happy enough” marriage as one where “he hardly ever hits me” or “he doesn’t drink up his pay check every week.”

Women limited their aspirations because they didn’t have many alternatives. Everyone knew that professional, rewarding work was largely unavailable to woman, and was certainly incompatible with marriage, since a real career required a wife, and a real wife prioritized her husband’s work. In the mid-1960s newspapers still divided their employment ads into two separate sections, “Help Wanted/ Female” and “Help Wanted/ Male.” In 1965, New York Times was still publishing ads for “college-educated gal Fridays, “Ivy League grad with good typing skills” (of course only 2 of the 8 Ivy League schools accepted female undergraduates) and “pretty-looking, cheerful” receptionists. One particularly demanding employer stipulated “you must be really beautiful.”

Two companies sought a “career minded college educated” candidate for an executive secretary job, but stipulated that she must be single, and in fact, no laws prevented employers from firing workers if they married or became pregnant. One airline in the 1960s did have a unique form of maternity leave for its stewardesses. If a woman had a miscarriage or if her child died within a year she could return to her job with no loss of seniority. When another airline found out a flight attendant had continued working after having a baby they offered her the choice of putting her child in an orphanage or leaving her job.

Once they got hired, working women, single or married, were discriminated against in pay, promotion, and daily treatment on the job. In 1963, women who worked full-time earned only 60 percent of what men earned; black women earned only 42 percent. On average, a woman with four years of college earned less than a male high school graduate.

There was no recourse against what we now call sexual harassment. One high school boy who worked a summer job in a newspaper room in 1964 wrote in his diary that when he entered the compositing room with Doris, the copy girl, “all of the printers and linotype operators started screaming and howling. At first I didn’t understand what was going on, but then I figured it out: They were doing it to Doris.” When he asked Doris what it meant, she responded: “It’s just how they act around women.” The boy found the incident startling, but once it was explained to him, he simply accepted it, as Doris had to do, as the way work was conducted in those days. (The Supreme Court did not rule sexual harassment on the job illegal, by the way, until 1993.)

Women had little control over their sexual and reproductive destinies in 1963. In that year, seventeen states still restricted women’s access to contraceptives. Massachusetts flatly prohibited their sale, and made it a misdemeanor for anyone, even a married couple, to use birth control. Not until 1965 did the Supreme Court rule that it was an unconstitutional invasion of privacy to deny married women access to contraceptives. It took several more years for unmarried women to obtain equal access to birth control.

In many states, it was illegal for a woman to wear men’s clothing, and every state in the union had “sodomy” laws that criminalized sexual relations other than heterosexual intercourse. In California, oral sex, even between a married couple, carried a potential jail term of 14 years.

Abortion was still illegal. Experts estimated that a million or more illegal abortions a year were performed on American women, with between 5,000 and 10,000 women dying as a result. Such abortions accounted for 40 percent of maternal deaths.

Discrimination was pervasive in little ways as well as big. Elementary schools did not allow girls to be crossing guards, or to raise and lower the American flag each day. Girls couldn’t play in Little League sports. Many universities still required female students to wear dresses to class, even in bitterly cold weather. Women in dormitories faced curfew restrictions that men did not. College sports were heavily skewed toward the men. Often, women couldn’t use school athletic facilities. Graduate departments frequently placed a quota on the number of women they would admit. In 1970, the dean of the University of Texas dental school limited females to 2 percent of all admissions, because “girls aren’t strong enough to pull teeth.”

In 1963, women, who were 51 percent of the population, comprised just 2 percent of U.S. Senators and ambassadors and 2.5 percent of members of the House of Representatives. Unions routinely kept separate seniority lists for men and women. Only 2.6 percent of all attorneys were female and there were just 3 women among the 422 federal judges in the nation. Not until 1984 did the Supreme Court rule that law firms could not discriminate on the basis of sex in deciding which lawyers in the firm to promote to partners.

Clubs such as the Jaycees could legally refuse to admit women on the grounds that it abridged their male members’ “freedom of intimate association.” In 1963, the National Press Club was still all-male. Female reporters who went there to hear a talk by Black union leader A. Philip Randolph just before the August 1963 rally where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech had to sit up in a small balcony away from the rest of the audience, where they were not able to ask questions. And at that historic rally for equality, there was not one woman among the 10 speakers, although “Mrs. Medger Evars” did introduce a tribute to six “Negro women fighters for freedom,” who stood silently on the stage.

So we actually have come a long, long way. Today women receive a majority of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and in 2007 they pulled even with men as new recipients of Ph.D’s. And women’s academic achievement is no longer confined to traditional “women’s” fields. On July 25, 2008 – sixteen years after the talking Barbie doll chirped “math class is tough” – Science Magazine reported that the long-standing gap between high school boys and girls on standardized math tests had disappeared. Today high school girls take as many advanced math classes as the boys. Women now earn the majority of bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and in the biological and agricultural sciences.

As late as 1970, less than 8 percent of physicians were female. Today women are a full quarter of all practicing physicians and comprise nearly half the enrollment in medical schools. In 1972, women were only 3 percent of all licensed attorneys; by 2008, nearly one-third of all lawyers in the United States were female. We have had two female Secretaries of State in a row, and currently three women sit on the Supreme Court.

Young childless women have made dramatic gains in the workplace, in part because of their growing educational advantage over men. Today, in a number of major urban centers, including New York, Dallas, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles, women between the ages of 21 and 30 earn more than men the same age. Nationwide, females in this age group earn almost 90 percent of what their male peers of the same age make, a much smaller wage gap than exists between older men and women. A growing proportion of wives out-earn their husbands.

The glass ceiling is not yet shattered, even for those women who have managed to get beyond the entry-level. A March 2010 study by the American Association of University Women found that among postdoctoral applicants, women had to publish three more papers in the most prestigious journals, or 20 more in the less prestigious ones, to be considered as productive as male applicants. In the television news industry, two-thirds of the news producers, but only 20 percent of the news directors, are female. Men make up more than three-quarters of all workers earning more than $100,000 a year, and as of 2009, only 2 percent of Fortune 500 companies were run by women. And women who earn as much or more than men when they are childless usually face a motherhood penalty when they have children.

So there is more to do, and women still face many prejudices and historically-constructed disadvantages on the basis of their gender. But the progress has been impressive, even in the areas where women tend to be most vulnerable. Sexual assaults against young women have dropped dramatically in the last two decades. So have domestic violence rates. And men in families so much more housework and childcare than in the past, to the point that it is simply inaccurate to speak of women doing a whole “second shift.”

But two things happened in the last week that made me change my mind about ending on a “look how far we have come sisters” note. One was that I read a new research paper showing that the top 5 percent of female earners actually get a motherhood bonus, making their experience of family life not just quantitatively but also qualitatively different than that of other women. The other was looking at the results of Tuesday’s election, which vividly illustrated the limits of sisterhood and the existence of distinct interests and values among women. So I want to talk a little bit about the challenges both of working for gender equity and of recording women’s history in a world where sexism is no longer a monolithic system, imposed by outright exclusion, legal enforcement of inequality, or even a full-fledged cultural consensus about what women can and cannot do.

Until recently, gender and race were the master ascribed statuses that outweighed many achieved ones. As late as 1970, for example, the average female college graduate and the average black college graduate, working fulltime, earned less than the average white male high school graduate. Today, however, education outweighs race and gender. And the new chemistry of class and gender actually seems to disadvantage low-income men in comparison to their female counterparts in several significant ways. Today gender inequities and interests intersect with race, class and family status that makes analyzing and combating inequality more complicated than when there was a whole discriminatory legal system to overturn and a cultural consensus about female incapacity to shatter.

Women still have many common interests, concerns, and behavior patterns. All women have a direct stake in controlling their own reproductive decisions, whether that means the right to contraception and abortion, the right to safe childbirth, or the right to nurse their children. All women, whatever their race or class, are more vulnerable than their male counterparts to sexual exploitation and rape. They are much more likely to experience violence in intimate relationships. And women are generally expected -- and themselves expect – to take the bulk of responsibility for nurturing children.

But depending on their class position, the degree of occupational segregation in their community, their position in a family and the economic opportunities for each family member in a changing economy, women make diverging assessments about how to protect these common reproductive, sexual, and family interests. Women who can hold their own in a competitive labor market tend to believe that their best protection against sexual exploitation is to oppose the sexual double standard and vigorously prosecute cases of sexual harassment or rape. Women who are – or want to be -- more dependent upon the protection of a husband often support a sexual double standard that stresses female purity and male gallantry.

Similarly, although most women are well aware that women are paid less and have less change for advancement at work than men, women choose different strategies for coping with these disadvantages. Those who have more need or greater options to support themselves outside marriage tend to favor the expansion of economic opportunities for women and oppose laws and values that give authority to men over women and to fathers over children. But women in subgroups where men’s jobs and wages are under attack, and females have little access to economic autonomy may find that their interests are best served by laws and values that perpetuate the advantages of their menfolk, selectively cultivating a culture of “family values to emphasize their husbands’ and children’s obligations to support them.

Even when it comes to such an emotionally and morally charged issue as contraception and abortion, women’s positions are influenced by conflicting assessments of how best to manage the shared gender experience that it is women, not men, who get pregnant. Women who are either economically or psychologically focused on the security and satisfactions of finding or keeping a husband often tell interviewers that if other women are allowed to escape the biological consequences of having sex, men will be less willing to offer marriage in return for sex. Women who plan to postpone marriage or childbearing while building their careers, or expect their daughters to do so, are far more likely to want to ensure that they can avoid or end an unintended pregnancy.

Finally, the fact that most women still see themselves as more responsible for childrearing than their partners leads women with different economic options and aspirations to espouse different family policies. Women who want to stay home with their children or who can’t earn enough in the job market to pay for reliable child care tend to favor tax breaks for stay-at-home moms. Women who want to combine work and family call for expanding child care and guaranteeing parental leaves for both men and women.

So I changed my mind last night about where to go with this talk. Originally I had meant to end on an inspiring note, by reading you the wonderful Japanese poem about “mountain moving time” or Jesse Lynch William’s description of how the mass marches of the suffrage movement affected the men in a Fifth Avenue Men’s Club who had originally greeted the marchers with hoots of derisive laughter. But instead I want to end with a challenge. We need a lot more work on how to conceptualize – as historians – and how to operationalize – as civic activists – the contradictions, interactions, conflicts, and potential linkages between class interests, racial-ethnic interests, and gender interests. I have long puzzled on this conceptual question and the closest I’ve been able to come to grappling with it is to think of these different sources of identity as part of a braided rope, whose different strands face outward at different times as the rope twists in the breeze. And if the rope is rubbing against the side of a house, the strands may get worn down at different rates, so that one is bearing more of the load, or fraying faster than the other. Our challenge is to figure out how to strengthen the strands that are showing wear and rebraid the rope so that the strands can pull us all toward greater equality, and I don’t think we can do that today by just focusing on gender.


Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. She also serves as Co-Chair and Director of Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families, a non-profit, nonpartisan association of family researchers and practitioners based at the University of Illinois at Chicago.