Why Work Is Good for Women
I have always had a fierce drive for financial independence. When I was a girl child in the 1950s and 1960s, I remember reflecting on my mother’s traditional suburban life as a homemaker and being horrified by her lack of independence. Although she was living a life that met society’s expectations, she often told me stories about dreams she had abandoned to be a wife and mother.
I also knew that while she and my father had rough patches in their marriage from time to time, leaving him was not an option for her. She had only a middle-school education and limited work experience. She had no financial independence. She was stuck. I vowed not to be like her. Her options were limited, and, while more types of jobs are available to women today than in her time, some of our society’s assumptions and expectations about women and work have not changed.
Jill Filipovic of the New York Times writes about the ambivalence still present in the United States about women and work. She notes that while work is still acknowledged as important to men’s sense of self-worth and identity as providers, “historically women weren’t supposed to need their individual identity to be formed through work . . . women’s identities have long been relational—daughter, wife, mother—rather than individual.” In fact, this difference seems to have been a strong driver in the 2016 presidential election as white working-class women and men voted for Trump, who promised to bring back the blue-collar jobs that provided self-worth for white working-class men and paid wages that reinforced their identity as providers.
Even though women surged into the workforce between 1950 and 2000 and the number of hours worked by both black and white women more than doubled, Americans still remain ambivalent about women working today. Filipovic notes that there is no robust feminist argument in favor of women working outside the home. I remember when early second-wave feminists did try to make this argument in the 1970s and 1980s, and the backlash was so swift and fierce that they had to back down. Remember when Hillary Clinton had to bake cookies in the 1990s when her husband ran for president to prove that she was an acceptable woman even though she had a successful law career?
Filipovic writes, “That feminists are so often unable or unwilling to make a vigorous moral argument in favor of women working . . . is perhaps one reason we have not yet seen the political groundswell necessary to pass the workplace policies we so desperately need.”
Research shows, however, that it is good for everyone when women work:
- Women are better off when we work outside of the home: our mental and physical health are better and our levels of happiness are higher.
- Daughters of working mothers tend to be higher achievers.
- Men raised by working mothers do more housework and child care as adults.
- Men who have working wives tend to be more supportive of, and give more promotions to, female coworkers.
- Women who are financially independent are less likely to get stuck in abusive or unhappy relationships.
Unfortunately, public opinion remains stuck. Filipovic reports that “just over half of Americans believe children are better off with a mother who is at home full time and does not hold a job. Only 8 percent say the same thing about fathers.”
Our ambivalence about women working and achieving successful careers runs deep. A recent study reported in the Boston Globe found that “after the hiring of a female or minority CEO, white male executives identified less with the company and felt less valued by it, than when a white male CEO was hired.” No wonder we have not been able to elect a female president or pass legislation that supports women working outside of the home.