Twenty-five years ago, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the phrase “stalled revolution” to describe how far American women had come since the 1950s. What she meant (in my reading) is that, although gender relations in America, from workplace to bedroom, had changed radically, the pace of change had slowed tremendously. The quicksand that bogged the gender revolution down was in the home, argued Hochschild, where the culture of traditional gender roles had women handling a “second shift” of home and parental duties in addition to the jobs they now held.

I was reminded of this influential work by a newly published paper in the American Sociological Review. Youngjoo Cha and Kim A. Weeden ask why, after decades of immersion into the workforce, employed women still make substantially less than men. The pay gap remains even though women now get more education than men and have long been covered by anti-discrimination laws. Many explanations have been offered, from subtler forms of discrimination to women’s shyness. Cha and Weeden present evidence that some of this “stalling” has resulted from changes in the workplace that are pressing all of us to work longer hours.

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Middle-class Americans have alternatively immersed themselves in and withdrawn from public urban spaces. In the early nineteenth century, the streets and squares of American center cities were commonly crowded, filthy, and dangerous – certainly no place for a “respectable” woman. By the end of that century, those same spaces had become even more crowded, but were now elegant and enticing – just where “respectable” women went to lunch and window-shop.

By the 1970s, however, middle-class Americans were again avoiding those streets and plazas. Television and the growth of suburbia had drawn many people into their homes. The center cities’ growing poverty and crime drove people away, leaving great American downtowns with abandoned stores and empty plazas. (See these previous posts: here and here.) We would expect, given all the speculations about how today’s communications technologies enable Americans to curl up in their burrows, for the flight from public spaces to have continued. Why go out at all? And if you do, why linger in public spaces?

Keith Hampton, Lauren Sessions Goulet, and Garrett Albanesius just reported a study in which they literally compared pictures of Americans in public spaces in 2010 to similar pictures in 1980. They found the pessimistic descriptions of changes disconfirmed.

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We have just witnessed the opening of the 9/11 memorial and museum at site of the destroyed World Trade Towers, an event that once more raises attention to how we Americans form our “collective memories.” (On collective memory, see here, here, here and here.) In a recent suggestive essay in the Journal of Social History, Stacy Otto argues that New Yorkers have mourned the 2001 tragedy as New Yorkers had mourned the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911.

In the earlier disaster, with eerie similarities to 9/11, 146 garment workers, many of them women and children, died, often by jumping out of windows to escape the flames. Hundreds of people, unable to reach the victims trapped on the high floors, watched helplessly.

Public mourning of the two events nearly a century apart, Otto argues, was in sharp contrast to the “modern” styles of grieving – or avoiding grieving – that had evolved in the years in between the two tragedies.

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This post is another grumpy complaint about a popular media trope that is historically and sociologically misguided, but, more important, that misdirects our attention: hand-wringing by young folks about being friendless and lonely in the 21st century. Complaints of young, privileged writers, echoed by older ones who have been peddling this theme for decades, distract us from the real, albeit old-school, problems of the 21st century: the material struggles of the the less-privileged.

The meme I refer to is a long string of magazine articles and newspaper stories that have gone viral about how isolated and friendless Americans have supposedly become. Sometimes the stories blame new technologies for isolating us (e.g., “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?”; “Driving Us to Isolation”; “Is Social Media Isolating...”) and sometimes they just blame the culture of the day.

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Bible Readings

A recent story noted that president of the Hobby Lobby company, the company that took its religious objections to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) all the way to the Supreme Court, is a leader in a campaign to put Bibles and Bible classes into American public schools. As you would expect, this move is getting push back from groups like the ACLU.



The latest controversy is yet one more episode in a long-, long-running series of conflicts over the Bible’s proper role, if any, in American public schools. The most ferocious such episode was probably the Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844. As part of rolling battles in American cities between Protestant nativists and Catholic immigrants, this one was sparked by Catholic objections to requiring reading the King James Bible in the public schools. In the backlash, several people were killed and Catholic churches were burned. Typically, conflicts over bible-reading were less physical and more political.

We misunderstand today’s debates on the issue if we imagine that Bible reading was once a universal practice in American schools only recently banished by the courts. And we misunderstand if we think about the controversies simply as disputes over whether to have religion – or which religion to have – in the schools. Historians have shown that the Bible played a complex role in American schools. (My major sources are here, here, and here.) In the end, many ministers decided they would just as soon have no Bible-reading in the public schools than the Bible-reading they were getting.

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There’s a lot of discussion about speed these days – from the possible advantage of seconds that some users on the internet would get were broadband “net neutrality” to go away to the market-disrupting micro-mini-milli-second competition among “flash mob” stock traders to debates over the speed-up “bullet trains” might provide. It seems as if we are being dizzied by speed. Imagine, then, how Americans reacted to real speedup in the nineteenth century.

This musing is based on a few old maps that were posted on the web in 2012 and then went viral (e.g., here) in 2013. (That I am writing about them only now shows how un-speeded up I am.) Two of the maps are below. The speedup Americans experienced between 1830 and 1930 dwarfs anything since or anything that we know now or could know – short of traveling through worm-holes.

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Political power in America has dispersed and democratized over the last 200-plus years. Where once only white men could vote and hold office, and in some states, only property-holding Christian ones at that, now just about every citizen 18 years or older can. Although actual political power is not and has never been shared in any way close to this ideal model, it is shared more than in the days of planter and merchant domination. Democracy’s expansion, however, was not ceaseless; there have been periods of shrinkage – notably the decades around 1900. We appear to be living through another retreat. Money plays a key role in both episodes, though differently now than it did before.

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