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Posts Tagged ‘women’

One of the fascinating stories about Americans’ encounters with modern technology has been about how the flurry of labor-saving devices from the early twentieth century–electric lighting, central heating, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, electric and gas stoves, washing machines, dryers, full water and sewer systems, etc.–did or perhaps did not reduce the domestic workload of American women.

The conventional answer among historians, developed most fully in Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s 1980 classic, More Work for Mother (see also here), is a paradox: The time women spent in housework did not go down between, say, the 1900s and the 1960s, but stayed about the same. The reason, it is argued, is that standards for good housework rose and ate up the time savings provided by technology. No longer did gruel and cold cuts of meat make a passable meal; women now had to prepare “cuisine” each evening. No longer were monthly washings of bedclothes enough; they had to be washed weekly (and personal clothing had to be washed often enough to be changed daily). No longer was a bit of dirt and grime acceptable until spring cleaning; now homes had to be spic-n-span always.

1946 (source)

1946 (source)

Housework may have become less physically draining–no more hauling water or firewood to the kitchen; no more hand-wringing of wet clothes–and the results become more satisfying–better meals, healthier families, cleaner homes–but the time demands did not change.

A key research study behind this paradoxical story appeared in 1974. Joann Vanek compared several hundred “time-budgets” filled out by American women in the 1920s and ‘30s to those gathered from American women in the 1960s. (“Time-budget” studies ask respondents to report what they were doing in precise time segments, say, every 15 minutes, throughout the waking day.) Vanek found that among women not employed outside the home there was little difference in the amount of time they spent on domestic duties between roughly 1920 and 1970, despite all those new time-saving appliances. Given that many more women were working, Vanek concluded 40 years ago: “It appears that modern life has not shortened the woman’s work day. Farm work has been greatly reduced, but it has been replaced by work in the labor force. Indeed, for married women in fulltime jobs the work day is probably longer than it was for their grandmothers.”

In a newly-published study, Jonathan Gershuny and Teresa Atttracta Harms go back to the original time-budget reports, add more data and some new techniques, and come up with a somewhat different conclusion about technology and domestic work.

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A Woman President?

The nomination of Hillary Clinton for president is a penultimate historic moment. Her election, like that of Barack Obama, would be historic–at least for this country. (India installed a woman head of government 50 years ago, Israel did 47 years ago, and the U.K. did 37 years ago.) You don’t need a sociologist to tell you that women’s situations have changed dramatically in the last few decades.

Just as the election of Barack Obama in 2008 highlighted the vast advances of blacks in America but did not usher in a “post-racial” or “post-racism” era, so the election of Hillary Clinton in 2016 would highlight the vast advances of women in America but will not end the tensions about women’s proper roles. Almost all Americans today say that they would vote for a woman for president, but many of them retain reservations about the gender equality such a vote implies.

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Finding Public Relief

One of the major changes in American life about 100-120 years ago was the domestication of public spaces, particularly in our cities, making them places where “respectable” women went shopping and for entertainment. As described in an earlier post, the streets were historically dangerous places for women, even in daytime. Beginning after the Civil War and accelerating around the end of the century, authorities established dependable public order in many areas of the cities, especially in commercial districts, to the point that going downtown rather than avoiding it was what fashionable middle class women did. (Americans went through another cycle of shunning public spaces in the 1950s to ‘90s and then flocking back to them more recently; see here.)

Two just-published papers reveal yet more of how women claimed urban spaces in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One describes how middle-class women came to drink in public places, getting a bit of alcoholic relief downtown. Another describes women reformers’ efforts to provide public bathroom relief downtown. That campaign stalled and the search for public facilities continues, as witnessed by smartphone apps for finding toilets downtown. Both accounts fill in the story how women tamed the city.

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Women Dining

Debates over women’s rights in America have often polarized between those arguing that women need special recognition of how they differ from men – their role as mothers, smaller physiques, sexual vulnerability, and greater sensitivity, for example – and those arguing that women just need to be treated just like men. The story of how women’s rights expanded historically seems, crudely sketched, as first an expansion of special treatment and then an affirmation of similar treatment. The trajectory for women in the paid labor force, for instance, can be crudely described as a period of legislation providing women with special hours and conditions followed by an effort to guarantee equal treatment.

A new article by historian Paul Freedman in the Journal of Social History recounts one small part of the women’s rights story that seems to fit this pattern: women in restaurants. Today, a group of women dining without men is hardly worthy of notice; a woman dining alone might stir only about as much curiosity as a man dining alone. It was once quite different.

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Women in Politics 1780-2014

As many Americans anticipate the likely nomination by a major party of a woman for president – the New Republic cover of July 14 calls Hillary Clinton “Inevitable” – it is worth pausing to reflect on how women’s participation in politics has changed over the course of American history. In eras before Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Nancy Pelosi, participating in politics was not only nearly impossible for women but was also considered a violation of what it meant to be a woman.

A just-published article in the Journal of the Early Republic by Emily J. Arendt illustrates the stark contrast between then and now. Arendt tells the story of the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, “the first female voluntary association in the United States,” formed in 1780 to assist Continental soldiers. The domestic nature of its work and awestruck reaction observers had to activist women underlines the era’s low expectations for women’s participation in civic life. Those low expectations lasted – despite the notoriety of early feminists – well into the twentieth century, making the last half-century a sharp historical departure for women in politics.

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Work Hours and the Pay Gap

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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Is the Gender Revolution Over?

With all the fuss around Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book and campaign, the argument over whether women can “have it all” and, if not, why not, and do they really want it “all” anyway, and so on and so forth is back on magazine front covers and  all over the blogosphere. A related but different question is whether the women who might potentially “have it all” are chasing it all. What, in fact, are young, college-educated women deciding to do?

This was the subject of an earlier post (here). I have updated the evidence for my latest column in the Boston Review, available here.

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