Claude Fischer, at Made in America, argues that the biggest change of the last 50 years is the increase in the number of mothers in the workforce.  From the beginning of last century till now, that rate has accelerated precipitously:

While some women have always worked (at unpaid housework and childcare, selling goods made at home, or in paid jobs), most women now work outside of the home for pay.  So long “traditional” family.  Why the change?  Fischer explains:

First, work changed to offer more jobs to women. Farming declined sharply; industrial jobs peaked and then declined. Brawn became less important; precise skills, learning, and personal service became more important. The new economy generated millions of white-collar and “pink-collar” jobs that seemed “suited” to women. That cannot be the full story, of course; women also took over many jobs that had once been men’s, such as teaching and secretarial work.

Second, mothers responded to those job opportunities. Some took jobs because the extra income could help families buy cars, homes, furnishings, and so on. Some took jobs because the family needed their income to make up for husbands’ stagnating wages (a noteworthy trend after the 1970s). And some took jobs because they sought personal fulfillment in the world of work.

And married working mothers changed the economy as well.  Once it became commonplace for families to have two incomes, houses, cars, and other goods could be more expensive.  Things women had done for free — everything from making soap and clothes, to growing and preparing food, and cleaning one’s own home — could be commodified.  Commodification, the process of newly buying and selling something that had not previously been bought and sold, made for even more jobs, and more workers, and so the story continues…

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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