The Equal Pay Act turns 50 on Monday, June 10, 2013 and the Council on Contemporary Families has convened an online symposium representing the latest thinking from pre-eminent work-family scholars, business people, and advocates for low-wage workers and unions.

In one of the ten briefs, CUNY’s Ruth Milkman reports how labor unions—and women in them—spearheaded the campaign for the Equal Pay Act, even though they made up only 18.3 percent of members at the time. If unions had had their way the language would not have been “equal pay for equal work” but “equal wage rates for work of comparable character on jobs the performance of which requires comparable skills.” Milkman explains, this was “wording that would have forced employers to pay women in traditionally sex-segregated jobs as much as men with comparable skills in traditionally male occupations…. Given the pervasiveness of job segregation by gender, this weakened requirement for equity ensured that the law had a far more limited impact.”

How are women in unions doing? Today, women make up 45 percent of all union members, but union membership rates have declined: In 1960 one in four workers was in a union; today, that is down to about one in ten, reports Milkman. The historic decline hit private sector unions, where male unions used to be strong, first and hardest, says Milkman. But “starting in 2011, a wave of state-level legislation weakening collective bargaining rights for public sector workers has directly targeted teachers and other unionized female-dominated occupations.”  This attack is a real problem since women union workers earn an average of more than $5 an hour more than nonunion ones and have more benefits and job security as well—and nonunion workers in unionized fields benefit from this advantage.

As a public sector worker–a professor at a state university–and a proud union member, I say thanks labor movement!

For other NICE WORK posts on women in unions, read unions matter to women, waiting for superwoman, and woman’s nation = workers’ nation.

This week, Gender & Society released a study, “Engendering Racial Perceptions: An Intersectional Analysis of How Social Status Shapes Race,” that shows that we pile on a set of descriptions—like single, mother, and welfare-dependent—to build our most persistent stereotypes. This valuable study demonstrates intersectionality plainly enough to share with my students and broader audiences who want to understand why inequality persists even as things continue to change. When I teach this I’ll use Lisa Wade’s recent Soc Images post on managing stigma where she discusses intersectionality and the photo posted you can see below.

1 Researchers study what shapes racial classification. In a novel study that looked back at how survey interviewers racially classify people over the course of their adult lives, sociologists Andrew Penner (University of California-Irvine) and Aliya Saperstein (Stanford University) discovered that from one year to the next some people’s race appeared to change. This change occurred when the interviewer in one year wrote down one race, but in the next year the interviewer wrote down a different race. Penner and Saperstein call these changes in classification “racial fluidity,” and the researchers wanted to know what affected how a person’s race was perceived.

Drawing on nearly 20 years of longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), the researchers found changes in racial classification occurred for six percent of people each year; over the course of the study, 20 percent of those interviewed switched racial classifications at least once. Importantly, these changes did not occur at random. The fluidity was related to both social status and gender.

Penner explained:  “We often talk about racial stereotypes as affecting people’s attitudes in the sense that knowing a woman’s race can change what you think about whether she is on welfare. Our study shows the opposite also happens–knowing whether a woman has ever received welfare benefits affects what you think about her race.”

How did the study work? NLSY interviewers spent time interviewing subjects about a range of issues like their job, their living circumstances, and their relationships. At the end of their meeting, interviewers wrote down whether the person they had just interviewed was white, black, or other. In most cases, the interviewer did not know specific details of the subjects’ ancestry or how they would have racially identified themselves. Each racial classification provided a window into how that person was likely to be perceived and treated by other people. The changes the researchers detected allowed them to look in on those perceptions.

“Instead of adjusting our stereotypes to fit the world around us,” Saperstein explained, “people are more likely to adjust their view of the world to fit our shared stereotypes.”

How did being a man or a woman make a difference? The study found that men and women had similar levels of racial fluidity overall, and some factors, such as where the people lived, resulted in similar changes for both women and men. All else being equal, people were more likely to be classified as white and less likely to be classified as black if they lived in the suburbs, while the opposite was true for people living in the inner city.

However, other factors that triggered changes in racial classification differed by gender. In particular, poverty made men and women less likely to be classified as white, but the effect was stronger for men. Penner explains, “This is consistent with traditional gender roles that emphasize men’s responsibility as breadwinners, so that poverty changes how men are seen more than how women are seen.”

On the other hand, women, but not men, who have received welfare benefits are less likely to be seen as white and more likely to be seen as black, even though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that in 2010 70% of welfare recipients are not black. Penner continues, “This result speaks to deeply entrenched stereotypes of ‘welfare queens’ originally made popular by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Knowing that a women is on welfare triggers a racial stereotype that isn’t triggered for men.”

Consistent with other widespread stereotypes, being a single parent affected a woman’s likelihood of being classified as white more than a man’s, while having been in prison affected whether men were classified as white but not women. To make the point, Saperstein wrote a blog post at Boston Review, “Can Losing Your Job Make You Black?

“Not all of our stereotypes about social status are related to race or gender, or a combination of the two, and our results reflect that complexity” Saperstein said. “But, overall, it is striking how consistent the patterns of racial fluidity are with societal expectations about what white people or black people do, and even what we expect of white women compared to white men.”

What to make of this?  People often wonder why inequality is so persistent despite many societal changes. The study found that gender and social class play a part in racial perceptions, but the key to the findings is that, when it comes to creating a mental picture of a person, these factors are not separate from one another. Penner and Saperstein found that racial stereotypes are reinforced through combinations—or intersections—of positive or negative statuses. The intersection of race, gender, and social class plays a key role in why these stereotypes—and the inequality that stereotypes support—are so challenging to erase.

As University of Massachusetts sociologist Joya Misra, editor of Gender & Society, comments, “What is brilliant about Penner and Saperstein’s study is how it shows us that race is malleable – how we see other people as white or black is affected by what else we know about them. Yet even how we racialize someone draws on stereotypes that reflect both gender and race.”

The study is based on analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a national longitudinal survey collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The data covers years from 1979 through 1998, the most recent years in which interviewers recorded their racial classification of respondents.

It is wedding season, and a landmark year for marriage equality. Someone asked me what would be my feminist utopia for marriage, and I started thinking: Utopias are for Enlightenment thinkers, those expansive philosophers who made heady contributions… but who sometimes didn’t quite see around their own contradictions? Take Mary Wollstonecraft, 18th century Enlightenment feminist polemicist. She had an essentialist streak that led her to argue that women needed to be better educated–to fulfill their duties as wives and mothers. For sure, the notion of a marriage between two men or two women was inconceivable because of the necessity of the natural roles in marriage. Despite her limits, I think Wollstonecraft captures some of my thinking about marriage and utopias via her two famous lines on the topic.

The first is in Wollstonecraft’s unfinished novel, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (1798). The protagonist Maria proclaims from within a violent middle-class marriage, “marriage has bastilled me for life!” This politically-charged allusion to the Bastille at the time of the then, still recent, French Revolution suggests that just as aristocracy imprisons peasants, marriage—and men—imprison women.

It is too boring to catalog the subsequent 19th, 20th and 21st century complaints about marriage, one generation after the next finding novel or critical ways to look at marriage in terms of the extent to which it is an honored, covert bastille. There’s Friedan’s problem with no name! There’s the second shift for women in the workforce! Here’s the opt-out puzzle! What’s with the gender gap in depression among married people? Just today, the New York Times covered how marriage is a marker and maintainer of social class divides—more marriage for those with social advantages, and less for the rest. So, marriage even plays a role in replicating wider forms of inequality beyond gender inequality. Looking back at Wollstonecraft, I wonder how long it has been since anything new has been said by white middle-class feminists (like myself) who engage in critical thinking about marriage. It has been all imprisonment and limitations–with some bits of moving forward.

The second Wollstonecraft line appears in an earlier novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788), where she writes at the very end of a better world “where there is neither marrying, nor giving in marriage.” The heroine was on her deathbed. Her utopia was heaven, where there is no marriage. Now that’s more like it. Well, except for the death part. This was Wollstonecraft’s proposed resistance to the silliness of women’s education, which failed to parallel the reason-based training of men. Education instead socialized women into mindless versions of wives and mothers that she wrote about in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)—a political treatise in response to Talleyrand’s 1791 remarks naysaying women’s education. Wollstonecraft ended up hating her earlier novel, but she still made a nice point about no marriage.

So what is my feminist marriage utopia? I don’t care if there is or there isn’t marriage; if it is available it should be available to all. In truth, I dislike it when people weirdly change their names. I don’t like the class and commodity fetish that weddings are. And the ceremonies, like when they bless fifty-year-olds to be fruitful and multiply, are embarrassingly heteronormative. But that’s okay. I also don’t like NASCAR, or football, or seafood, and these are things that other perfectly fine people do like.

What works better than a complaint about marriage (or a paean to it, for that matter) is a complaint about inequality, which seems always at the center of our repetitive critiques of marriage. And, with that, I’ll add a complaint about essentialism—or the belief that how your body was born or modified is sensibly linked to your lot in life.

A feminist utopia is one that does not tolerate inequalities, like the inequality of handing out informal and formal advantages based on preferences for some relationships over others. Today’s Times article, “Two Classes Divided by ‘I Do’” makes the point yet again—even if the conclusions folks draw from the classes divided is either “for marriage” or “against marriage.” Generation after generation, marriage plays a role in replicating inequality. A feminist utopia is one that would not put up with sneaky ways of embedding essentialism into our institutions. Marriage, as a cultural artifact of essentialism, does that a lot. It is baked into the cake.

Back in the 1800s, the U.S. labor movement aimed at reducing impossibly long working hours—and succeeded with the Adamson Act in 1916, which gave us the 40-hour work week. A century later, that’s all changed. Research released this month in the journal Gender & Society confirms that “overwork”— working more than 50 hours per week—has become part of the job for many Americans, though with different effects for men and women. Over the past thirty years, hours at work—especially in higher income jobs—have increased, and over one-third of men and nearly one-fifth of women in professions work more than a 50-hour week.

A new Gender & Society study reveals how overwork contributes to the “stalled gender revolution” and helps to explain why there isn’t more equality in the workplace, despite the popular belief that equality between men and women is a social good. The new study gives hints, too, about the challenges women face in order to “lean in” and get ahead.

Who is affected by overwork? In “Overwork and the Persistence of Gender Segregation in Occupations,” Indiana University sociologist Youngjoo Cha reports that overwork affects men and women differently—especially in fields where there are a lot more men than women to begin with. Dr. Cha finds that the impact of overwork on men and women is especially pronounced in occupations where the majority of employees are men, known as “male dominated occupations.” She found that:

  • In male-dominated occupations, overwork was more likely than in balanced fields or female-dominated fields.
  • Mothers were 52 percent more likely than other women to leave their jobs if they were working a 50-hour week or more, but only in occupations dominated by men.
  • Higher education levels make it more likely that women stay in their jobs—but not enough to overcome the discouraging effect of being an overworking mother.
  • Mothers in male-dominated occupations were more discouraged despite the fact that the women who survived in those more masculine fields may on average be more committed to work than overworking women in other jobs.
  • Meanwhile, men (whether fathers or not) and women without children were not more likely to leave their jobs in overworking fields.
  • When mothers left their jobs, some moved to less male-dominated professions; others entirely left the labor force.

The problem, according to Cha, is simple. Overworking mothers continue to have a larger share of caregiving responsibilities, compared to other workers. Cha explains that “Overwork disadvantages women with children in particular. In overworking workplaces, you have to be there or be on call all the time. That expectation can be met by people who have few caregiving or community responsibilities and who are not primary caregivers at home.” While men and women have adjusted their ability to share domestic caregiving in recent years, these more extreme situations of overwork demonstrate the limits of the flexibility that men and women often aim for—but can’t always achieve.

Why does overwork affect mothers only in male-dominated professions? Cha’s finding that overwork discourages women in male-dominated occupations begs the question, why? “If it were a case of women’s reticence to work additional hours,” Cha explains, “we would expect overworking women to be discouraged regardless of whether mainly men or women were at work.” But her results do not show that. Instead, the results suggest that something about jobs that are mainly populated by men discourages women. What’s that something? Cha observes that male-dominated professions are more likely to maintain strong and inflexible expectations of overwork.

Does this tell us anything about what dual earner couples can expect? Workplaces dominated by men tend to operate on outdated assumptions about “separate spheres” marriage — that is, families that have a homemaking woman and a breadwinning man. Yet today both partners are employed in nearly eighty percent of American couples.

Is this a case of opting out? Cha considered whether she had found evidence of “opting out”—the claim that women, when they can, leave work when they become mothers. “In my study, not all women with children leave the labor force. When they work long hours, it is the combination of being a mother, working long hours, and being in a male dominated profession that is discouraging.” Where overwork only in a male-dominated occupation influenced married women’s choices, Cha also found that husbands’ income didn’t change the basic findings.

In her article, Cha argues for promoting workplace policies that minimize the expectation for overwork, such as setting the maximum allowable work hours, prohibiting compulsory overtime, expanding the coverage of the Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime provisions, and granting employees the right to work part-time hours without losing benefits. She advocates labor policies that can reduce work-family conflicts and benefit women, men, families, and firms.

As University of Massachusetts sociologist Joya Misra, editor of Gender & Society, comments, “‘Leaning in’ might not be the same for everyone. Cha’s study shows us that despite our best efforts, work and home still seem to generate unequal opportunities and benefits. The loss affects everyone: We’ll stop losing highly qualified women in their careers of choice when we reduce barriers like the culture of overwork and unequal sharing of care-work at home.”

The study is based on analysis of the Survey of Income and Program Participation, a national longitudinal household survey collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. The data covers years from 1996 through 2007. The sample was limited to full-time workers ages 18-64 who were in a job at the beginning of each of the survey periods.

Virginia Rutter

You heard about the letter: Princeton alumna Susan Patton worries that Princeton women might not find husbands as smart as they are if they don’t find ’em while still at college. Behind her anxiety is the view that: one, marriage is a partnership (between two different sexes) of intellectual equals—and, two, college sorts people into roughly equal intellectual groups.

I’ve been listening to lots of fun commentary about the Patton letter when I am not pondering other news about troubles in elite education. A week before the Patton letter, Carolyn Hoxby and Christopher Avery (Stanford and Harvard; they must be smart!) presented new information about how elite colleges are failing to recruit students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Hoxby and Avery report that among the high achieving high school students, only 34 percent of those from low-income families end up at the fancy colleges that their extremely high grades and high test scores would qualify them for. This is less than half the rate for “achievers” from high-income families, where 78 percent go to top-tier schools. The smart students in the bottom income quarter go, instead, to local universities or community colleges. These economically disadvantaged kids, Hoxby and Avery believe, are not aware of the elite educational options, and don’t appear to have information about how much aid is available from the most elite schools.

So for women who recognize that rushing into marriage really is not a smart thing to do, but are worried that they can’t find smart partners if they aren’t at Princeton or the like, they can relax, slow it down, and realize that there are a lot of smart potential partners who are not at elite schools. Not even counting all those smart men who don’t even start (or start but don’t finish) college, given the growing gender gap in higher education. It turns out that there are lots of smarties who aren’t at elite and selective colleges.

But, Patton might still be worried. Part of me thinks that she might be saying “smart” kids but meaning kids from a “higher social class.”

Patton’s letter reminds me that the heteronormative dream (Girls! Find your ideal boy!)  is still profoundly concerned about matching on social class as much as it is about finding an intellectual (or some other human quality) peer. But what do I know? My boyfriend went to Princeton.

-Virginia Rutter

Earlier this month I wrote about gender, debt, and college drop out rates–men’s and women’s different debt tolerance (women have more) is related to their early job market prospects (men have more) and helps explain why men drop out of college more.

Now, here’s a new piece of the gender gap in education puzzle. According to a new briefing report presented to the Council on Contemporary Families, “the most important predictor of boys’ achievement is the extent to which the school culture expects, values, and rewards academic effort.” Sociologists Claudia Buchmann (Ohio State) and Thomas DiPrete (Columbia University) present their in-depth findings on the much-debated reasons why women outstrip men in education—also the subject of their new book—in “The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools.” The full CCF briefing report is available here.

When did the gender gap begin? Some of the gender gap in schooling is new and some is not. For about 100 years, the authors explain, girls have been making better grades than boys. But only since the 1970s have women been catching up to—and surpassing—men in terms of graduation rates from college and graduate school. The authors report, “Back in 1960, more than twice as many men as women between the ages of 26-28 were college graduates. Between 1970 and 2010, men’s rate of B.A. completion grew by just 7 percent, rising from 20 to 27 percent in those 40 years. In contrast, women’s rates almost tripled, rising from 14 percent to 36 percent.”

Is the gender gap translating into wages? “The rise of women in the educational realm has not wiped out the gender wage gap — women with a college degree continue to earn less on average than men with a college degree.”  But because more women are getting college degrees, growing numbers of women are earning more than their less-educated men age-mates, and the gender wage gap has narrowed considerably.” But, report the authors, if men were keeping up with women in terms of education, men would on average be earning four percent more than they do now, and their unemployment rate would be one-half percentage point lower.

What should schools do? The authors debunk the notion that boys’ under-performance in school is caused by a “feminized” learning environment that needs to be made more boy-friendly. Making curriculum, teachers, or classroom more “masculine” is not the answer, they show. In fact, boys do better in school in classrooms that have more girls and that emphasize extracurricular activities such as music and art as well as holding both girls and boys to high academic standards. But boys do need to learn how much today’s economy rewards academic achievement rather than traditionally masculine blue-collar work.

Please read here to read more about the gender gap in educational achievement and the sources of it.

Virginia Rutter


Yesterday in the New York Times, Tamar Lewin reported on declining financing for college as costs rise. Turns out this is a gender story. Here’s how: Women earn 58 percent of all undergraduate degrees. They enter college at higher rates than men, and they are less likely to drop out once they enter. According to conventional wisdom, this is because men are less studious and committed to school than women. Some recent books even claim that men are slackers who cannot adapt to a changing economy.

However, a new study, “Gender, Debt, and Dropping Out of College,” released in February in the journal Gender & Society, suggests quite a different reason for men’s dropout rates: men are less willing to tolerate the high levels of debt that are increasingly needed to complete a college education—on average, men tolerate $2,000 less educational debt than women do.

According to study authors Rachel Dwyer and Randy Hodson of Ohio State University and Laura McCloud of Pacific Lutheran University, this isn’t because men are slackers, but because in the short term men without college degrees can earn the same salary as college graduates, which makes it tempting to forgo debt and get to work. The same is not true for women.

Men who drop out face no financial penalty in their entry-level salaries. Women, on the other hand, are financially penalized for dropping out right away, earning an average of $6,500 less in their starting salaries than women college grads. Ironically, this initial gender advantage for men imposes considerable long-term costs in their lifetime earnings: by midlife, college-graduate men’s salaries are on average $20,000 higher than those who did not complete college.

This trend in men’s and women’s response to debt comes at a time when graduating from college has become increasingly difficult for low and moderate income Americans over the past 25 years. This is largely because the average cost of an undergraduate degree has climbed at a faster rate than stalling family incomes in the U.S. The cost of college (public and private/non profit) in 1992–net of grant aid–was $9,600; in 2010 it was a little more than $13,000 (inflation adjusted/2012 dollars).

Scholars from Sociologists for Women and Society and the Council on Contemporary Families, put this trend in larger context, noting that:

  • Graduation rates have remained flat in the U.S. since the 1980s, and only about half of students who start a four-year degree complete by the 6-year mark. Australia, the United Kingdom, and Norway, Japan, and 11 other OECD countries exceed our graduation rate today. Fifteen years ago, only Australia matched graduation rates in the U.S.
  • One reason for this stall is that students must work more hours than in the past to pay for schooling. In 1970 only one in ten full time college students worked 20-34 hours per week. Today that proportion has doubled to one in five.
  • In addition to working more, students whose parents cannot fund their college education typically go into debt. According to the College Board, in 1975, 80% of student aid took the form of direct grants, and only 20% in loans; now that is nearly reversed: 70% of student aid is in the form of loans, and only 30% takes the form of grants.

Gender,Debt and Dropping Out of College. Going into debt to finance college does not have uniformly negative results. Dwyer and colleagues found that having some college debt makes staying in college more likely for both men and women. But when men reach a debt level of slightly less than $12,500, they are more likely to be discouraged, while women’s debt level can reach about $14,500 before they become more prone to be discouraged.

The job market. Why are men more likely to give up on college and get a job instead when their college debt mounts, while women stick to their original plans? In “Gender, Debt, and Dropping Out of College,” Dwyer and colleagues suggest that women’s willingness to stick it out longer in the face of higher debt is a paradoxical result of women’s continuing disadvantage on the job market. In the short run, men who drop out of college do not experience a wage penalty in comparison to their peers who go on to graduate. It may be harder for men than for women to see the advantage of staying in college because in the early years after college, men who complete college make no higher pay than men who drop out.

In contrast, women who complete college earn on average upwards of $6,500 more than women who have dropped out. The authors explain, “Female dropouts simply face worse job prospects than male dropouts.” In particular, women who drop out are more likely to be employed in lower-paying service work, while men who drop out have opportunities in higher–paying manufacturing, construction, and transportation work.

So men withdraw sooner, but pay later. While men don’t face a wage penalty early on if they drop out, the penalty accumulates later. By middle age, men with a college degree earn $20,000 more on average than men with some college but no degree.

As University of Massachusetts sociologist Joya Misra, editor of Gender & Society, puts it, “Dwyer and her colleagues show that looking at gender differences can’t be reduced to ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’ Women’s recent advantage in college graduation rates is associated with their relative disadvantage in the job market. At the same time, men’s seeming advantages in the short run can lure them away from a surer path—college completion—to longer term economic security.”

The study is based on analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 Cohort (funded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics). The researchers used a nationally representative sub-sample of nearly 9,000 young adults that was interviewed yearly from 1996 until 2011. At the most recent interview, the average age was 28 years old.

Americans have rejected most of the stereotypes and double standards that prevailed 50 years ago when The Feminine Mystique was published. Very few relationships today are organized on the principle that men and women are opposites, with totally different capabilities, needs, and duties. We no longer believe that a happy marriage requires a man to be the breadwinner and decision-maker and a woman to take care of all the emotional and nurturing work. (Read more on the new mystiques at the Council on Contemporary Families.)

But the last bastion of the feminine mystique may be a sexual mystique. Like the feminine mystique before it, the sexual mystique relies on the fantasy that men and women live in different worlds, and that these differences must be maintained for everyone to be turned on and sexually satisfied. According to this mystique a happy sex life requires a macho man who is in control and a woman who is charged up with desire, yet submissive and teachable.

Think about the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey, seen by many as a daring exploration of up-to-date, high risk sex. In fact, the domination/submission theme in the book not only misrepresents BDSM (bondage, discipline/dominance, submission/sadism, masochism) communities, but is based on a very traditional sexual script: man in charge, woman submitting. The protagonist’s turn-on is that the bright, feisty, but innocent young heroine submits to him; hers is that this dangerous, powerful, commanding man will eventually take care of her. From the sexual mystique point of view, Fifty Shades isn’t kinky or risky at all. Instead Fifty Shades’ link to sexual fantasies is safe, familiar territory, catering to very old fashioned anxieties and desires.

These mystiques linger in real life as well. On the one hand, research shows that men and women are much more likely to share housework than in the past and that sharing makes their marriages happier. But a new study from Julie Brines and colleagues looked at what kind of housework couples share, in terms of “feminine” or “masculine” tasks (think doing the dishes versus mowing the lawn). They found that men and women who share housework in more traditional ways seem to have more sex than those who share housework without regard to traditional notions of what are men’s versus women’s tasks. In other words, these new-school housework-sharing couples found that following old-school gender scripts fueled their old-school sexual scripts.

Other social science research tells us the same story. Despite the significant decline in the double standard about the desirability of virginity for women over the past 50 years, Paula England and colleagues found that among college students, there is an orgasm double standard. Men have more orgasms than women in straight couples, and this is especially true early on in the relationship.

Pepper Schwartz and her colleagues surveyed 70,000 people about their relationships for their just-released book, The Normal Bar . They found that although the sexual fantasies of men and women were more similar to each other than in the past, men still reported more active fantasy lives, with a third more men than women imagined seeking another partner if they could. Times have changed since the 1980s, when Schwartz found that men were threatened when women initiated sex “too much.” But even today, sexual fantasies of freedom and pleasure still bear traces of traditional gender stereotypes.

The old feminine mystique has been banished from most homes and workplaces. But it still remains in the bedroom. People should not be judged for their sexual fantasies, but if we could bring our sexual desires more in line with the equality and flexibility we now expect in other aspects of our relationships, we might reduce some of the frustrations and misunderstandings in contemporary relationships.

Virginia Rutter

On the 50th Anniversary of The Feminine Mystique, Council on Contemporary Families Scholars identify what’s changed—and what hasn’t.

In 1963, when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, “most Americans did not yet believe that gender equality was possible or even desirable,” according to Stephanie Coontz, Council on Contemporary Families Co-Chair and author of A Strange Stirring, a study of why so many women responded to Friedan’s book.  Nowadays most people believe in gender equality, but stereotypes still get in the way of acting on those beliefs, as a panel of experts on sex, African American women, marriage, housework, Latina youth, motherhood, and lesbians document in a new online symposium for the Council on Contemporary Families marking the 50th anniversary of the book.

Coontz opens the symposium with four myths about Betty Friedan and feminism:

  • THE ANTI-MALE MYTH: Betty Friedan was not a man-hater, and The Feminine Mystique was not anti-marriage. In fact Friedan believed that dispelling the feminine mystique would make marriages happier – and, Coontz claims, she was right.
  • THE ANTI-HOMEMAKER MYTH: Feminism has not hurt homemakers. Half century ago, stay-at-home wives had no claim on their husband’s income, no protection against marital rape, and even no right to their own credit card.
  • THE CAREER WOMAN MYTH: The entry of women into the workforce and their growing educational advantage over men has not destabilized marriage. Coontz notes that divorce rates have declined since 1980, especially for educated women, who are now more likely than any others to be married at age 40.
  • THE POST-FEMINIST MYTH: Women are not yet equal to or ahead of men, so gender equity continues to be an issue. Women still earn less than men with the same educational credentials in every occupation, and more women than men live below the poverty level. In addition, Coontz explains “‘the hottie mystique’ that has led to a sexualization of young girls that can distract them from exploring their new options.”

Additional brief essays offer original perspectives on youth, sex, African American women, lesbians, Latinas, and motherhood.

“The Youth and Beauty Mystique: Its Costs for Women and Men” by Paula England notes that as men age, they have a wider choice of marriage partners, but this can backfire even for men because the younger spouse—whether a man or a woman—is more likely to seek a divorce.

“Sexual Mystiques: Do we still like it old school?” by Virginia Rutter points out that when it comes to sexual fantasies, people continue to be more old-fashioned than they claim to be.

“The UNFEMININE Mystique: Stereotypes about African-American Women” by Shirley Hill argues that black women are subject to an “‘unfeminine mystique’ – the idea that they have characteristics and embrace lifestyles that are outside the boundaries of ‘real’ womanhood.”

“Lesbian Mystiques” by Judith A. Howard recognizes the remarkable change in the status of gays and lesbians in the past 50 years. Once invisible —or even condemned, including by Friedan—lesbians have not only won new public acceptance but have broadened their own self-images and definitions.

“Latinas’ Mystique” by Lorena Garcia, explains her study of Mexican American and Puerto Rican adolescents, Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself: Latina Girls and Sexual Identity, and the distorted image of how much impact culture influences girls’ lives.

“The Rise of the Motherhood Mystique” by Cameron Macdonald draws upon her research for Shadow Mothers; Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering to explain “Today women’s work outside of the home is often necessary and desirable. But we are a long way from the gender equity Friedan advocated. A new Motherhood Mystique has replaced the Feminine Mystique. Where the marital relationship was the core of the family unit in the 1950s and 1960s, today the mother-child bond is primary.”

Two years ago, when Stephanie Coontz’s A Strange Stirring–a biography of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique–was released, Girl with Pen posted an online, week-long symposium looking back at Friedan and looking forward to the status of gender equality today, as guided by Coontz. We invite you to these pieces for background and reflections on Coontz and Friedan:

First, I asked two dear friends, one born in 1935, the other born in 1940, to tell me their experiences around the publication of Friedan’s TFM in 1963. The kicker: they’re both men.

Fueled by Coontz’s analysis, GWP cleared up some myths about TFM and encouraged readers to Test Your Feminine Mystique Cliche Quotient. In a Review of ‘Stirring’ Reviews, I summarized a reading of the initial reviews of Coontz’s book appearing in in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, Salon, Ms., Bitch, and feministing.

Natalie Wilson (POP GOES FEMINISM) asked whether “Housewives” today are just as “Desperate” as in the era documented by Friedan and offers up pop-culture infused Thoughts on Coontz’s A Strange Stirring.

Finally, Deborah Siegel (MAMA W/PEN) waxed intergenerational and mused on How the Choices of Our Generation Are Shaped By the Last.

Happy reading!

-Virginia Rutter