There's a blog-o-splosion Warner-wise, and I do plan to get it summarized, I do. But I was struck, powerfully, by the first topic of conversation in Warner's interview with American Prospect. Warner's claim:
When I began the research for the book, I was spending a lot of time with stay-at-home moms. Hearing the way they talked about their lives and looking at the effect of not working, so much of it reminded me of Friedan’s observations [from 1963] -- that sort of vague, indefinable feeling of emptiness and unhappiness and anxiety and angst. ... [Friedan] had written about a culture-wide "mystique of feminine fulfillment" that was driving women quietly insane. Today, of course, we no longer worship women who, like the "happy housewife heroine" of Friedan’s day, can find fulfillment in making their floors shine. [Note: Obviously Warner has never spent any time on FlyLady because, oh yes we do.] Yet, while our world has changed so much, why were the women I knew speaking in such a similar way and seeming to feel such similar things? The concrete facts of their lives were different, but the stuff going through their heads -- and the internal struggles -- were so similar.
This isn't the first place Warner specifically compares today's generation to Friedan's. I'll go find the other references later. For now, though, let's just say that second-wave feminists everywhere are exhaustedly picking themselves up off their yoga mats and wondering, again, if anyone has paid any attention to the world at all since they first went to work. Warner must be willfully forgetting everything she knows about Friedan, the President's Commission on Women, NOW, Ms. Magazine, and the entire decade of the 1970s if she truly believes that the "emptiness and unhappiness and anxiety and angst" of today's mothers has much in common with the same set of feelings felt by women in 1963. Elizabeth at Half-Changed World links Warner's book to one about the tyranny of choices, and that about summarizes the problem with Warner's claim here. We have choices now; compared to us, women in 1963 did not.
I promise to get the real figures for this tomorrow, during my guilty writing portion of the day, but for now, let's just ballpark. The average age that women first married in 1963 was about 21; today it's 26. Most women in 1963 did not attend any college; most women today do. In 1963, a majority of the private colleges and universities that jockey for the top 100 spots on the US News & World Reports rankings did not admit women. Today, I think they all do. I'm not even going to bother cataloging all the careers and professions that were still considered unfeminine and inappropriate for married women and mothers in 1963; if you're reading this blog, the chances are good that you are now or once were or plan to be again employed in one of them.
Another bit of information the popular press manage to forget every time one of these mommy books comes out: the 1950s were in no way traditional when it came to motherhood and family. They represented a pretty radical break with the decades that came before them, on any number of fronts. Warning: I'm about to launch into US History intro mode. I know you know this. But apparently, Warner forgets that one hallmark of the decades that immediately preceded the 1950s was a crisis in marriage and family life. The Great Depression led to record-level paternal abandonment (there's nothing like economic failure to send men scurrying) and for a whole host of reasons, many intact families with unemployed husbands survived on the wives' wages, too. The farm crisis of the 1920s had sealed the fate not only of the family farm but of small towns, too: urbanization throughout the 1920s and internal migration in the 1930s (especially to California) freaked everyone out. Then came the war, and the inevitable explosion in the numbers of female-headed households, because now even the families who had clung to traditional middle-class respectability were divided by war. 1946 had the highest divorce rate in American history, right up until the 1980s, because all those war brides and husbands took one look at each other when the men came home and ran screaming to the judges. (Don't underestimate the role of post-traumatic stress for the men, either.)
Which of Warner's radical proposals for family change was implemented during the war, only to be dismantled in 1946? Government-funded childcare in the workplace. Why was it dismantled? Because 10 million men were returning from the war and they needed jobs and (almost) every economist in the country believed the post-war period would result in a major depression, possibly re-triggering the conditions of the Great Depression, which had only really ended with the ramp-up of wartime industry. Who suffered most from the rollback in wartime women's employment? Working-class women, the great majority of the 19 million women employed during the war, whose wages had risen, whose job status had risen, whose pride in labor had risen, and who were now shunted back into the low-paying jobs they had worked before.
Why were the 1950s the 1950s? Who knows, exactly. I tend to remind myself often not to underestimate cultural warfare: the popular press was filled with messages to women throughout this period to use their family lives to prove the superiority of capitalism over godless Communism. Also, and this is my favorite beef with traditionalist Republicans: for the first time in the 1950s, thanks to unions and massive government expenditures (on that trusty military-industrial complex and the various welfare provisions of the GI Bill), working-class Americans could afford a middle-class lifestyle. Women whose mothers had worked every day of their lives could finally stay home, and stay home they did. They considered themselves damn lucky to do so.
Finally, there's sex to consider. The 1950s were a decade of sky-high teen sexual activity and sky-high teen pregnancy. Why doesn't this register in the national memory? Because all those teens got married. That's what good girls and boys who wanted to have sex did in the 1950s: they got married. Then they clustered their three or four children very close together in age (because the women actually did know that the years of caring for small children are back-breakingly exhausting), they moved to the affordable houses in the new suburbs, and they sank into the depression that Friedan described.
By the 1960s, two things were happening: the oldest of the baby boomers, the late 1940s children of these 1950s moms, were entering their late teens and confronting the message to get married. Most working-class girls did get married, partially for the sex and partially for the economic security, while more and more middle-class girls went off to college and started to reconsider all their parents' rules. (My mom was a working-class granddaughter of farmers so she got married at 19 and spent the rest of her life telling me not to make that mistake.) Meanwhile, the 1950s moms themselves had a lot of free time on their hands, because their youngest babies were in school now, and so the mothers went back to work.
Fact is, throughout the twentieth century, very few women of any economic class remained unemployed for the full 22 or 24 or 26 years that they had dependent children in their homes. Some of the social change that happens in the 1960s is just boring old sequencing, and if the whole homeschooling movement doesn't short-circuit the process, we'll see it again with these folks like myself who've opted out. Granted, quite a bit of the labor of moms with teenagers still wasn't being paid in the 1960s and the 1970s. We're still suffering the fallout of the loss of volunteer hours that middle-class women used to provide, and while I admire Warner's touching belief that Americans want to replace that volunteer labor with government expenditure, I think if we're realistic, we'll set out to recruit retirees instead. But the real revolution in women's work wrought by second-wave feminism was the revolution in work by mothers with young children. And given that household wages have stagnated since 1973, even though moms with young children now work, it's possible to argue that that wasn't a cultural revolution but simply an economic necessity. When American families can afford to keep one parent at home with their young children, they do so.
Which leads us, of course, to the reason why I think mothers today feel "emptiness and unhappiness and anxiety and angst" and why the blogs on Warner's book are divided between those who think she's fear-mongering and those who think she's dead to rights. It is, sigh dammit this again, the men. It's the husbands and the fathers and the brothers and the sons, who still don't do their share of the housework and who still don't do their share of the childcare and who still don't do their share of anything other than the employment and the commute. Not that those things aren't crucial, they are, but let's get real. Caring for children and keeping a home is, along with everything else, hard physical and emotional and intellectual labor, and women bear the disproportionate share. Throw in enormous status-anxiety, the direct result of those thirty years' worth of stagnant household income, and you have a recipe for -- mommy madness.
Warner's answer is to emulate France (and France does sound lovely), because she thinks we'll have more luck changing our government than our men. This woman, I don't know what to say, is she an optimist or a pessimist or what? Because the men, they vote Republican, and the history, it's not encouraging on either front.
Tomorrow morning: an interesting comparison to Germany, where supposedly women have so internalized the message that children should be raised at home for the first three years that the country is now suffering a massive demographic crisis. According to some German politicians, their women, having gotten the message that you can't raise kids and have a job, have chosen -- the jobs.
The proposed German solution? We should be more like France.