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Changing Roles Within the Family

When the twentieth century began all the different varieties of American families shared one characteristic: the wife did not work outside the home. The only exceptions were black wives. At that time, for a wife to work was a sign that a husband was not able to support a family, or that he was crippled or otherwise incapacitated. By contrast, to that situation in the 1990s over 60 percent of women were in the work force. The transformation was relatively quick. It began in the years of the Great Depression, but the major impetus was provided by the Second World War. The pattern established then, though originally intended to be a temporary war measure, continued after the war was over.

Many women preferred working and many firms found the relatively low wages of women an inducement to continue to employ their labor. The immediate consequence was a great expansion of jobs open to women. Women became electricians, machinists, carpenters, as well as lawyers, engineers, and physicians in unheard of numbers.

Despite the widening opportunities for women, the great majority of working women have remained at the bottom of the economic pyramid. In the 1980s, for instance, the average pay for a woman worker was about 59 percent of the average male; the principal cause for the difference was usually a failure to pay equal wages for equal work and also the fact that the jobs which most women held were low-paying. The working woman is generally a typist, maid, teacher, nurse, cashier, or saleswoman.

Simply because work for married women is now accepted and so commonplace, the internal character of American families has greatly changed.

For some two hundred years now, American women have been seeking to enhance their autonomy within the family. This has involved their gaining better education, a place as the moral guardian of the family, the opportunity to control childbirth, and to dissolve the marriage if it proved too limiting or unsatisfactory. They have also asserted their right to combine family and work outside the home.

Today, as a result of the widening of employment opportunities for women and also the consciousness-raising fostered by the women’s movement, the pressure for women’s equality within families has reached a new height. But still many women do not feel happy to be torn in two.

There is the so-called Supermom, the woman who tries to juggle a career with a family. Others have come to the conclusion that the dual role can often cause them to be mediocre at both. So they have given up their career to stay home with children. Some view it as a temporary solution until their children start school. But even when at home women pursue various interests. They participate in all kinds of organizations, for example English-teaching committees for the foreign-born, in fund-raising activities for the colleges they graduated from, they jog in the morning with friends, complete in New York City Marathons, etc. All that gives them a feeling of achievement. One thirty-five-year old lawyer who quit her job to stay home with her three children, said she spent her spare time gardening and doing carpentry work. She said that one summer she took the children to Colorado, where she rebuilt an old garage that she and her husband use for hiking in summer and skiing in winter.



The major worry for most is that if they decide to go back to work they will have difficulty finding jobs. Many women say they continue to read in their fields so that they will not fall behind. Others say that they try to have lunch occasionally with former co-workers to keep up with what is going on. Otherwise, they say, you feel that you’re “a bit out of touch.”

But there are many women who work outside the home – even if they have children at home – of necessity. Many women say that they don’t have the option of working inside the home or outside the home any more because economic needs require that they go out and find a job. Many married women work because their husbands are unemployed or disabled. Such women are the sole support of their families and themselves.

The wives of low-wage earners who are taking jobs to supplement their husband’s income help keep the family budget solvent in the face of inflation. Women in middle-income families are taking jobs in response to the economic squeeze. Such women are taking jobs to maintain the standard of living to which they have been accustomed. But increasingly, a second income in the family is being sought to achieve traditional goals, such as a college education for their children or a one-family home. Even braces on children’s teeth or meeting continually raising utility and other rates make women work for the money.

On the other hand, women are making inroads into men’s occupations – tellers in banks, busdriving and bartending. This changes the general perception of male and female jobs.

Changes in the family pattern with women working have not been easily accepted by men, who sometimes show anger and resentment. On the one hand a majority of men now believe that both sexes should enjoy equal employment opportunities, but on the other, most also believe that children may be harmed psychologically if their mothers work outside the home. This contradiction increasingly rules the life of Americans.

Very busy spouses sometimes let each other know that they feel victimized by the requirements of the other partner. In order to make a go of his sort of life husband and wife have to cut out almost everything that does not relate to family or career. There is a frequent feeling that husband and wife are “against the ropes” in regard to available time. It is the amenities of life in terms of friends, entertainment, and general leisure that get put aside in order to focus on everyday essentials.

One Atlanta attorney says: “My wife has her own career as a lawyer, and when I arrive home from a tough day, all I want to do is put my feet up and have a drink – the sort of thing a man has always expected. Instead I have to help with the household or attend to my children. I frequently must cut short my own working day in order to pick up our eighteen-month-old son from day care or to spend time with my older child. Often, I am also the one who is on call in case of illness, who prepares many of the meals, and who keeps the house clean. There is no question that the rewards of sharing career achievement and child rearing with one’s spouse are great, but the price paid can be high. There lies much of the trouble. We are faced with having to become Supermen, in response to today’s superwomen. Many of us don’t know how to balance full participation in work and in family.

We are now exploring uncharted territory, with all the mistakes and false starts that such exploration requires. I found that I had learned something further about what it means to be a man, something that goes beyond simply bringing home a paycheck”.


Date: 2015-01-29; view: 241


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Patterns of The American Family Life | Women’s Liberation Movement
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