My Two Bits Worth

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My Two Bits Worth

Laura Graham

With the war in Iraq nearly two years old, I hoped that new leadership in the executive branch would put an end to the destruction overseas and funds would be redirected to rescue our receding economy, unemployment rate, healthcare services, and living conditions for the struggling American majority. November 2nd came and went, and those of us who shared my views found ourselves the minority. We shed a few tears and yelled at the unresponsive television screen, and surprisingly enough, the sun rose the next morning. No apocalyptic horses or trumpets, just a few chosen liberals feeling suddenly beckoned toward the promised land of Canada where certain rights are more a thing of the present rather than a dream of years to come. It is important to remember that while we do not make the decisions concerning the deployment of troops or the dropping of bombs, we do decide what condition we would like our country to be in when those serving the military are lucky enough to return home. In our current situation, I feel compelled to turn away from protesting the war and refocus on the home front. Many grassroots organizations have been inclined to take initiative in improving domestic policy while the president is not looking. For this reason, I have received another invitation to make a tax deductible donation to a non-profit organization: The Women, Work, and Family Foundation. I now have the personal opportunity to improve gender equality in the American workforce and receive a mug and free subscription to Newsweek in the process.

"The first question is, obviously, Why [are they] asking for money?" (Woolf, p. 41) I must paint the landscape of gender equality in the workforce and determine if funds are necessary in achieving this picture, for I need to ensure that my money is being used only for the most effective and realistic causes. I am pulled in two different directions by competing feminist perspectives—that of the First Wave claiming "sameness" and demanding literal equality for both sexes and that of the Second Wave which recognized the differences between men and women and called for an increased status in women's contributions. The history of social attitudes towards and of women is essential in understanding the biases of American society, and I plan to determine when legislation is imperative for change. It is important to note that most of the women involved in developing the philosophies fueling these movements were from wealthier families than the majority of women in the United States, but the recommended changes will be more inclusive across class lines. I would not give money to a foundation which only supports the entrance of already wealthy women into high paying professions, and I am encouraged by the fact that my requestors recognize the importance of incorporating family into solving the problems facing women in the territory of work.

A historical narrative is necessary to represent the voices of my great-grandmother and mother who argue their points from entirely separate realms. One of the largest victories of the First Wave of Feminism was the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920 which stated that "the right of the citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." (1)
Before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, women were disenfranchised from choosing governmental leaders, and one argument against the Amendment was that women were not suited to public life. Before industrialization, both sexes worked on farms at home, but as factories were built, people were needed to run them. Children could not very well be left at home alone, and since women bore and nursed them, the responsibility to remain at home was left to women. Industrialization's alteration of the American economy was historically responsible for the gender division of labor in the workplace. Two very separate and ultimately incompatible spheres were created—home and work—and each sex had domain over one arena: "'There are two worlds in the life of the nation, the world of men and the world of women. Nature has done well to entrust the man with the care of his family and the nation. The woman's world is her family, her husband, her children, and her home.'" (Woolf, p. 53) The inequality was purely monetary in nature, namely, men were paid for their work in the city and women were not paid for their work at home. Woolf thoughtfully asked "Is the work of a mother, of a wife, of a daughter, worth nothing to the nation in solid cash?" (Woolf, p. 54) Yes, Virginia, there is no paycheck for a housewife. Women received no equivalent market compensation for their daily parenting, cooking, and cleaning, and "because she was not reimbursed for her contribution to the family either products or services, a wife was stripped to a considerable extent of her access to cash-mediated markets." (Bernard, p. 243) Some argue that mothers who stay at home with their children receive emotional compensation in the satisfaction of raising children and completing domestic tasks necessary for a clean and happy household. However, capitalism began evolving as the preferred American economy and consequently the basis for society and the workforce.

Women were reduced as the inferiors of men because they were less likely to earn money for the household—emotional satisfaction holds a much lower status than financial earning capacity in a capitalistic society. First Wave Feminists denounced any natural differences between the sexes because they served as the foundation for why only men should be involved in the world of politics. Even today, "politics" is colloquially defined as "the public world of power, relationships, of diplomacy, of elections, of wars," and "it is a politics that artificially separates a public world from a private world." (Saxonhouse, p. vii) Critics of the 19th Amendment claimed that they did not want to defile the home life by mixing family and politics. Indeed, 20th century politics was incredibly corrupt due to the strength of political machines which monopolized city government, but some conservatives were convinced that if women even filled out a ballot, any negative aspect of the political world would filter through them into the home, corrupt their children, and prevent them from fulfilling their responsibilities as mothers and wives as illustrated by this political cartoon.(2)

Even the idea of women leaving the house to go vote threw anti-suffragists into an uproar because they left their husband and children behind to suffer. More importantly, the possibility of women's absence from the home forced men to stay behind in the woman's world, and as evident from the cartoon, they were clearly untrained for such a task in American society.

Opponents of the amendment also argued that because women were responsible for caring for the home and family, they could express their opinions to their husbands who could vote accordingly, thereby leaving women out of the direct process—an unrealistic and unenforceable suggestion. Another argument against the women's vote was that women's roles as mothers and homemakers kept the country stable and balanced because they were committing themselves to their children who were America's future leaders (only the boys of course). Radical First Wave Feminists did not accept that men and women had different inherent tendencies, but American society was not prepared to adopt such a position—can you blame them? I certainly cannot absolve biology and the requirement that women bear the children and men do not. The argument of the First Wave Feminists, however, was that physical differences in sex do not equate inferiorities between the sexes or remove them of the privileges of citizenship. The suffragettes used this argument and were successful in convincing the men with legislative power that, different or not, women had the right as citizens to vote. After the amendment passed and women legally cast their votes, it became evident that sameness among the sexes had been historically prevented by women's maternal roles reinforced by industrialization: "it was not views about women or the family that had undergone a radical change by the end of the Great War but views about the vote." (Pateman, p. 343)

First Wave Feminism is not extinct, and according to this line of reasoning, gender equity in today's workforce would be just that—equal. Women in full-time positions would no longer earn less than eighty cents for every dollar men earn in full-time positions as charted in the graph below. (3)

While all people make more money than they used to, a gap persists between the earnings of men and women, and it shows no clear signs of closing. According to the school of thought (if not the actual practice) of the First Wave of Feminism, the bottom two lines would overlap and the top line would run horizontally across the "100" line on the y-axis (which does not even exist on the current chart). In fact, according to radical and strict First Wave Feminists, there would be no need to even differentiate between male and female earnings.

If gender equity in the work force is to be interpreted as "women's attainment of equality or 'sameness' vis-à-vis men," then there are a number of statistics the foundation must address. (Gornick and Meyers, p. 84) There would be an equal number of female and male partners in law firms and the secretarial staff would be more evenly distributed between the sexes; in 1999, there were 250,000 female and 625,155 male lawyers in the United States. However, approximately 262,000 women worked as legal assistants to these lawyers compared to 43,770 men. (3)
Over seventy percent of working women would not be in lower paying service sector jobs, and they would hold more than 11% of corporate officer positions in the 500 largest corporations in America. (Seager, p. 66) Female professors would be just as likely to gain tenure as male professors and would have the job and financial security that comes with it. Men might want to catch up with women in the field of elementary and middle school education where women occupy 2,539,220 of the teaching positions and men occupy only 588,240. (3) The field of medicine is another well known black hole for gender equality—women are involved, but not in the high paying all powerful positions of physicians and surgeons—2,235,960 female and 178,530 male registered nurses and 195,240 female and 528,245 male physicians and surgeons heal our wounds and keep us healthy. (3)

The economic inequity is apparent and a cause for alarm considering the fact that legal assistants and registered nurses earn approximately a third the income of lawyers and physicians or surgeons respectively. (3) As Virginia Woolf so eloquently put it "Can it be that all the names on top of hers [meaning women's names], all the names to which the big salaries are attached, are the names of gentlemen? It seems so." (Woolf, p. 47) However, women are not lacking in numbers in the workforce—more women than ever are working for money, around 58% to be exact, but they are not gaining top positions or even being paid at the overall same rate as men. (Seager, p. 118) With current laws against gender discrimination in the workforce, it is illegal not to pay women the same amount of money for doing the same job as a man. But the ratio disparity is a result of the average wages for all women as compared to the average wages for all men, and if more women have jobs which pay lower wages, the entire average falls below that of men and represents an evident gender disparity.

One can argue that the problem lies in adherence to traditional male and female professions, and the foundation would not do well to force more women to pursue being a physician or more men to teach elementary school. Many women work to fulfill economic responsibilities; they have children, grandchildren, elderly parents, or other family members for whom they must provide. As of 2003, nearly 12.5% of people in the United States lived in poverty and women constituted a greater amount of this percentage than men. (3) The nuances of this data would take months to uncover, but the point is that more women than men are unable to adequately support themselves or the children who more often live with their mothers than fathers—this fact relates back to the difficulty women face in breaking into the more high paying male professions and the overall gendered division of private versus public life.

Enter our bra-burning, Woodstock attending, pot smoking, Roe v. Wade loving, Second Wave Feminist mothers. Their movement was all about choice. Second Wave Feminism celebrated the differences between male and female, and yelled at the top of its lungs for equality in the value placed on women's and men's work. They accepted the existence of traditional spheres and work sites, and "call[ed] instead for new conceptions of citizenship that recognize[d] and value[d] women's 'difference,' rooted in their unique responsibilities for care." (Gornick and Meyers, p. 84) Women are better nurturers and more suited to stay at home with the children, but they were taken for granted. Childcare and public school teaching are some of the lowest paid professions in the country because they reflect the needs of the private household sphere which takes a backseat to the public life—namely war in today's administration. Female professions are still worthy of less money in the eyes of the capitalistic society, regardless of the sex of the person in the position, but such jobs were essential for the health and well being of the nation's future. Second Wave Feminists demanded equal treatment and increased status of women's work.

An entire generation has passed by unnoticed in my account. Simple arithmetic illustrates the gap in my argument: approximately sixty years passed in between the First and Second Waves of Feminism which leaves plenty of room for another generation of able bodied women to advance gender equality in the workplace. Feminism has occurred in waves for a reason—revolutions in social attitudes can only change so much—legislation is the enforcer of new ideas, and, as mentioned earlier, with the exception of the right to vote, little changed for women. Society was not ready to accept literal equality between the sexes and there was not sufficient legislation to the contrary. Add in the historical circumstance of the Second World War, and it became clear that men and women would continue to reign over different spheres of work. The second swell of feminists decided to take a different and perhaps more realistic approach to work with what they had and redefine gender equality to mean egalitarian as opposed to equivalent.

The Second Wave of Feminism arose as a result of the lack of support for women to be able to choose whether or not to enter the workforce. Millions of women worked out of economic necessity, but the majority of them held low paying jobs due to the degraded status of women's work—these women could benefit from the Second Wave of Feminism because the movement incorporated the raising up of womanhood and the traditional responsibilities thereof. A Second Wave Feminist approach to gender equality in the workforce would include an increase in wages for those people who work in professions traditionally labeled as women's work such as child care, teaching (at the elementary, middle, and high school level), nursing, and secretarial work. Women have been handed and have taken the majority of these jobs and due to the historical tradition of devaluing the female sphere they have received treatment unequal to men and male professions.

In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan directly addressed the suffragette's daughters who were not compelled to work for a living outside the home. Friedan was concerned with the number of women who were entering the professional work force: "a third of American women now worked, but most were no longer young and very few were pursuing careers." (Friedan, p. 17) Instead they married young, had several children, and did their best June Cleaver impression. The title of Friedan's book was the diagnosis of the illness which caused so many housewives to be discontent with their apparently perfect suburban lives. As with industrialization, technology again perpetuated social roles with the widespread use of automobiles and efficient transit systems. Families could live as far as thirty miles outside of a city where the husband was employed and suburbs spread like wildfire across America's metropolitan areas. Men and women's work sites were moved even farther apart, and First Wave Feminist philosophies became harder to realize.

Friedan pointed out that the problem was not that women became stay-at-home mothers. The problem was that they bought into the new feminine mystique that "says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity." (Friedan, p. 43) They fulfill "their own femininity" by completing domestic tasks and bearing children—that is all. Do everything just right, said the new housewife ideal: cook, clean, nurture your children, dote on your husband, and you will find all the happiness and satisfaction you could ever desire. Because that is all women were supposed to desire, and hundreds of women began going mad because they were not content in such a situation. Many of them were well educated (they had met their husbands in college), but they were not contributing their human capital to the public world because the only model presented to them was to find happiness in home life.

Friedan urged readers to consider the positive impact women could have on society by sharing their intelligence and talents just as men had. She encourages women to consider that their individual femininity might not be contained within the household and the family. There was nothing wrong with those women content in such a role—but housewifery should not have been the only occupation promoted for women who did not have to work out of economic necessity. The Feminine Mystique was foundational material for the Women's Liberation movement of the Second Wave of Feminism. Some women literally wanted to be liberated from the home, and nearly all Second Wave Feminists wanted to the choice to decide for themselves how to responsibly manage their work and family lives without being lessened in the eyes of society for their choices one way or the other.

Therefore, it is obvious that I am dissatisfied with the quality of gender equity within the realm of work, and it would be a waste of my time to lay out the problems yet take no action to address them. I must warn the Women, Work, and Family Foundation that I do not support exclusion on the basis of gender or sex—the first step in the thus far feminist dominated discourse is to bring men into the picture. Imagine a different situation in the anti-suffragist political cartoon: the husband changing the baby's diaper while watching the toddler play with a pair of socks on the rug with a tuna casserole baking in the oven, and the wife walking out the door (sans the irritated smug expression) to go vote at the local precinct. Men are physically capable of caring for children without the mother's assistance. Women are stereotypically better at child rearing and domestic tasks because they are expected to be just as women are not expected to succeed at professional public activities—so we should raise the expectations. The foundation ought to invite men (of all income levels) to workshops for basic tasks such as diaper changing and tuna casserole making. If men know how to accomplish these feats, they are much more likely to practice them and be free of the stigma that it is just women's work.

Fewer men have attempted to bust out from their traditional role as provider than women have from their roles as nurturers. Legislation ought to aid men in taking on certain responsibilities at home by providing paternity leave (preferably paid) so men can spend time gaining that special bond with their newborn or newly adopted child just as women develop during their maternity leave. People cannot afford to compromise their job security by taking excessive days off from work, and granted leave would enable more men to be involved.

Actually the most inclusive legislation to promote equity across the board would be paid extended family and personal leave for all workers—this would not exclude those workers who choose not to have children from the benefits of time off from work. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 grants unpaid leave for up to twelve weeks for family or medical reasons, but not everyone is able to forgo wages for three entire months: "nearly 80 percent of employees who do not take FMLA leave when needed report that the reason is that they 'could not afford to take leave' (DOL 2000)." (Gornick and Meyers, p. 119) It would be too large of a step for the government to assume financial responsibility for paid leave, but employers who provide such a benefit should be offered tax breaks as an incentive.

In the case of workforce equality, legislation reflects social attitudes and is necessary to enforce new practice. The most beneficial course of action for the organization would be to help meet the daily needs of families who struggle with balancing work and family life while simultaneously educating the public on the legislative action necessary to address the problems of these families. In order to take the next step in developing these policies, it would behoove us to listen to the concerns of the persons most often responsible for both spheres of life—women. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations conducted a survey to determine what the working women of America are most in need of concerning legislature.
Nine of the ten laws listed as being on the top of women's legislative priority list apply to a huge majority of workers in America. Of course, this study was conducted by an organization for unions, so the results are not indicative of the needs and wants of every working woman. However, it is a valuable sample for women who most likely work in the service sector whose disparities have been discussed at length. The findings also illustrate women's desire for job and financial security which indicates that women on the whole are not planning on disappearing from the labor market any time soon. Everyone could benefit from increased flexibility to adapt to their working hours to their personal schedule. Few people do not incur health care costs throughout their life, and increased subsidization of this service would significantly ease the financial burden of medical costs. Funds for the proposed legislation should be distributed among the government (from taxes), employers (revenue), and employees (wages) as recommended by Gornick and Meyers in Families that Work. Legislation which supports everyone will foster equality for all by leveling income gaps and work opportunities.

Childcare must be considered since the foundation has committed itself to the particular challenges of having a job and having a family. Without affordable childcare, neither mothers nor fathers can work outside the home to provide for their children. In other developed countries, the most successful childcare systems have "publicly financed care" for children and "subsidies for purchase of private care." (Gornick and Meyers, pp. 204-212) Childcare is also under stricter quality regulations than in the United States, and child care providers are paid significantly more for their services in other developed countries as well. These countries place a greater emphasis on the importance of their work even though it remains a typical position for women.

It is with an optimistic pen that I sign a check made out to the Women, Work, and Family Foundation in the sum of one hundred and eighty-five dollars. Fifty dollars to cover the food and drink necessary to entice adults to a two-hour workshop, fifty dollars to purchase the materials required for exhibitions of domesticity such as cleaning and cooking, twenty dollars for publicity for the event, and sixty-five dollars to pay the child care provider for the evening. Legislation will be necessary to create compatibility between the private and the public, but habitual norms stand in the way. It is time to create equality in both workplaces.


1. Bernard, Jessie, "The Good-Provider Role: Its Rise and Fall." from American
Psychologist, 36, 1981.

2. Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001)

3. Gornick, Janet and Meyers, Marcia, Families That Work: Policies for Reconciling
Parenthood and Employment. (New York: The Russell Sage Foundation, 2003)

4. Pateman, Carole, "Three Questions about Womanhood Suffrage" in Suffrage and
Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives" ed. Caroline Daley and Melanie
Nolan. (Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press, 1994)

5. Saxonhouse, Arlene, Women in the History of Political Thought. (New York: Praeger
Publishers, 1985)

6. Seager, Joni, The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World. (New York: Penguin Books,

7. Woolf, Virginia, Three Guineas. (London: Harcourt & Brace Company, 1938)

WWW Sources

1)Caselaw Website,19th Amendment

2)Library of Congress American Memory Website, Women's Suffrage-Click on the "Cartoon" link then go to "Election Day"

3)U.S. Census Website, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance in the United States: 2003

4)American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations Website, Ask A Working Woman Report

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