Did Working Women Kill the PTA?

Article excerpt

My mom was known in the family as"POC"--short for "Pillar of Community" Her esimable talents were in constant demand for every community effort, from leading the townwide campaign to register every eligible voter to serving on the school board. Like Mom, I do my share; but unlike Mom, I do only my share, and then always as a soldier, never as a general.

What explains the difference--that she is a member of Robert Putnam's "long civic generation" and I am a boomer? Or that Mom's MBA was last used in the service of paid work before my older brother came along more than half a century ago, and I have a full-time job?

Putnam's excellent book Bowling Alone has been criticized for failing to confront what is alleged to be the real source of the decline in civic engagement: the march of women into the work force. According to this critique, Putnam was too afraid of the wrath of feminists to admit the politically incorrect truth, that the fatal blow to civic life occurred when women left home for work. In fact, although he devotes relatively few pages to this intuitively compelling thesis, he gets the story right.

Social capital is multifaceted. All things being equal, those who trust others are more likely to go on picnics, to join the softball league, to volunteer in a soup kitchen, to give to the United Way, to attend religious services, to go to the polls faithfully, or to get involved in a political campaign. However, the relationships among the many components of social capital are anything but simple. And, as Putnam makes clear, among women the impact of full-time work affects the private aspects of social engagement more strongly than the public ones.

Indeed, while being in the work force full time diminishes the number of dinner parties women give and the number of club meetings they attend, it actually enhances their political participation. My colleagues, Nancy Burns of the University of Michigan and Sidney Verba of Harvard, and I are just completing a large-scale study that seeks to unravel the puzzle of why women are still somewhat less politically active than men. The culprit is not women's entry into the work force.

We find that although women are more likely than men to vote, they are somewhat less likely to take part in a variety of other forms of political activity--for example, working in campaigns, making campaign contributions (especially big ones), getting in touch with public officials, working informally with others to solve community problems, sitting on local governing boards, or belonging to organizations that take stands in politics. It turns out that one of the several factors contributing to the gender gap in participation is the fact that men are more likely than women to be in the work force and, among those employed full time, more likely to have jobs that pay well and demand high levels of education and training. So working actually increases political participation by women.

Our data--drawn from the 1990 American Citizen Participation Study, the most complete study of various forms of voluntary activity ever conducted--show unambiguously that working women are more politically active than are women who are home full time. Part of the reason that employed women are more active than are homemakers is the factors that determine which women--out of choice or necessity--end up entering the work force and which ones end up staying home. Women in the work force have certain characteristics--especially higher levels of educational attainment--that are associated with political activity. Thus, the participatory edge of employed women derives in part from the fact that they are different from full-time homemakers in many ways, some of which are germane to political activity.

The next question is obvious: In light of the ways that employed women differ from women who are at home full time, wouldn't these working dynamos be even more politically active if they quit their jobs and had the time to devote their energy and brains to voluntary pursuits? …