The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century

By William H. Chafe | Go to book overview
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a class apart, with separate qualifications that severely restricted the type of jobs they could fill. Even sympathizers perceived career women as a special breed. The Institute of Women's Professional Relations declared that "women must be directed into occupations for which they are [peculiarly] adapted," and Frances Perkins told a conference on women that the greatest need of government was for women "who can be humble... and who are willing to begin at the bottom." Character and conscience, she asserted, were more important requirements than brilliance.Such statements reflected a subtle but pervasive attitude that women were less than first-class citizens and had their own place in the worlds of business and government.

In a deeper sense, however, women's inequality was embedded in the social structure, part of a process of living which provided its own best defense against change. In most families, boys and girls were trained to assume substantially different responsibilities. Social, political, and economic institutions were all characterized by a sharp division of sexual roles. And the qualities essential to success in a woman's world were directly opposite those necessary to success in a man's world. In a society which functioned on the premise that men and women occupied completely different spheres, it was not surprising that most women had little choice but to accept the roles of wife and mother. Indeed, woman's place in the home seemed to have been strengthened rather than weakened in the years after 1920. More and more college women married. Over 75 percent of the women responding to George Gallup's 1936 poll disapproved of wives working.And no massive outcry greeted the passage of legislation restricting women's right to gainful employment during the 1930s. If women were enslaved, as feminists claimed, the evidence suggested that their servitude was part and parcel of the entire socialization process, reinforced by institutions and structures that could only be called patriarchal.

The road to economic equality thus proved much longer and more difficult than some women's rights activists had anticipated. The issue of careers for women potentially challenged nearly every entrenched assumption about the roles and responsibilities of the two sexes. For economic equality to become a reality, a fundamental change was required in how men and women thought of each other and in how responsibilities within marriage and the family were distributed. Yet throughout the 1920s and 1930s there was little indication that such a change was either possible or desired. As the nation prepared to enter a new decade, it seemed unlikely that women activists, by themselves, would be able to achieve such fundamental changes. Perhaps only when events created circumstances more conducive to a modification of sex roles would it be possible to seek a redefinition of men's and women's appropriate "place" in American society.

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