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

By William H. Chafe | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 12
The Best of Times,
the Worst of Times

IN MANY RESPECTS, the 1970s and 1980s provided an ideal barometer for measuring the impact on women's status of the changes that had occurred during the postwar era.The 1940s and 1950s had been a time of paradox, with significant behavioral changes in women's economic activities occurring simultaneously with a resurgence of traditional patriarchal attitudes that defined women's "place"—rigidly and anachronistically—as being strictly in the home.With the revitalization of a dynamic feminist movement in the 1960s, however, an opportunity arose for reconciling attitudes and behavior and, potentially at least, for creating an ideological mandate for moving toward substantive equality between the sexes.

As the 1970s and 1980s unfolded, however, it became clear that the relationship between attitudes and practice would remain complicated. The feminist movement careened through its own roller-coaster journey, achieving enormous successes, only to have these followed by disastrous defeats. Extraordinary changes continued to occur in the family and workplace, resulting in giant strides forward for a number of women who, two decades earlier, would have been unable even to conceive of some of the choices they now faced; yet other women, caught in the same vortex of change, saw their opportunities diminish and the degree of their oppression deepen, not diminish.In the end, the story of these two decades was reminiscent of what Charles Dickens wrote in The Tale of Two Cities: "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was a spring of hope, a winter of discontent." The fact that both characterizations were true said worlds about the divided mind of American society when it came to women's role in life and about the continuing power of race and class to interact with gender and shape women's

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