Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Homemaker or Career Woman: Life Course Factors and Racial Influences among Middle Class Americans

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Homemaker or Career Woman: Life Course Factors and Racial Influences among Middle Class Americans

Article excerpt


Today, the principal theory of marriage and its relationship to gender equality is that women's status has improved and inequality between husbands and wives has declined. The explanation is that marriage in traditional society was patriarchal. The husband was the principal authority and chief provider, and the wife was second in authority as manager of child care and household provision (Parsons and Bales, 1955; Goode, 1963). Changes in the modern economy, however, undermined the traditional system that gave males greater privilege. Employment of men in the extractive and manufacturing sectors fell while service jobs that employ women expanded. At present, women constitute the majority of university students around the world, and their participation in national economies is correlated with economic growth (Economist, "A Guide to Womenomics," April 15, 2006).

Cross-national evidence supports the thesis that marital relationships have become more egalitarian and that women want to join men in the provider role. Among 15 European countries surveyed by Bielenski and Wagner (2004) in 1998, actual male employment rates were 73% but the preferred rate was 81 %, a gap of 8%. The gap between actual and preferred rates for women (54%and 67%) was, however, an even higher 13%. Employment rates during the 1950s from the Luxembourg Income Study for married and cohabiting mothers and fathers also suggest that the dual earner-carer family is becoming the norm, in which wives and husbands are both workers and parents (Gornick and Myers, 2003). Fathers' employment rates in the 1990s varied from 82% to 95%. But employment rates for mothers ranged from a low of 40% in Luxembourg and 53% in Germany, to more than 65% in the U.K., Canada, and the U.S., and more than 75% in the Scandinavian countries (Gornick and Myers, 2003:60).

However, this picture of increasing gender crossover within egalitarian marriage has recently been challenged by reports for the last two decades on women's domestic roles in American and British family life. Arlie Hochschild (1990) in The Second Shift portrayed Joey's mother as resentful of her disengaged husband and his abandonment of all the household drudgery and child care responsibility to her. Catherine Hakim (2004) contended that the majority of British and Spanish women preferred part-time to full-time work. In addition, recent books and popular magazines in the U.S. have addressed the unexpected number of economically successful and well-educated mothers who have left their careers for full-time homemaking and motherhood (Belkin, 2003; Warner, 2005). At the same time official statistics show a slight decline in the rates of married women with preschoolers who are employed, down from 64% in 1998 to 60% in 2007 (Cohany and Sok, 2007). Taken together, the implicit message is that the feminist revolution in the U.S. has stalled, and that there may be a setback in progress toward gender equality in marriage.

This paper offers an initial assessment of these conflicting narratives on women's changing status by addressing three aspects of the question. The first is theory and evidence of a long-term trend toward gender equality in marriage. Second is evidence on persistence versus reversal of gender equality in marriage. A third source is my own research on careeroriented and homemaker mothers which helps to reconcile these conflicting accounts. My . ultimate goal is to understand the bases of gender role differentiation and crossover within marriage and their relation to the egalitarian ideal. This requires an examination both of societal changes and the various life course patterns of individuals.

This research draws supporting evidence primarily from middle-class college educated women, both black and white, in the United States. The basic issues, however, appear to be present in all the developed nations, although they are addressed somewhat differently (Giele, 2006). It may therefore be possible to generalize this analysis of the basic social and individual dynamics of changing marriage and gender norms to other cases beyond the United States. …

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