Living: Onward, Women!

The superwoman is weary, the young are complacent, but feminism is not dead. And, baby, there's still a long way to go

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Consider just a few measures of change. In the 1950s, women made up only 20% of college undergraduates -- in contrast to 54% today -- and two-thirds did not complete their degrees (conventional wisdom then held that an "M.R.S." was more important). As for aspirations, well, they were limited. When more than 13,000 female college graduates were asked, in the early '60s, how they defined success for themselves, the two most common answers were to be the mother of several accomplished children and to be the wife of a prominent man. In 1960, three years before Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, 34.8% of women were in the work force, in contrast to 57.8% today. The number of female lawyers and judges has climbed from 7,500 to 180,000 today, female doctors from 15,672 to 108,200, and female engineers from 7,404 to 174,000. The number of women in elected office has more than tripled since 1975 at the local level, though their presence has barely changed in the U.S. Congress.

Not all the changes were the result of feminist ideology. Female employment in the U.S. has been rising since the 1890s, accompanied, not coincidentally, by a rise in the average age at which women marry, a decline in family size, and a jump in the divorce rate. The sole exceptions to these trends occurred in the 1950s, when, in the prosperous aftermath of World War II, motherhood and babymaking became a kind of national cult: there was a return to earlier marriage, families were bigger and divorce rates stabilized. Though women continued to pour into the workplace during the '50s, this fact was blotted out by the decade's infatuation with blissful domesticity. In the larger historical context, feminism appears to have been a rebellion against the '50s and a course correction. It helped get earlier trends back on track and offered an optimistic, have-it-all ideology to go with them.

It is only now, when 68% of women with children under 18 are in the work force (in contrast to 28% of women with children in 1960), that maternity leave and child care -- always issues for the working poor -- have become important for the majority of American women. Only today does the women's movement seem remiss in having failed to give greater emphasis to these matters. "The things I fought for are now considered quaint," complains Erica Jong, a best-selling feminist novelist. "We've won the right to be exhausted, to work a 30-hour day. Younger women say, 'Who wants that?' They say, 'We don't need feminism anymore.' They don't understand graduating magna cum laude from Harvard and then being told to go to the typing pool."

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