FOR BETTER OR WORSE, WOMEN'S ROLES ARE CHANGING

Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- You have to grasp how extraordinarily different this story of women's roles has been across human history.

Even in our eras of experience -- particularly those of us who were in high school and college back in the 1950s and '60s -- an American woman even from a good university or a liberal family planned on getting her "Mrs." degree and getting properly married immediately upon graduation.

Sometimes the coed would work to support her new husband until he got his next degree and was well started in a job; but after that, with so few exceptions that they seemed rather outrageous, the wife stayed at home raising the children, while the husband became the sole breadwinner and provider.

And now? Well, since the women's movement of the 1970s and afterward, few speak out against women working outside the home, but usually that work is extolled as utilitarian. In fading economic times, the wife's outside income was simply necessary. Often she pretended to not really [like -- WANT?] it for herself.

But this week, a new study by the Pew Research Center and some new data are showing that that rock of experience upon which we built our families and our moral/emotional lives is crumbling beneath us. The majority of women are no longer in the home; men are slowly giving up their previous workplaces to their wives. Who will do what, or represent what, in the future is simply unknowable.

The Pew study found that four of 10 American households with children under 18 now include a mother who is either the sole or primary earner for her family. It is the highest share of working women in this position on record, having quadrupled since 1960.

"While most of these families are headed by single mothers, a growing number are married mothers who bring in more income than their husbands," according to the study.

The New York Times reported from the study that "married mothers are becoming increasingly better educated than their husbands: 61 percent of husbands and wives in dual-earner households have similar education levels, but 23 percent of the mothers are better educated than their spouses compared with 16 percent of fathers." Women now earn more advanced degrees in many fields.

In the first years after the women's movement bloomed in the '70s, writers tended to treat stories of women's achievements with a certain witty nonchalance that sometimes bordered on demeaning. But now the stories of women's futures have a ring of real, raw truth about them. These stories end with a question mark.

Specialists were quoted opining seriously that, after all, it has been mothers who have been always responsible for the majority of child care, and single motherhood, while itself considered undesirable to many onlookers, can stand for another example of that role.

But single mother "providers" are at a severe disadvantage, according to the Pew report. Compared with their married peers, single mothers earn an average of $23,000 and are likely to be young, black or Hispanic, and to have a lower level of education than married women breadwinners, whose family income averages $80,000.

In 1960, only 4 percent of single mothers had never been married; today that figure is 44 percent. Meanwhile, 40 percent of all births are to single mothers. The figure is 80 percent in the African-American community.

These changes, like so many in our society that we have trouble getting our heads around, also date back to the 1960s. It was then that the United States lost, or allowed, its greedy corporations to locate their offices and factories overseas in the Bangladeshes of the world so as not to pay taxes. Working-class jobs for men started disappearing.

I must have attended at least a dozen conferences or seminars in the '80s and '90s in which the self-righteous from these corporations and their minions would piously announced that "globalization was good." Factories might move to Chengdu or Jakarta, but the U.S. would come out of the turmoil by becoming a "service economy."

But no one ever suggested how brawny former steelworkers would transform overnight to man a concierge desk at the Plaza, or sell a trip to Bhutan to a choosy lady at a travel agency in Winnetka.

There is neither embarrassment nor onus in saying that we are not all fit for all jobs.

But above all, I think of culture. Women were always the culture-carriers and the nurturing sex. Today, I look around and see America's popular culture down in the gutter, and I yearn for some motherliness in our society. Who will take those roles, if anyone?


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