Be Careful What You Wish For

In the 1990’s during a trip to Russia, I had an opportunity to interview a number of women. This was a time when women in this country – including mothers – were going to work outside the home in increasing numbers as part of the struggle for women’s rights and equal opportunity with men.

In the Soviet Union, women’s participation in the work force had long been a matter of fact, rather than aspiration, both as an ideological and practical matter. Children cared for in government provided daycare was also a fact. Yet all of the women I spoke to spontaneously expressed a similar point of view. They were baffled as to why American women were fighting to join the workplace.

From their vantage point, American women were so fortunate in being able to remain home as housewives and mothers – something these women could only wish for. They could not understand why women would fight to give that up. They especially longed to be able to care for their own children instead of having them cared for by others in situations that were not always to their liking.

This experience came to mind when reading about women in Japan who work more than 49 hours a week and typically do close to 25 hours of housework a week. Their husbands do an average of less than five. In addition, preschools may require daily journals recording children’s temperatures, what they eat, their sleep hours and playtime.

Japan’s economy is apparently in need of working women, yet although raising women’s employment rates to the same level as men could increase the country’s economic output significantly, the actual opportunities for women are limited. While many employers accommodate women’s domestic responsibilities by providing shorter work days, at the same time they are penalized in terms of salary and opportunities for advancement.

In the 1980’s, during the massive influx of women and mothers to the workforce in this country, Arlie Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist wrote “The Second Shift,” a study of how families were coping with the everyday reality of working mothers. She found that women came home from a full day of paid work to another round of unpaid housework and childcare – a “second shift.” She estimated that women were working an extra month more than their spouses every year.

Revisiting her thesis twenty-five years later, research showed that women were still doing about twice the housework and child care as men, even when working full time. Hochschild reported a “stalled revolution.” The revolution was women going into the workforce, but the workplace and the men they come home to had changed less rapidly, or not at all.

The attitude of the Soviet women all those years ago reflected their belief that American women had a choice, which they themselves did not. The rebirth of the women’s movement at that time encompassed a focus on choice – namely, that women should have a choice in the directions of their lives, with opportunities open to them that were open to men.

While working outside the home was initially seen as a choice, it has since turned into an economic necessity for many. What has become clear in the process is that the concept of choice as it was imagined was in itself unrealistic. Reality as it is encountered does not match original expectations. This may be because the expectations in themselves were unrealistic.

A basic idea in the changing role of women was that the gender division of labor in the home would become equal. Although there have been steps taken in achieving that goal, the reality is that the constraints women are experiencing in that regard are greater than any feeling of choice.