Women, Work, and the Promise of Feminism

Virginia Santy McCarver | @ginnamccarver

Hi, broads. Have you ever felt overwhelmed by work and . . . life? By running frantically from a professional commitment to a family one?

I remember one particularly packed day wherein I took my sick toddler to the doctor, raced her back home to the nanny, and dashed off again to deliver a guest lecture on strategic communication and social change to a graduate seminar. As I tidied up my smudged eyeliner with a diaper—a clean one!—before stepping into the lecture hall, I remember thinking with delirium, “Look at me! I’m doing it all!”

My friend and fellow researcher, Sarah Blithe, and I have swapped similar stories over the years. She is (in no particular order) a badass academic and researcher, founder and owner of a communication training company, a wife, and a mom to two great kids. Each of us has struggled with the ridiculous notion of “balance,” the weighted blanket of mom guilt we can’t seem to shrug off, and frankly, some bat-shit crazy work policies more punitive towards mothers and families than supportive. Sarah and I have fumed over these stories and shared a sense of bafflement.

We were as close to card-carrying feminists as you could get. We were students of the feminist movement—literally. We studied it and were both well-published in this area. Why did we seem to be fighting some of the same battles our mothers fought? Wasn’t it supposed to be a little bit easier than this?

Sarah has studied some sticky and incredibly important issues when it comes to gender and work, including parental leave policies and discrimination. I’ve made women and leadership and wage discrimination a focus of my professional career for decades. We knew exactly where women stood when it came to social and professional expectations. We knew the challenges women continued to face concerning work in and outside the home. Yet we didn’t know the answer to one burning question: Why aren’t we, as women, further in our struggles to find success, contentment, value, and respect at work?

So, Sarah and I set out to answer this question. We spent years working on the answer; compiling research spanning centuries of feminist activism language and messages, delving in to social scientific research and trends regarding women’s status at work and the challenges they face. We submitted our research for peer-review—the toughest of the tough when it comes to scrutiny and high-standards. And our work passed the test. It will be published in the highly respected academic journal Women & Language in a few months.

Yay for us! Yet, not many people have access to academic library databases. I don’t even have a login anymore (I borrow Sarah’s—thanks, girl!). And we wanted to share our work, the questions we asked, with more women.

So here ya go, broads! An excerpt from our work, complete with official excerpt-y language! We hope you enjoy reading it, and if you want to read more, let us know.

The following is an adapted excerpt from an original research study by Drs. Sarah Jane Blithe and Virginia Santy McCarver, forthcoming in Women & Language, Vol 39(2).

In 1963 Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique outlined dominant cultural expectations for women including “how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training, how to cope with sibling rivalry and adolescent rebellion; how to buy a dishwasher, bake bread, cook gourmet snails, and build a swimming pool with their own hands; how to dress, look, and act more feminine and make marriage more exciting. . . .”

Decades later, a 2012 Newsweek article “American Women Have It Wrong,” written by Deborah Spar laments that despite the near-frantic pace many keep in their professional and personal lives, women are still not making it to the top of the corporate world.  In a tone echoing Friedan’s half-century-prior observations, Spar writes, “Like most working mothers, I have snuck out of meetings to attend piano recitals and missed track meets when a deadline was looming.  I have sprinted through airports in futile hope of catching an earlier flight home and tried to comfort a sobbing child when, inevitably, the plane was late.  I delivered my first lecture in a suit that reeked of infant throw-up from earlier that morning and crashed the minivan into a tree as I raced to retrieve the correct ballet costume.”

What’s Changed?

With the span of five decades between them, what is different about these two excerpts?  In some ways, not much at all.  The unrealistic expectations and the underlying sense of desperation are consistent.  But there are also important distinctions.  Spar’s perspective obviously includes the added pressures of the professional world; and in large part we have Friedan’s work to thank for the inroads women have made in these arenas.  As a second distinction, Spar’s words drip with frantic desperation and in truth, a degree of frank failure in the face of social expectations for working women.

In line with this recognition, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a mother of two, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, and former director of policy planning at the State Department wrote in her widely read and discussed piece for The Atlantic, “I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too).  I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’  But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured” (2012).  Her work sparked a flurry of responses, discussion, and renewed debate regarding the intersection of women, the concept of work-life “balance” and feminism in the U.S.

A half-century after Friedan’s seminal work called upon women to name and rectify the social and intellectual ennui brought on by an education left to lie languid for the sake of caring for the home and family, Slaughter and Spar lament a pendulum swung too far in the other direction as women face a social, cultural, economic, and political landscape that (1) increasingly demands their participation in the workforce yet (2) fails to provide systems of support to enable this participation.

Why Aren’t We Further?

As women, specifically as women who work outside the home, we are left with questions. Why, despite the gains we’ve made in supporting women at work, are we still struggling with the same issues and challenges? What will it take to make significant advancements in the realm of women and work?

Last but not least, reading the work of Friedan, Slaughter, and Spar would prompt any professional working woman, ourselves included, to worriedly deliberate a troubling and disillusioning final question: are the promises we heard while growing up—“you can have it all”—at best empty rhetoric and at worst a prescient condemnation of struggle and ultimately failure?

As evidenced by the above excerpts, “women and work” is a popular topic and the focus of headlines, books, blog posts, national organizations, ad campaigns, and public figures each encouraging women to “Dare to Lead,” “Lean In,” “Ban Bossy” or follow a range of prescriptions and advice. For those of us swimming in self-help books and professional development aspirations, the recurring questions and conversations about women and work may be encouraging, exhausting, or both.

The issues facing working women can no longer be construed as “women’s issues” relevant to half the population only.  Increasingly, work issues once considered the province of women—affordable daycare, flex time, parental leave, equal pay—impact men, including how both men and women define and operate within families and find satisfaction with work and interpersonal relationships.

This is not to suggest we’ve not made strides in advancing the issues and circumstances pertaining to women and work. The past ten years alone have ushered in incredible advances for women in the workplace including the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2010, the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which provided protected break time for nursing mothers at work, and amendments to FMLA which expanded the definition of family and thus provided more protected time away from work for caregiving responsibilities. However, many of these protections are currently under threat, making our original query—why aren’t we further?—irrelevant in the face of the more alarming: why are we moving backwards?

Authors note: We use the term “work” or “working” consciously to reflect common social conceptions of work as paid employment. We do not overlook or fail to recognize the role and import of accomplished, unpaid work at home. 

Dr. Sarah Blithe is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.  Her research focuses on gender inequality in work. Recent projects include her book, Gender Equality and Work Life Balance: Glass Handcuffs and Working Men in the U.S. and a two-year study of occupational identity and discrimination in Nevada’s legal brothels. In addition to her role as a university professor, Dr. Blithe owns Equilibrium Consulting, Inc., a corporate training and management consulting firm helping organizations create equitable and knowledgeable work places. Follow her on Twitter @ProfessorSJB