By Stephanie Coontz
Professor of History
The Evergreen State College
Some of the ideals of the gender revolution are not yet achieved, and new forms of inequality have been created in the process of overturning older ones. But the gender revolution is already a reality.
The American Revolution did not guarantee inalienable rights to all Americans. In fact the contradictions between its equal-rights ideology and daily realities actually led to an increase in prejudices against African-Americans and women. The industrial revolution periodically gives rise to a reemergence of preindustrial forms of labor and anti-modernist movements. But in both cases there was a decisive change in the dynamics of social life. The same is true of the gender revolution.
For 5,000 years, men and women were assigned different and unequal obligations and rights in all but a few of the most simple band-level societies. Gender directly determined what work people could and could not do and what return they were entitled to for that work. Women were excluded from whole arenas of social life. Fathers and brothers had legally enforceable rights to control a woman’s sexuality, property, and personal behavior.
Much of the stall described by Cotter and colleagues may be connected to the fact that we have already picked the low-hanging fruit by abolishing the most blatantly discriminatory laws. This leaves us with more complex problems in tackling the remaining inequality.
As late as 1970, gender outweighed education in determining Americans’ income levels. Today, however, education outweighs gender. Much of the economic discrimination women still suffer is now filtered through the constrained (but not legally imposed) choices that people make in organizing parenthood. The way forward seems less clear to many.
Furthermore, the increased gender equity within families has ironically exacerbated socioeconomic inequality between families, as two-earner families of educated professionals pull farther ahead of their less-educated counterparts and single breadwinner families. While some people continue to press against the glass ceiling, others have become preoccupied with not falling into the concrete basement. A certain loss of momentum is not surprising.
Finally, the very victories of the movement contribute to its slow-down. It is easier to unite people against specific unjust laws and practices than to reach agreement about what should replace them.Topics: History & Trends on Gender, Marriage & Family Life