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Earning Power!: Boomer Women: Feminism Retires

Friday, January 20, 2006

Boomer Women: Feminism Retires

The last trickle of the boom is forty, and many have already moved from the workplace to retirement, leaving an incredible legacy to the next generations. Many men want to know if the generation that brought us the “superwoman” be able to leave behind a realistic work and family model for their own daughters?

Theirs is a generation completely explored sex, drugs and rock and rock and roll, leaving ours to discover their downsides. The first generation to enter the Civil Rights Era is now leaving the building, and some people are convinced it is a house of cards.

Perhaps feminism is something functions best for the unencumbered. Women’s rights peaked when boomer women were young. Just by sheer numbers, the boomer generation had the best opportunity to turn the tides of the workplace. With feminists becoming grandmothers, somehow the main topic of discussion appears to have moved away from career and become concerns about “ageing.”

The boomers were a large, powerful and radical generation. Everyone else’s influence seems so finite. After all, there is only one Chief Justice Ginsburg, one Barbara Walters, and one Oprah Winfrey. Who will be picking up the charge?

Career or Family to Career Then Family

Were boomer women able to demonstrate the example of successfully combining career and family? Economist Claudia Goldin’s survey of boomer women wanted to know how successful they were in achieving the dream of “having it all”.

What she discovered in her survey was that no more than 13-17% of all the women who graduated between 1966 and 1979 managed to reach mid-life with both a full-time career and family. She found women with no children had twice the career success of those with kids.

Bag Lady Blues?

Are boomer women less dependent on men than mothers were? Only about 20% of boomer women will retire well off, according to sociologist and author Nancy Dailey, and the biggest indicator that a baby boom woman will retire well is if she is married.

The majority of boomer women lost enormous sums of money from pensions, social security and investments because they still had to trade off seniority for pregnancy and the infant care years before they could return to work in more flexible situations with fewer benefits, if at all.

The focus of feminism was to remove all disadvantages of women, yet today’s young women deem that an unrealistic goal for women today simply because they yield to the realities of biology. Indeed some question if women’s positions are disadvantaged compared to men because they find greater purpose in mothering.

It’s the economy according to moms, stupid.
The result of the era’s efforts can be summarized in three ways to look at a woman’s worth, economically speaking:

1) What she actually earns while in a paid career,
2) What she could have earned or opportunity cost, had she continued a career uninterrupted,
3) What someone would pay to get the same labor they get for free from a home-maker, once she leaves the paid work force.

Women’s worth tends to be unlike men’s because either her paid career is usually shown as underpaid, stuck in traditionally female professions, or lacking consistency. Authors such as Warren Farrell talk about this as if women devalue themselves by their own career choices.

Because women’s careers tend to be more of an “in and out” of the work force pattern, they accrue a large penalty in promotions and benefits they weren’t able to take advantage of because of lost seniority or prioritizing child raising over career, and the discrimination that results from the biases and stereotypes associated with these patterns. Authors like Evelyn Murphy talk about this with statistics that a woman loses $700,000 to $2 million over her working lifetime.

Finally, different organizations and authors like Ann Crittendon have tried to quantify how much a man would have to pay for a cook, nanny, housekeeper, chauffeur, and so on if he didn’t have a wife. This leads to figures anywhere from $50,000 to $800,000 annually for a woman’s worth.

Career-wise, homemaking is the largest occupation for women, beating nursing, teaching and childcare. It is at once a very dependent position and an enviable one. After all, homemaking is what working men and women aspire to when they retire. This is why the majority of women continue to do to the preparation of future workforce for companies as unpaid labor. Working people always talk about someday being as lucky as stay at home moms.

Whose side are you on?

In fact, feminists are divided against themselves. When women fight women, who is the oppressor? One side wants to quantify what a homemaker’s work is worth to prove she is not a “dependent.” The other wants to ignore most women are homemakers, getting them out of the house, working to prove women are not dependent on anyone.

The second opinion, the more popular politically, inherently devalues the first, which is experienced by the majority. The second also gives men a great excuse not to participate at home, because the only worthwhile economic activity is going on at the office.

Wrong War, Wrong Time

The truth is that the wage gap isn’t really a product of men versus women, it is a result of unencumbered women versus mothers. Wage equality isn’t exactly a gender issue, but an issue of parenting. Single, childless women have similar opportunities and paychecks to men. It is when children arrive that women put children first by de-prioritizing their earnings while men put family first by earning more.

It is the urgency of children’s needs that stops the married couple from putting off chores until later, causing even the mother who earns more than her husband to have more daily housework than him. It is having a wife at home full-time that is the most commonly shared characteristic of CEO’s in the Fortune 500, and why a Catalyst survey reflects that less than half of elite female executives have any children while the 90% of women have a child by age forty.

Since the coining of the word feminism in 1894 by the Frenchman Charles Fourier to the present, women have achieved the right to vote and yet do not elect women to office, women are the largest percentage of undergraduates and yet have not achieved critical mass in workplace leadership, women have reproductive rights and pregnancy protection at work but overwhelmingly choose to keep having kids, spoiling their own chances for wage equality under current workplace circumstances which offer no assistance after the child’s incubation is complete. Universities have moved away from women’s studies to gender studies. But until we realize that these courses are family studies and a new definition of home economics courses that even the boys should take, we will not accurately or adequately be addressing the issues in a meaningful way.

What can Boomers Do?

Retirement isn’t the end for the baby boom. Anyone can see that with the empty nest comes a tremendous amount of ability to focus on the next cause to conquer. Perhaps the best pattern for boomer women to follow is career, family, career, and contribution to the cause. There is plenty of time left to improve conditions for our grandchildren by making the office less hostile to mothers.

Let’s find the 20% that had it all. We can use their example to continue to clear stereotypes that women are either a “dependent” or dependent by understanding our gender interdependencies. Maybe it was naïve to believe that superwoman could save us. But instead of throwing her out entirely, telling all of us to stay home, we should shake it out, refine and reframe the idea that working women are beneficial rather than reject it entirely.


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