Contrasting Trends in Women’s Employment in the Twentieth Century: Race, Gender, Class and The Feminine Mystique

S. Jay Kleinberg, Rachel Ritchie


Abstract


In The Feminine Mystique (1963), Betty Friedan highlighted the anomie experienced by women whose sole focus was their husbands, children and homes.  She also presented a solution to this ‘problem that has no name’, arguing that women’s lives could be more fulfilling if they combined marriage and motherhood with paid employment, and more particularly with a professional occupation.  Using evidence from the U.S. Census, this article demonstrates that apart from the white upper- and upper-middle-class women upon whom Friedan concentrated, rising numbers of American women from all backgrounds already undertook paid work by 1960.  As well as examining long terms trends in women’s employment in the U.S., the article disaggregates the overall figures by key variables such as age, race, marital status and age of children.  By doing so, it reveals that the pattern of economic activity among elite white women, the cohort Friedan focused upon, changed in the twenty years following The Feminine Mystique’s publication, coming to more closely resemble that of working-class and non-white women.  Furthermore, as the century progressed, professional and white collar employment increasingly became the norm. This seemingly vanquished ‘the problem that has no name’ although not the obstacles and difficulties that continue to face all women in the labour force.


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