Thursday, October 22, 2009

What did women want?

I have finished reading Gail Collins' When Everything Changed (which I mentioned in my two previous posts: Women's History and Everything Changed). It's a very thorough history of the progress of women's rights and women's quest for equality in the last 50 years of American history. But as I said, I was disappointed because it lacks the vigor and humor of its author's usual style.

As a witness and as a person affected by this history, what does this book really say to me? Is it really true that women got what they asked for but learned that it's not really what they want? Did upper class and well-educated women see their privileges extended, while poor women's lack of access to education, good jobs, and child care were simply made more painful? Did attitudes towards women in the workplace improve women's chances while attitudes towards women's maternal and housekeeping duties didn't change fast enough to make up for it? Did changes in some fields (military careers, academic science, engineering, average politics) lag behind so that men still dominate them and can make a woman's life in them very hard? What about pressure on women to be beautiful, thin, fashionable or trendy, and flattering to men -- did anything about that improve? I love Collins's optimism. But I'm not sure it answers enough questions.

UPDATE: A number of studies have just appeared on the same topic as Collins's book. From Judith Warner, writing about the dubious gap in women's happiness:
Freedom, opportunity, respect, dignity, self-determination and equality — those universal human rights we somehow judge optional for women — do not make people unhappy. Only roadblocks to those entitlements do. Particularly when those impediments are packaged as what we “really” want.
See When We're Equal, We'll Be Happy

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