On Women's Day, a reality check

CNN Opinion
March 8, 2012
By Stephanie Coontz

When Philip Morris introduced Virginia Slims cigarettes for women back in 1968, their marketing slogan was "You've Come a Long Way, Baby." But by 1968 women had not really come very far. "Help wanted" ads were still segregated by sex, the average employed female college graduate earned less than the average male high school graduate, fewer than 3% of all attorneys were female, most states had "head and master" laws giving the husband the final say in the home, and no state counted marital rape as a crime.

Since then women actually have come a very long way. But this year on International Women's Day, March 8, women are facing new challenges from social conservatives, who seem to believe that women have come too far. Who would have thought that women's hard-won access to family planning would suddenly become a hot button issue in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries?

And while the attacks on contraception are way out of step with mainstream opinion, that's not the only area in which women's gains may be threatened. In fact, according to a report issued this week by the Council on Contemporary Families, the rapid progress toward gender equality that America experienced in the 1980s and early 1990s seems to have stalled.

Researchers David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman catalog several troubling signs of blocked progress. For example, occupational segregation, which declined sharply from the 1960s through the 1980s, has not changed since 2000. Working-class occupations have actually become more gender-segregated since 1990 and now are back to the same level as 1950.

In 1977, only 34% of Americans thought women were as well suited to politics as men. By 1996, that had climbed to 79%. But in 2010 it was stuck at 78%. There was also slippage in support for egalitarian marital arrangements between 1994 and 2010.

The Council on Contemporary Families researchers do not claim that a counter-revolution is in the works. Mostly the story has been one of a slowdown rather than a reversal of progress. In some areas, in fact, support for women's rights has continued to build. Today, 75% of Americans -- the highest percentage ever -- agree that "a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work." If the politicians will just leave us alone, maybe we gals can negotiate a truce in "the mommy wars."

Stephanie Coontz teaches family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and co-chairs the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent book is A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (BasicBooks).

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