The Tacit Agreement That Fell Apart: Marriage Post-Employment
Joy and Claudia represent the two-thirds of women in this study who are middle – class. These women grew up imagining white picket fences and perfect children. They worked hard in school with the goal of going to college, even though they did not necessarily anticipate lifelong careers. Everyone assumed they would settle down and raise a family. In their families, men would be the providers.
However, Joy and Claudia found themselves in a time of enormous flux when they graduated from college in the mid – to late 1970s. As young women in their early twenties, they were in the midst of a rapid expansion of employment opportunities and an influential women’s liberation movement. Alost parents—even conservative ones—encouraged their daughters to be “whatever they wanted to be.” Family and marriage were put on hold as exciting job opportunities arose and young women started to bring home a paycheck. Joy and Claudia were genuinely surprised by how much they enjoyed their independence. They liked making decisions about how to spend the money they earned, and they reveled in the many different ways they could shape their lives as self-sufficient women.
The irony, they discovered, was that although they had been raised to follow7 in the footsteps of their mothers, they were actually imitating their fathers. Dads were pivotal and yet problematic influences in their lives.9 Mothers were typically subjected to husbands wrho were authority figures in the family and whose work lives determined the mother’s (and children’s) home life. Yet daughters remember dads as encouraging them to follow their dreams, including finding satisfaction and status through employment. In their daughter’s memories, dads were both liberators and oppressors: they opened the doors of opportunity for their daughters, but their work lives depended upon wives’ subordination to their needs.
By contrast, women with working-class origins usually came from dualearner families. Working-class moms rarely left the labor force except when their children were babies, and even then some were employed. Even though their parents may have only completed high school, these daughters were likely to have some college education. Unlike the middle-class pattern in which the wives stayed home and raised their families until the youngest child was entering high school, working-class daughters watched their mothers bring home a paycheck even if the hours they worked made it appear that they were waiting at home for the school bus.10
For example, when Abby was growing up, her dad, upon returning home from his construction job, would sit in the living room watching TV, his reward for a long day. Her mom, on the other hand, rushed back from her nursing shift to prepare dinner while Abby and her preteen sister peppered her with questions about carpool arrangements, weekend plans with friends, and math homework. Dinner wras always on the table on time, but as Abby grew older she noted that her mom also had worked all day. Abby loved her mother but never could stand how her mother allowed her father to sit and not help every night. The women in this study witnessed their mothers’ resigned acceptance of a seemingly immutable status quo; more than one shook her head in disbelief at the signs of exhaustion their mothers often displayed. Women who came from working-class backgrounds were at one and the same time proud of their mothers’ employment achievements and sad that it was their mothers who were doubly burdened with keeping family life together.
Women, regardless of social class origins, admired and appreciated the loving home that their parents created; however, they did not want this same gendered arrangement for themselves in the future.11 They could not sustain a charade in which they minimized their outside employment in order to perpetuate the ideal of the husband as the primary provider. Often, women found that the men they dated voiced the rhetoric of equality but did not follow it in practice. These women worried that unless they redefined marriage, their husband’s employment would slowly overshadow their own and they would become their
mothers. Women in this study were too committed to pursuing their employment and independence to let that happen.