Future Nancy Holts?
As I drive from my office at the University of California, Berkeley, across the Oakland Bay Bridge to my home in San Francisco, I often compare the couples I have been studying to the students I teach. Who will step into the biography of Nancy Holt? Who will be the new Nina Tanagawa? The Jessica Stein? The Adrienne Sherman? The Ann Myerson? And which of the men will be like Art Winfield? Like John Livingston? Like Ray Judson? Will my students eventually rear children like Joey Holt, Alexandra Tanagawa, Victor and Walter Stein, Adam Winfield? Will it be easier for the younger generation in two-job families? Has the turmoil of the 1970s and early 1980s been a temporary phase in preparation for a new kind of marriage in the future? Or will my students also live in a revolution that is stalled?
I wonder about all this as I talk with students in my office at 464 Barrows Hall on the Berkeley campus. Nearly all of my women students badly want lifelong careers. In this they are typical of students more generally. An American Council of Education survey of 200,000 freshmen at more than 400 campuses in March 1988 asked students to name their probable career. Less than 1 percent of women answered “full-time homemaker.”1 In my office, only a handful confide that “all they want” is to be a homemaker, offering long, hesitant explanations for why they would conceivably want to stay home, as if these days this choice for a college woman called for a social version of a medical excuse.
In a 1985-86 survey of University of California, Berkeley, seniors, Anne Machung found that over 80 percent of senior women thought it was “very important” to have a career. At the same time, 80 percent definitely planned to marry or be in a committed partnership, and another 17 percent hoped to be in one. They planned to have two or three children at most, and to have them later in life than their mothers did. Most planned to interrupt their careers from one to five years to have the children but they didn’t think this would disadvantage them at work.2 The students I teach fit this description too. When I show my students a picture of the woman with the flying hair, briefcase in one hand, child in the other, they say she is “unreal,” but they want to be just like her.
Even for the most exceptional women, the contradictions between work and family are very real. And my students know it.
Many know it from their mothers struggles, and sometimes from their divorces. But, faced with a contradiction and a cultural cover – up, they feel afraid. They applaud the new opportunities at work. They are scandalized by the inequities that remain. But when it comes to matters at home, a distant, vague, distracted look comes into their eyes, and suddenly they become hesitant and inconclusive. They plan to put marriage off. They plan to go slow. If they have a steady boyfriend, they don’t talk about how they will share the work at home in the future. That’s “too far ahead.” At the actual problems of holding down a demanding job and raising young children, they don’t dare look. I don’t believe they don’t know the problems. These are intelligent, inquiring women. I think they are avoiding a close look because it scares them. It isn’t just one or two young women who avoid it; there seems to be a collective decision not to look. For all the media attention given the working mother, young women are not asking what major changes we need to make the two-job family work well.
If Nancy Holt and many women in this book reacted against their mothers’ frustrations at the life of an unfulfilled housewife, many of my women students today, eighteen to twenty-two, are reacting against their mothers’ frustration at being oppressed working mothers. To many young women, the working mother is the new ideal. But she is also the new cautionary tale.
Many young men and women grew up inside busy, strained two-job families. When I ask them about the advantages of having grown up in a two-job family, they mention the education, the family vacations, the financial needs their parents’ wages met. And they generally agree with the student who said: “It’s sure made me self-reliant. I can cook by myself, do my homework without prodding. I wouldn’t be so independent if my mom had been home all the time.” When I ask them about the disadvantages, they sometimes recall a bad memory, like this one: “When I was ten, I had to come home and empty the ashtrays and make the salad for dinner and start my homework in the house alone. I survived, but I hated it.” Or another: “My mother was always on the go, and my dad worked long hours. I don’t feel like I really got to know either of them until I got to college.” When asked to put the advantages and disadvantages together, both men and women felt the advantages won; they want to have two-job families, too, but somehow not in the same way..
Beneath their private fear of becoming an oppressed working mother, young women are also anxious about the whole stalled revolution. The old way of being a woman in a patriarchal but stable family system is fading. (The parents of nearly half of my students have divorced.) But a new equal relationship with men at work and at home is not yet in reach.
Bracing for the plunge into adulthood, most of these young students are turning away from Carmen Delacorte’s model of womanhood, but not reaching out with any confidence to Adrienne Shermans. Most of my women students—at the University of California, the heartland of student revolt in the 1960s—are wistful for a fifty-fifty marriage, but don’t think they’ll get it. Raised as babies in families who struggled over the second shift, they are weary of marital wars. They accept the goals of the revolution but approach them pragmatically, timidly, fatalistically, in the spirit of the “stall.” They are poised to step into the biography of Nancy Holt.
Next to the experience of their own working mothers, what most affects their views on marriage is their exposure to divorce. It makes some young women more traditional. As one described: “In her first marriage, my mother really pushed to be equal with my dad. That just led to horrible arguments. In her second marriage, she’s staying home. She just says, ‘Yes, dear. . . yes, dear’ and things are calmer. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I know I don’t want a marriage like her first but I can’t see myself in a marriage like her second.” Most daughters of divorce don’t want to “get caught” unprepared. As one nineteen-year-old student explained to me: “My mother worked as a freelance graphic designer and it was she who took care of my brother and me. She didn’t earn much for her work, so after the divorce, her income plummeted and she got really depressed. Meanwhile my dad got remarried. When I called my dad to tell him how depressed she was, he just said she should get a job.” If a woman lets go of her place at work to care for a family, she can “get caught.” So some women may creep cautiously into the biography of Anita Judson, the billing clerk and mother of three who kept on working to be prepared “just in case.”
What goes for college-educated women and men goes even more, I think, for high school-educated young people. If privileged women openly embrace the supermom image, other women are forced into it out of necessity, as were many of their mothers before them. The problems middle-class women face are doubled in the working class. Blue-collar women are likely to marry blue – collar men, who are the most vulnerable to economic fluctuations caused by the current crisis in American industry. Less-educated women are more likely to defer to their husbands’ jobs; one 1986 national study found that 53 percent of women with no high school education, in contrast to 25 percent of women college graduates, believe “that it is more important for a wife to support her husbands career than to have a career herself.”3 Unlike upper – middle-class women, they will nonetheless have to work, and wont be able to buy themselves out of strains of the second shift.
And how about young men? Are they planning to share the work at home with working wives? In a 1986 study of Berkeley seniors, 54 percent of the women and 13 percent of the men expected to be the one who would miss an important meeting at work for a sick child. Sixty-nine percent of the women and 38 percent of men expected to share the laundry work equally. Fifty percent of women and 31 percent of the men expected to share cooking.4 A survey by Catalyst found that halfot the women plan to put the husband s job first, but two-thirds of the men said they planned to put their own job first.
In a 1985 in-depth study of Berkeley seniors, Anne Machung asked undergraduate men if they expected to marry a woman who held a job outside the home. “She can work if she wants,” most answered. When asked if they would be willing to marry a woman who wanted them to do half the housework and child care, one man answered, “Yes, I could always hire someone.” Another answered, “It would depend on how much I liked her and how she asked.” A number of them didn’t want “lists.” Among the young as well, women seem to be changing faster than men.