In March 2011, Obama’s administration released a report concerning the present women’s condition in U.S.A.: it was really different from the one released 50 years ago, that represented the first report about the women’s status requested by the president J.F. Kennedy. From the previous definition of “perfect housewife” in Kennedy’s administration report in 50’s, nowadays women are described as a “key feature of economy”. Actually, women are in a difficult and controversial position: their condition is unstable, according to the deep contradictions between social roles and individual ambitions. In “Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economical Well-Being”, Valerie Jarret, Obama’s counsellor, states that:
As the report shows, women have made enormous progress on some fronts. Women have not only caught up with men in college attendance but younger women are now more likely than younger men to have a college or a master’s degree. Women are also working more and the number of women and men in the labor force has nearly equalized in recent years. As women’s work has increased, their earnings constitute a growing share of family income. (Jarrett, Tchen, iii)
Unfortunately, it does not mean that gender equality has been reached. Indeed, the report stresses how all these achievements didn’t bring to “earning equality”: American women have an income which is 75% less than men’s one, according to the same level of education and job profile, in spite of the Equal Pay Act, which was passed in 1963 in order to overcome the gender pay gap. Moreover, women are also alone in their unequal condition: the married ones passed from 72% in 1970 to 62% in 2011; the single-parent family is mostly made by women, single or divorced, which brings them to an inferior social condition.
This recent report doesn’t portray, of course, a condition of “gender equality”. The long women path, made by great protests and important social and political achievements, reached a situation which is difficult to define and to change. Since 1950’s women are fighting for their rights, and a lot of important historical changes were traced on the common people way of thinking. It does not regard only political and social stances, but also the way in which women were perceived and symbolized by traditional culture and media. The only way to understand how to give a change to the social role of the women in the contemporary society consists in tracing a trajectory that starts from the beginning of their fight and comes to our period. Just in this way it is possible to get the awareness of what can be improved and what deserves to be saved.
Family, motherhood, domestic life: after the second war world, these were the most important concepts which leaded the American women condition. In 50’s, home was the symbol of the family life, after the wealthy period brought by the economic growth, and every single family had its own house and was able to spend their incomes in consumer goods. According to that, the freedom of the American women could have its own expression in the house-life. The reaffirmation of the women as tutelary god of the domestic life became a symbol of stability in the post-war society. The post-war woman had to be the emblem of a calm and sexually reassuring femininity: maternity was the key-concept of the new femininity, which was meant as a symbol of the new successful American society. So, a political and social discourse leaded by the official history put women in an inferior position than men’s one in the social scale.
A turning point in the American women situation was brought by the publication of Friedan’s book “The Feminine Mystique”. “The problem that has no name – which is simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities – is taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease (Friedan, 433).” In the same year, the federal report of the Commission on Status of women denounced their discrimination in the working, political and juridical spheres, claiming for fair salaries and maternity leave. Friedan’s voice reawakened women awareness of their condition: she talked about the feeling of frustration and social distress of the American women, who apparently lived in a comfortable and easy condition. It traced the beginning of the women’s fight for their rights and for a new role in the society. It was characterized by an ideological feminist approach, which furthermore brought to the creation of associations for the defense of women rights. A real revolution against the common way of thinking gender discrimination took place in politics, society and media: in the 70’s, the movement gained a series of political successes, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Act (1972), Women’s Educational Equity Act (1974) and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (1978). Otherwise, the two historical achievements of the movement were about abortion and divorce: in 1973, abortion became legal in U.S.A. after a long case, “Roe vs. Wade”, which was discussed by the United States Supreme Court; in 1969, the governor of California, Ronald Reagan, signed the Family Law Act, in which it was considered legal the No-Fault Divorce, which was accepted by the other states by 1985.
Afterward, in the XXI century, Friedan looked back to the women movement, stressing the important changes brought by its achievements: “There is no doubt that the women’s movement has transformed American society, opening life in many ways for women and men alike. There may be nostalgic yearnings for the feminine mystique, but women are no longer defined solely in terms of their relation – sexual, maternal, or domestic – to men. They are defining their lives themselves by their actions in society (Friedan 2002, 14)”. Her statement is important because it stresses the difference between the position of women in the past century and the present one. The fight for the rights brought to a great success for the women, and their role is, of course changed since the 50’s. Otherwise, the contemporary society is characterized by a peaceful uncritical acceptance of the world as it is: people hear about political disparity, unjustified wars and social problems, without any deep will to change the situation. The affluent society brought a lot of life spheres to a paralysis, which symbolizes the pacific acceptance of the world as it is, with its precarious balances. It seems to be the repetition of that condition of «mystique» defined by Friedman, but in this case applicable to the whole society. So, women also enjoyed the wellness effects on their position: after the great fight for rights, they reach a hypocritical equal role in the society as men’s one. The path to the “gender equality” passed to a more intellectual stage: feminism became feminisms, that means a great division between all the women rights movements, according to their gender, racial, or religious approaches; in the universities an important field of studies, such as Women Studies, carried on important researches about women’s culture and tradition.
What appears as a present achieved condition of gender equality is, abruptly, contradicted by the above-mentioned 2011 federal report “In “Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economical Well-Being”. The success in educational and political spheres does not correspond to an equal salary condition. Most of the women are also ostracized by important roles in the great companies, as well as in politics. Mass-media broadcast a feminine image based on the enhancement of the body, and the cultural icon of women’s inferiority has not been deleted yet. Nowadays, the challenge is no more between men’s and women’s roles: it is evident that the matter is about a more wide range of social problems and inequalities which involve both men and women, and it results as a difficult stand-point to overcome.
Indeed, a lot of recent studies shows as women discrimination is a matter of fact. As Julie Goldscheid stresses: “Workplace inequality based on sex, as well as discrimination based on other protected characteristics, persist notwithstanding several decades of antidiscrimination laws (Goldscheid, 61)”. Otherwise, the 2011 federal report states that women are a key feature of the modern economy: in spite of it their role is corrupted and women have to face a constant discriminatory approach in their workplace. It does not depend any more from a social and political fight with men’s power. It deals with the actual features of our contemporary society, which is not characterized by a shared solidarity in front of all the disparities. Most of the fights which had to be brought are left to the social minorities, which can just try to manage the problems, but they can’t really face alone the spoiled facets of our community. For example, it is the case of the Chicano women movement: it was born in consequence of the success of the Chicano community in their fight for their minority rights in 60’s, but the feminist association “Comision Feminile Mexicana Nacional” had to be created to fight for the adoption of bilingual consent form on the compulsory sterilization of women in U.S.A., in 1975. It shows how it does not exist a real solidarity between the different social members: even in the same community, it is difficult to fight for a common reason, and so everyone is facing the social unease on his own.
Finally, another aspect of the matter to be faced is, of course, the strong influence that the society gender perspective plays in the process of women’s identity self-determination. The tradition of women as a second sex, the “other”, the deviation from the norm which is male, seems to have been overcome by all the achievements in the past century: but the problem is still persisting, since nowadays the sociological researches emphasize the presence in the contemporary society of stereotypical standards of what a woman should be. As Izzard and Barden question: “We also wished to think about what happens to a woman’s identity when she feels out of that ‘fit’ – when she cannot feel herself mirrored in the images that society presents to her of ‘Woman’. How does our society constrain women into or release them from narrow definitions? (Izzard and Barden, 2)”. It is a subtle discrimination, which represents the most difficult challenge of the matter, because it is the effect of the identity-making leaded by mass-media.
Taking these points into consideration, I would say that a further step has to be made. It should represent a deep change in the approach to the matter. When I read “The Future of Feminism”, I completely agreed with Betty Friedan when she states that “More than ever, we now have to think about moving to the second stage: the way to live the equality that we fought for in a world of diverse new family combinations of women, men, and children. The second stage is where we must move, women and men together. We need a new and politically active consciousness-raising to get us beyond the polarized and destructive male model of work and decision making and the undervalued women’s model of life – the model that takes it as inevitable that having children is a woman’s free individual choice to short-circuit permanently her earning power and her professional future (Friedan 2002, 15)”. Her opinion is important to understand the point in which we are stuck now: if one of the greatest leaders of the women’s right movement is ready to say that it is the moment to leave the fight against men, and work together in order to get new important achievements, it means that the times are changing. We cannot talk anymore about a fight for the main political rights, which were gained during the past 50 years, but the so-called «second stage» should be a more conscious and shared struggle for real changes in our paralyzed wellness society.
Nowadays, the everyday social problems are shared by both men and women: we are talking about temporary employment, child-care especially for individual families and mobbing in the workplace. It is a matter of fact that these social features are strongly linked with our lives, but as well the common tendency is to feel them as irrelevant to our existence. It results that it is the effect of media and socio-political discourse to lead us to the indifference and the uncritical acceptance of this reality. So, rethinking about the women movement fight as an important historical moment for the social achievements in order to reach gender equality is the key to start the «second stage» of the struggle.
Actually, the main step to be made in this second phase is, of course, a restructuring program of the work system, especially about its conditions. It is the first influence that society got in the everyday women, and as well men, lives: for example, thinking about individual families, managed by woman with a temporary job, it is evident that no help is given by governments to maintain her son. It is obvious that the first consequence is the dismissal of all those expectations about career, in favor of a low-profile job which let woman grows up her son. Furthermore, in the contemporary society the young generation is having great problems to face its career perspectives, because of the difficulties to find an employment. It involves especially women, who suffer more this social unease. As the 2011 federal report shows, their education level highly increased, but their salaries are still low because of the effects of the impasse which occurred in the job market.
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In conclusion, it is clear that great achievements were brought in gender equality process during the last fifty years. Women are considered a main feature of the economic system, and they are no more obliged to follow their so called “housewife destiny”. Otherwise, it is important to stress the need of new fights in order to contrast those sexual discriminating tendencies, which still exist in our society. The matter has to be meant as a global problem, and for this reason it should be shared by the different members of the community without any differences of gender and race. Media shouldn’t corrupt our view about the society and its uneasiness: but, on the contrary, we should take advantage of our possibilities to face different realities around the world. For example, in Asia great developments are taking place, and the employment strategies for women are constantly elaborated in accordance with the changing society: as Leng Tang states, “These developments imply less time spent on domestic chores and child-raising, as well as greater possibilities for participating in employment outside the home throughout the life course (Leng Tang, 10)”. The need of gender equality is one of the most important aims to be pursued: but it can be gained just through great efforts made by all the members of the contemporary community, once more united to get their fundamental social rights.
Jarrett, Valerie and Tchen, Christina. Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being. Washington, U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration, March 2011.
Jackson, David. White House Report: Women lag in pay, gain in education. USA Today, 01 March 2011.
Gerson, Kathleen. Hard Choices: How Women Decide About Work, Career, and Motherhood. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Print
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. In Peter B. Levy, 100 Key Documents in American Democracy, Westport: Greenwood, 1994. Print
Friedan, Betty. The Future of Feminism. In Free Inquiry, Volume 19: Issue 3, 2002.
Goldscheid, Julie. Gender Violence and Work: Reckoning with the Boundaries of Sex Discrimination Law. In Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Volume 18: Issue 1, 2009.
Izzard, Susannah and Barden, Nicola. Rethinking Gender and Therapy: The Changing Identities of Women. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2001. Print
Leng Tang, Leng. Old Challenges, New Strategies: Women, Work and Family in Contemporary Asia. Boston: Brill, 2004. Print