Women Reach a Breaking Point

Susan J. Douglas

How tired are you of seeing a tiny minority of wingnut Americans – birthers,” teabaggers,” Obama-haters – get so much coverage in the news? Those who went to Washington, D.C. on Sept. 12, waving their confederate flags and posters of Obama as Hitler got front-page coverage in The New York Times.

Many women feel at a breaking point when it comes to finances, raising kids and negotiating changing gender role expectations.

Yet subsequent counts and photographs showed the demonstration to be much smaller than proclaimed – maybe 30,000 at most – and certainly vastly smaller than the national and international demonstrations in February 2003 against the anticipated invasion of Iraq.

These vitriolic and aggrieved people may be flashy, but they don’t represent what most people feel or want. According to a New York Times/CBS poll, President Obama’s approval ratings are higher than Reagan’s or Clinton’s at the same point in their presidencies. Nearly two-thirds of Americans favor the public option in a healthcare bill. Only 30 percent approve of the Republican Party, and that support is concentrated in the South.

So why not direct our attention to a majority of Americans: women and their families. Away from the cameras, the over-publicized fulminations of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, and TV shows about hot-to-trot cougars” and MILFs (Mother I’d Like to Fuck), a quiet and profound transformation affected the lives of millions of Americans. During the Great Recession, with all the cuts in manufacturing, construction and the housing industry, men have sustained 75 percent of the job losses. For many families this means that women are now the primary breadwinners. 

A report to be released this month, organized by Maria Shriver, shows that women constitute nearly half – 49.8 percent – of American payrolls. According to Heather Boushey, an economist with the Center for American Progress, a woman brings home all or the majority of a family’s income in nearly half of all families with children.

Those who see television dramas as an indicator of women’s status in the workplace might think this is great news, what with all the lawyers, surgeons, district attorneys, judges and the like who would typically earn a handsome salary. In real life things are different. White women still make 77 cents to a man’s dollar (it’s 62 cents for African-American women and 53 cents for Latina women), and a 2007 study showed that after one year of employment, female college graduates earn 20 percent less than their male colleagues. In 2006, the national median income for women was just over $32,000 a year, more than 31 percent less than their male counterparts.

Because most families get healthcare through the husband’s employer, the staggering job losses among men only add to the healthcare crisis. Yet media coverage remains minimal – it’s not as dramatic as teabaggers running around with posters reading, Obama’s Plan: White Slavery.” 

In her report, A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything,” organized through the Center for American Progress, Shriver is determined to get the spotlight back on women juggling work and family who are struggling to make ends meet. (Full disclosure: I wrote one of the report’s chapters.) Among the main takeaways is that the government and the workplace are woefully behind the times when it comes to responding to the needs of families and children. Because of Shriver’s long relationship with NBC and her high-profile role as First Lady of California, NBC news has agreed to cover the report’s findings. If they do, this will be a welcome change from the network news we’ve been getting. 

A Woman’s Nation” comes at an auspicious yet very difficult time. Auspicious because so many women feel themselves to be at a breaking point when it comes to finances, raising kids and negotiating changing gender role expectations. Overwhelming public support for the proposed public option” (and remember last spring’s Rasmussen report in which only 53 percent felt capitalism was better than socialism?) suggests that more Americans may indeed want the government to take a proactive role in supporting social welfare. 

But, of course, the Bush administration nearly bankrupted the government, and thus the very things we need to spend money on – affordable child care, better schools, prenatal care for low-income women – seem out of reach. 

But why should they be? Women and their families must stand up and demand that the government pay attention to them. Instead of teabaggers, maybe what we need is another Women’s Strike for Equality, just like in 1970: just shut the whole place down. Might that drive home the centrality of women’s work, and the fact that it remains, after all these years, so undervalued?

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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