For nearly a century, women in the United States have had the right to vote. For decades we have had access to birth control so we could plan and space our children, and we’ve been able to enter the work force, where we’ve come close to earning what our male counterparts earn at their jobs. We have more education, more access to quality health care, more chances at economic security that comes from ourselves rather than as a payment for caring for the home and children while our significant others do the earning for us.
But what if the best is already behind us? What if we already reached the pinnacle of our gains, and now it’s all starting to fall apart? Statistics looking at the last decade could make the case that our best years of advancement are over, and that’s a frightening thought.
A new report from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle has revealed that despite our advances in medical health and care as well as alleged availability of prenatal care and contraception, the United States is one of the few countries where the rate of maternal mortality is actually increasing. In 1990, our mortality rate was just 12.4 but then jumped to 17.6 in 2003 and continued to rise to 18.5 in 2013. In comparison, other developed countries still have a 12 percent mortality rate, and only countries like Afghanistan, Belize and El Salvador are seeing rising numbers like the U.S. has. Study authors say that the increases reflect both a problem with the medical system on the whole, which then leads to sicker women becoming pregnant, increasing the odds for death.
Increased risk of death during or directly after childbirth is a major shift in women’s health, but some things don’t seem to change at all. Like the “household” battle: when both parents work, who does more chores and childcare? Despite an increase in out of the house employment, women continue to bear the brunt of household work, to the point where some economic analysts are referring to it as the new “second shift.”
But as Bryce Covert writes over at The Nation, there’s a major reason why this is in itself a huge issue for equality between the sexes. As boys and girls grow up in homes where the female parent does more chores and more child care, while the male partner has more leisure, they begin to emulate the same patterns as they age. “There’s evidence that we carry these experiences as we age,” writes Covert. “One study found that boys who grew up only with sisters are 13.5 percent more conservative in their views of women’s roles compared to boys who grew up only with brothers. The researchers speculate that because their sisters are given the housework, those boys tend to assume domestic chores are women’s work.”
It’s harder to survive childbirth, and not only are we bearing most of the housework, but our doing so means that the next generation of women is likely to do so as well. However, the news doesn’t get any better once the children graduate, since the new economy, with its poor labor market for new graduates means those newly educated grads are probably coming right back home, unable to support themselves. When that happens, guess who ends up taking on more household work, again.
And women are spending significantly more time taking care of these young adult children than men are.
It’s not news that women do more work around the house than men, or that women have less leisure time than men. What’s new is that the period of care is getting longer, even if it’s mitigated by the increased responsibility and independence of these adult children,” writes Heather Krause at the newly launched FiveThirtyEight. Based on Krause’s numbers, women with children who return home spend an average 8 extra hours a week doing household tasks than men do, resulting in essentially an extra day of work per week.
The problems that face us can’t be more obvious. We need to reinvest in our own health and reallocate our responsibilities in the home. We need to remember that even as caregivers, our own health, time and personal needs are essential. It’s too soon to start losing the ground we have already gained in establishing our own independent economic lives and security, and we must continue to fight to set healthy examples for the next generation, so they will make progress as well.
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