Ask almost any question you can think of about family life– from two centuries ago to the present–and Stephanie Coontz will be able to answer thoughtfully and accurately. She’s a fountain of information and expertise about American families, including marriage, feminism, parenting and working women.
In a recent interview about her book, “The Way We Never Were,” I asked Stephanie some questions about the issues of working women, and I’m delighted to share them with you.
Joanne: You report that, in every decade since 1880, there has been an increase in women’s paid work. No group of women who chose to work in any of those decades ever permanently returned to the home. What have you found to be the motivations, inspirations and benefits for women that compensate for the extra stress and time crunch of combining work and family?
Stephanie: Many things contribute to the growing percentage of their lives that women spend in the workforce. Part of it is decreased fertility, so that less of one’s life is wrapped up with very young children. Part of it is the increasing cost of raising children, especially the cost of sending them to college. Since 1980, the overall consumer price index has gone up by 179 percent — but the cost of college tuition and fees has risen by 827 percent. In many families, even those where women only work part-time, women’s work makes the margin of difference between being able to afford a house or save for college and not.
But there are individual psychological and emotional benefits to working, despite the extra stress. Individuals who play more than one role may be more rushed, but they also have better immune functioning and social support systems than those who play only one role — e.g. mother OR employee. On average, women who work outside the home have lower lifetime rates of depression and a higher sense of social competence than those who don’t. Women who earn income tend to have a larger say in family decisions, and they get more help with housework and childcare from their husbands than women who are home fulltime. So children get more involved fathers.