In honor of Women’s History Month, President Obama ordered up the first report on the status of American women since the one Eleanor Roosevelt prepared for John F. Kennedy. It’s chock full of interesting bits of information.
Earl Wilson/The New York Times
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For instance, did you know that the median marriage age for college-educated women is 30? I should have figured that out because I can barely think of a single college-educated woman under the age of 30 who is married. But somehow it still came as a surprise. I got married when I was 25, and I felt as if that was extremely late in the game. Of course, that was in the Mesozoic era, and we had no end of trouble keeping the stegosaurus away from the wedding cake.
Additional reports from “Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being” include information on everything from volunteering (women do more) to housework (go ahead and guess). It has some findings I don’t quite know what to do with, like: “While male students are more likely to be victimized with weapons, female students are more likely to experience electronic bullying.” Electronic bullying is definitely a bad thing, but I can’t help feeling as though we’re getting the better end of that deal.
We’re a long way from the Eleanor Roosevelt Commission on the Status of Women, which was formed when there were no women on the White House staff doing anything more impressive than typing or cake decoration. “Men have to be reminded that women exist,” Mrs. Roosevelt tartly told reporters when the all-male list of top Kennedy administration appointees was released.
At the time, there were 454 federal civil service job categories for college graduates, and more than 200 were restricted to male applicants. It was perfectly legal to refuse to hire a woman for a job because of her failure to be a man, or to refuse her credit unless she had a husband to co-sign her loan. The median age for marriage for a woman was 20, and the only job open to most women that involved a chance to travel was flight attendant.
We’re in a different world, but this latest report highlights the one glaring gap: working women still make, on average, much less than men. Among people who work full time, women make an average 80 cents for every $1 that men take home.
There has always been a big difference: in 1979, women made only 62 percent of what men did. And the report suggests that part of the problem is because of the fact that women tend to pursue the lowest-paying professional careers, notably teaching. Perhaps part of the answer is just to increase compensation for people who devote their careers to education. Perhaps the governors could take that up next time they get together to discuss public employee unions.
I’ve always believed the other big factor is the strain of balancing work and family. Women do better in school — now all the way to graduate school where they get the majority of doctoral degrees. And young single women tend to make higher wages than young single men. The change comes at the point when many women have to consider their children. Perhaps the House of Representatives could take that up next time they get together to discuss whether they really want to eliminate federally financed child care programs.
“The thing that we’re hoping men will focus on: This is not a woman’s issue; it’s a family issue,” said Valerie Jarrett, who leads the White House Council on Women and Girls.
That’s really the big story for today. Americans are so used to the fact that women are capable of doing anything that we hardly ever discuss it. It’s been a long time since the leader of NASA said “talk of an American spacewoman makes me sick to my stomach.”
A change that happened later, and the one that’s going to be driving the future, is that women’s ability to succeed in their work life is now a matter of concern for both sexes. The turning point for American women really came on the unknown day when the average American couple started planning their futures with the presumption that there would be two paychecks. In a country where no one has real power without a serious economic role, we entered a time when, whether we liked it or not, all hands were needed to keep the economic ship afloat. Even women who get the opportunity to stay home when their children are young have to be ready to jump back into the work force if their partner is suddenly laid off.
A while back, I was visiting a college in Connecticut where most of the students were the first in their families ever to go beyond high school. I was talking with a group of young men and women, and I asked the men how many of them felt it was very important that their future wife be a good earner.
All of them raised their hands.
Friday, 4 March 2011
Girls and Boys Together - NYTimes.com