Feminism in the Workplace

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World War II created a gap in the workforce due to all the male soldiers who were being drafted and departing to various parts of the world, this also created a huge opportunity for women. Between 1940 -1945 more than 5 billion women entered the workforce; single, married and mothers alike were “achieving a degree of financial self-reliance” (Dubois and Dumenil 487). Once men started coming back from the war many tried to push women back to their previous roles of being just housewives and childrearing. The idea of what a “true woman” was a woman who basked in her femininity, relied on men to do public work while she lived in her private life of caring for her children and making sure dinner was ready when her husband came home from his job (Dubois and Dumenil 155). After having a taste of being in the workforce many women felt unfulfilled by having to go back to that type of life.

Thankfully in the 1960s the Second-wave Feminism movement spread across the US and dealt with the issues pertaining to family and employment. How has feminism attempted to address the concerns of mothers in the workplace since the 1960s? By looking back on how feminism first opened women’s eyes to the idea of finding a desire and goal of working outside their home and comparing it to how employment for mothers is today we will be able to analyze what kind of progress has been made. Before the 1940’s women who had wage paying jobs were ”invisible” to society, “the labor force participation of working-class and minority women was ignored, while middle-class women earned money in ways that were concealed from the economy” (Dillaway & Pare). In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote a book about a silent issue that was growing among many women. The Feminine Mystique spoke loudly to those women who couldn’t find happiness and fulfillment by just staying home, they longed to find success out in the workforce.

Friedan describes a situation many mothers feel at one time or another: Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matches slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question - “Is this all?” (Friedan, The Feminine Mystique Ch 1) But many mothers were looked down upon, resented and discriminated for wanting to find work outside their home. Society jumped on stories that compared juvenile delinquency to mothers who weren’t home to raise their children the right way. Men coming back from war just wanted to be back in a home/environment like the one they had growing up, with their mothers (that role now being played by their wife) taking care of them (Friedan, The Feminine Mystique Ch 8). When the war was over though it became “obvious to the returning GI, that these American women were indeed more independent, strong-minded, assertive of will and opinion, less passive and feminine” (Friedan, The Feminine Mystique Ch 8).

Women had found their drive to fight for more in life though and were not about to go back to being the same type of doting mothers of the past. Friedan describes it as a battle “for women’s freedom to participate in the major work and decisions of society as the equals of men, they denied their very nature as women, which fulfills itself only through sexual passivity, acceptance of male domination, and nurturing motherhood” (The Feminine Mystique Ch 4). It was in part due to Friedan’s passion and her book that helped woman come together to in agreement that they were in charge of their future and how they found happiness in their lives. It is also because of this “great wave of change in which women demanded equality and parity under the law and in the workplace” (Friedan, The Feminine Mystique Introduction) that mothers today have more opportunities in life, though there are still battles to fight with how society continues to treat working mothers.

When a working woman announces that she is at work one of the questions that will without a doubt pop up will be “do you plan to go back to work?” Women today can’t be fired simply for being women, for being pregnant or for having children. Feminist movements have helped fight for “equal rights, equal pay, and generally equal opportunities by improving women's position in the public sphere” (Guerrina) instead of having a woman’s place only inside the privacy of her own home. But there is still a social stigma around mothers who want to work outside their home, “in the United States women are classified as either work oriented or family oriented” (Dillaway & Pare).

While men can work full-time jobs and still be seen as a “family man” women often face judgment for their decision to work. It is still a common thought that men are judged on their success in their jobs while women are judged on their success of their family. It has been almost 60 years since the Second-Wave Feminist movement and women today are still fighting for equality. There has been a lot of important work done to help the success of working mothers, such as adjusting work policies in regards to family leave, but for many women there is still a negative opinion that because they work after having children they are “more concerned with their own personal success and material objects than well being or success of her child” (Dillaway & Pare).

Mothers who choose to work outside of their homes do not “want to feel that by altering their traditional roles they have in any way shortchanged their kids” (Gilbert 70). The work environment for pregnant women and mothers is also still a work in progress when it comes to equality. It is rare to find a place of employment that encourages and helps make accommodations for women who become pregnant or have recently had a child. In most work environments “male needs and behaviors set the norm, and women's unique experiences are overlooked” (Guerrina), meaning that the needs of women are either a second thought or not something they thought of at all. For example, pregnant women who might not be able to stand for long periods of time or need more frequent breaks or mothers who need a clean space to pump breastmilk for their baby but are reduced to using a public restroom and can only pump during their one short lunch break.

Though you do hear of employers who try to set the standards higher, to do more than bare minimum when it comes to creating an environment that encourages the well-being of their mother employees. For example, Bank of America provides 16 weeks of paid parental leave as well as helps with childcare costs for mothers who come back to work after the baby is born. While many women have fought and stood up for more equal rights for women and they have made a lot of progress in regards to women’s right to work, getting society to reframe the way it evolved the work environment and their opinions on mothers is still an ongoing work in progress. Since the 1960’s feminism has helped women open their eyes to more opportunities, it is no longer a silent question for mothers if “is this all?”, women know that they can continue to seek out personal fulfillment even after having children. Feminists have worked hard to point out that “women have always contributed significantly to the household economy, including through paid employment in and out of the home” (Dillaway & Pare).

It takes a long time to reshape how society thinks, it started with more women working jobs because of War drafting majority of working men away and has slowly progressed to an accepted concept that women want to and will work after having children. We no longer think that being a mother means “having no other real interests, but only substitute or contingent ones, depending on other family member’s desires” (Dillaway & Pare) though this acceptance is not without its own set of new social stigmas and problems. It is also up to men to help play a part in making room for women to have success in their jobs. Without the support of men “stepping up” to help with parental and home responsibilities or men speaking up in agreement with better work environments then it will be an even harder battle to fight for equality.

Thirty years after Betty Friedan played a role in starting a feminist movement she still expresses the importance of getting “visionary public officials, corporate and community leaders, to confront the need to transcend the old ways of thinking about these things” (Friedan, Beyond Gender), that there will be no change unless people stand up together and make one. To continue the discussion and fight for equal rights and “maternity legislation which endorses a greater understanding of gender, gender relations, and gendered divisions of labour that shape women's employment needs” (Guerrina) so that one day our daughters won’t be faced with the question and repercussions of whether they want to go back to work or not after having her own children.

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Feminism in the Workplace. (2021, Apr 08). Retrieved July 19, 2024 , from
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