Have women come a long way? Yes and no

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Women in the U.S. won the right to vote in 1920. They won sweeping economic, social and personal rights in a wave of legislation and court rulings spurred by the civil rights and women's liberation movements in the 1960s and '70s.

So, have women "come a long way, baby" - as the notorious 1968 cigarette ad proclaimed? Well, yes and no.

Young women today say their lives are better because of the gains won in the past, but they grapple with both old and new challenges: struggling for equality on the job and in social life, confronting stereotypes about femininity, balancing work and family, and coping with the notion that women now "can do it all."

To mark Women's History Month, I asked a number of women, age 20-something to 40, how they feel they have benefited from the struggles of their mothers' and grandmothers' generation, and what challenges they face as young women today.

"My access to education and varied employment opportunities is by far one of the largest benefits from both the civil rights and women's struggle," said one young woman, age 30. "I am working on my PhD to eventually become a professor and president of a university - that was unthinkable for my mother and not even in the realm of possibility for my grandmother."

Yet, she added, "there is a perception that we have come so far from where we were, but the discrimination is there."

A 29-year-old said, "I know that compared to my mother's generation, I probably have way more freedom in being able to do the things that I want to do, and be single in my 30s and have children on my own or in a variety of relationship arrangements, and I am grateful for that. I have benefited by being given more of this freedom to decide what's right for me, but it's still not where it needs to be."

Progress has been real

"My mother was not allowed to continue her education after high school because my grandfather did not allow it (she grew up in Mexico)," said a 27-year-old woman. "When I was growing up, my mother didn't consider it an option for her daughters not to earn a degree and start a career. It was because of her experience growing up that my sisters and I feel empowered and capable of doing things that neither she or her mother were able to do."

A 30-year-old said, "While there are certainly still barriers for women entering certain jobs, it is a lot more acceptable and even respected for a woman to fight for her right to have the job/career she wants."

Today "it's even acceptable for a woman to work while her husband stays home," noted a young mother. "There are many partners that I know where the woman is the main income for the home." As a woman, she said, "I feel supported in pursuit of a career, and one that actually interests me."

One woman spoke of female role models in leadership positions "that I might never have seen had there not been a women's liberation or civil rights movement."

One of the most important benefits those movements have given her, she said, is "self-respect and expectations." Among them she cited managing her own finances, getting her car serviced by a mechanic who doesn't take advantage of her, and expecting to marry a man who will share responsibilities "without any expectations of what will be the ‘man's role' and the ‘woman's role'."

But there's a ways to go

"On a daily basis I see and feel the slights against myself for being both female and black," the graduate student said. "Gender bias and patriarchy continue to play out in many ways. The attacks on teachers are a pertinent example. Teaching is considered to be women's work, therefore less valuable. In contrast principalship and superintendentry is considered a man's domain and you don't hear about cities firing all of their superintendents."

A high school teacher said, "I feel like men naturally have a leg up at work in terms of getting respect from co-workers and administration (and students)." Over time, the attitudes become "a more accurate reflection of your actual work and character," she said, "but I feel like it takes a lot longer for women to establish that."

"I think I have probably spent a lot more time thinking about how I am perceived by others than my male counterparts," she added.

And she commented, "I know that they all have ‘poker night' from time to time and my female friends and I think of this as sort of a stupid old (young?) boys' club."

Still grappling with stereotypes about femininity

At work, "I always feel like I have to do all this extra thinking about how to say things so as not to come off as rude or aggressive or intimidating," one woman said.

"I worry sometimes about my image when I participate in sports or dress in athletic clothing - as if heterosexual women really interested in sports may still be unaccepted," said another.

A 29-year-old objected to "the expectation that I have to follow a prescribed path of marriage and children by a certain age or else I do not fit into the accepted mold for someone my age. I also feel that men are ‘permitted' to be single and unpressured for much longer than women."

Another said "dating is tough" due to the "overly-blatant sexuality of popular culture" and emphasis on "hook-ups."

Another woman talked of stereotypes affecting gay women. "I am a black, queer, femme woman," she said. "I like keeping house, cooking, and doing the things my mother did to show us she loved us. I don't feel like this is looked at as admirable and often seen as regressive because my partner is male identified."

Work-family conflict

A recently married young woman said she worries about economic insecurity, and would like to go back to school to get a graduate degree, but feels pressure to have children soon.

A stay-at-home mother said she appreciated that for her, this was "a choice rather than an expectation. I was able to attend college and establish a career before getting married and having children, which provides me the opportunity to have a career later in life as well."

"I realize the importance of education and choice for women but also believe that our roles as mothers supersede some of those goals," she said.

A working mother said, "I hear a lot of talk from the older generation of women about their pride in the sacrifices they made to enter the work force and an expectation that I should actually relish having the same experience." Instead, she said, "I want to spend time with my family not just for their sakes but for mine as well."

"There is a serious need for a national conversation about maternity and paternity leave, part-time work options and good child care options," she continued. "It is insane that as a society we accept the idea that a woman should return to work when her child is six weeks old."

Another mother who works full-time spoke of feeling "trapped." Women's "right" to work has become a requirement, she said. "We can't survive without two paychecks."

Expressing "stress and guilt related to being torn in opposing directions," she said. "My career is important to me, but if I could work part-time and also stay home and be a mom part-time, I would relish it. But, crazy enough, I have to work full-time in order to afford child care."

One woman said her best friend, a working mother, "is afraid that she would loose her job because she has to take time off to take her sick kids to the doctor. In a world that is supposed to be equal she should not have to feel so afraid." The husband's job provides health insurance "so he can't take the time and risk loosing their lifeline."

"Laws and employers still aren't always on the side of working mothers and families," she commented.

Can women "do it all"?

Several spoke of the pressure of "a society that expects women to do it all."

"Winning the battle for equal rights at work seems to have also won me the expectation that I be all things to all people," said a 30-year-old. "I don't know one woman of my generation who feels like she is adequately meeting her family and work obligations."

"The idea that women have been 'liberated' is simplistic," said a 33-year-old. "Liberated into doing everything and no one noticing? I feel burdened by the amount that I need to earn, the responsibilities to myself, my child, my husband, and my job. I feel like I am torn in too many directions."

The "you can have it all" ideal for women today is false, she said.

Progress, challenges

What do you think? Post your comments below.

Photo: A Lego version of DC Comics' Wonder Woman. levork CC 2.0