Sociologist Neil Gilbert argues that (in Sandra Tsing Loh’s Atlantic paraphrase) “financial need is not the force behind women’s shift in the past 50 years from work in the home to work in the market-place.” Rather, the driving force is “the desires of those who have made out like bandits in this new order, the tiny minority (3.5 percent in 2003) of women who earn $75,000 or more.” Loh continues:
Members of this occupational elite have created a host of cultural norms by which their far less privileged sisters—who, again, make up the vast majority of working women—feel they must abide. For . . . doctors, lawyers, judges, and professors, work has been terrific, so it’s no wonder they’ve advocated social change, imposing on society between the 1960s and the mid-1990s ‘new expectations about modern life, self-fulfillment, and the joys of work outside the home.’
It reminded me of an earlier but quite similar perspective on the same issue in Sigrid Undset’s 1932 novel Ida Elisabeth. The speaker is the lawyer Herr Toksvold:
There will never be more than a small percentage of either men or women who can create for themselves a field of work which they could not exchange for another without feeling it as a sacrifice. But because a few women have succeeded in making themselves a position which it would be a sacrifice for them to give up if they married, perhaps nine times as many are forced to go out and do a full day’s work as breadwinners, and to do the work of a mother and housekeeper the rest of the twenty-four hours, or as many of them as they can stand on their feet without dying for want of sleep. Because a few females of the middle class have discovered that it is a disgrace to be kept by a man.
I am glad I can work, but employment outside the house does not necessarily provide more dignity and fulfillment than “merely” staying at home and raising one’s kids.
Female pundits may find their work fulfilling, and that’s great. But when we’re cheering women’s rise in the workforce, we should stop acting as though every working woman—waitresses, grocery clerks, retail workers, those making minimum wage at unpleasant jobs—feels quite so optimistic. Most workers do not attain from their job the self-esteem boost and psychological satisfaction that (say) a lawyer or a company executive might. Like most human endeavors, work has its downsides, for women as well as for men.