She didnât have formal education past high school or much in the way of work history, but someone had to keep the lights on, and the $56 in monthly child support that she had to take Ed to court to get wasnât going to cut it. And so Dana had two or three jobs at a time: She worked as a crossing guard from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., and then as a waitress from 4 p.m. until midnight. She took other odd jobs, selling Avon for a while, working at a soap factory for a while â whatever would pay the bills. While she worked, she cobbled together child care, and the older kids often looked after the younger ones.
âAll my life I remember her always saying her legs hurt,â Mary said. â âMy legs are killing me, my legs are killing me.â She was never off of âem very much.â
This was not typical 1950s womanhood. In 1955, most adult women were married. Fewer than a third of married women worked, and fewer than a quarter of marriages ended in divorce; even most divorced, widowed or separated women were not in the paid work force. But watching her motherâs life taught Mary an important lesson: For women, work also meant independence.
That didnât mean, however, that work brought happiness, fulfillment or purpose. That work could be central to womenâs lives and identities was not then, and is not now, the dominant way we think about women and work.
We have a broad understanding that work is valuable for men, that it feeds their sense of importance as providers and meets some existential need related to identity and sense of self. This force is potent enough to be one factor that may have swung the 2016 elections: Working-class white men, out of work and watching blue-collar jobs dry up, lost their mooring as providers, and cast their ballots for a man who promised to take them back in time.
Historically, women werenât supposed to need their individual identity to be formed through work, because women werenât supposed to have individual identities at all: They melded into their husbandâs identity when they married. Womenâs identities have long been relational â daughter, wife, mother â rather than individual.
Which is perhaps why today, women finding individual identities tied to their work makes so many people uncomfortable â why people are so quick to assert that we canât âhave it all,â why the American government and workplaces are so slow to implement policies that would enable us to at least have something a little better.
The âLeave It to Beaverâ era during which Dana Mazurek raised her children was a historical aberration, but one many Americans continue to idolize. While the majority of Americans today â nearly 80 percent â do not think women should return to traditional wife-and-homemaker roles, something shifts when you replace âwomanâ with âmotherâ: Just over half of Americans believe children are better off with a mother who is at home full time and does not hold a job. Only 8 percent say the same thing about fathers.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the 1950s was womenâs turn to the domestic, the first time in recorded American history where women got married sooner and had more babies than their mothers. The prevailing sensibility was that life as a suburban housewife was supposed to bring ultimate happiness.
But the pursuit of personal fulfillment was less about what actually made women happy and more about money â and men being able to make it without competing with women. Menâs wages rose steadily through the 1950s and â60s, while womenâs stagnated. Although women had earned more than 63 percent of what men did in the early 1950s, by the mid-1960s they made less than 58 percent.
By the mid-1960s, the cultural blip of the hyperdomestic â50s was showing signs of decline. Mary, Danaâs youngest daughter, turned 10 the same year Betty Friedan published âThe Feminine Mystique,â the book that prompted mostly white, middle-class, stay-at-home mothers to ask themselves, âIs this all?â A few years later, as Mary prepared for high school, both Dana and Ed expected her to attend Jones Commercial, a secretarial training school, instead of a traditional school.
âThis is the late â60s with the Vietnam War, with womenâs lib starting, and the rules for this secretary school were you had to wear a hat, white gloves, your skirts had to be midknee, and you had to wear pantyhose and heels,â Mary said. âThis is when kids were in jeans. I would have to walk down the street in a hat and gloves and pantyhose, going to secretary school when everybody else was having sit-ins. I hated it. After six weeks I begged my mom to let me go back to the regular high school, and she never batted an eye â she said yes.â
After high school she went to nursing school at the local community college, and at 19 started dating Mike, a guy from her South Side neighborhood, who was paying his way through law school by working at the local steel mill. In 1978, when he was 25 and she was 24, they got married. By 1981, they were off to Seattle for Mikeâs job. She worked as a nurse the whole time, and at 29 she had her first child â me.
I was born in 1983, and my sister was born a year and a half later. My mom scaled back, working the night shift two days a week so that she could be home with us during the day. Leaving her kids was wrenching â âthere are not descriptive emotional words to explain the thought of being away from your babiesâ â but the family needed her income, and she also liked her job and what it meant for her independence.
Unlike my grandmother, whose status as a divorced working mother made her an outlier, my mother was a woman of her generation. Between 1950 and 2000, the number of hours married women spent at work more than doubled. While married black women have long been more likely to work outside the home than their white counterparts, they also saw their workplace participation skyrocket in the same half-century.
In the 1970s, when my mom was working her first few jobs, women across the country were surging into the work force, and for the first time more than half of American women between the ages of 25 and 54 worked outside the home. By the time I went to college, more than 75 percent of women in the same age group were in the labor force. I expected to be one of them.
And yet, for all the emphasis modern adults place on the dreams of the young â asking boys and girls what they want to be when they grow up â Americans remain ambivalent about whether adult women working, and especially mothers working, is actually a good thing.
The idealized vision of 1950s womanhood that still permeates our politics ignores the fact that staying home may not actually make mothers happy. Unfortunately, thereâs no robust feminist ideal to counter it. Instead, we fall back on the language of âchoiceâ: that itâs best if women simply get to choose to work or stay home, as if these choices are inherently equal and made without carrying the cultural baggage of sacrificial American motherhood. Or the fact that inhospitable workplaces and economic constraints mean many women never have a real choice in the matter at all.
That feminists are so often unable or unwilling to make a vigorous moral argument in favor of women working outside the home is perhaps one reason we have not yet seen the political groundswell necessary to pass the workplace policies we so desperately need. This is especially unfortunate, given that women are better off when we work outside the home: Working correlates with better mental and physical health, and working women not only report higher levels of happiness than women who donât work, but the more hours women work, the happier we are (with the important exception of women who have very small children and work very long hours).
Mothers who work are also good for families: Daughters of working mothers tend to be higher achieving, work themselves, make more money and spend more time with their children than do daughters of women who did not work; men who were raised by working mothers do more household work and help more with child care than sons of stay-at-home moms. And womenâs presence in the workplace is good for women in the aggregate: Men who have stay-at-home wives are more likely than men with working wives to penalize their female co-workers, denying them promotions and viewing them unfavorably.
Not working also puts women at risk. Without financial independence, we are more likely to get stuck in abusive or simply unhappy relationships. Although many women who take time off assume they can come back into the work force easily, even a few years off can have a lifelong impact on earnings.
Lawmakers know all of this. They also know that refusing to provide paid parental leave, adequate sick days and affordable child care means women are routinely forced out of the workplace â women donât choose to opt out, theyâre pushed. Politicians make this choice and then claim itâs women who are free to do the choosing.
Unlike my grandmother and my mother, I grew up with a steady whisper of âfollow your dreamsâ in the background of my educational and career choices â the idea that a job was for both financial security and personal happiness. My own career also flourished atop a foundation of small but crucial benefits that were on offer to my family â low-interest loans under the G.I. Bill, which enabled the purchase of my motherâs childhood house, for example, generally werenât given to African-American parents.
And my expectations for career happiness also brought with them a different calculus for work and family: While I internalized the message that I should work for pay, and while I had the privilege of shaping a career that forms my identity and gives me purpose, I also entered my 30s acutely aware that these fragile personal victories could be upended by the ratcheted-up expectations of modern motherhood.
Until I interviewed my own mother, I hadnât thought about how her emphasis on finding happiness by chasing a passion was borne not only out of love for her kids but also from a childhood of observing its absence.
âGrandma wrote songs,â my mom told me about her mother. âAnd most of her songs were love ballads â âI donât care anymore, it doesnât matter, though my heart may be breaking in two.â Her songs were about heartbreak, and I didnât realize that until I was older and I sat down and started reading the words. She never got to go any further. She didnât have the time or the money or the ability to follow any of her dreams. She didnât have the luck to have dreams.â