© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Arts

Are you better off than your mother? A lot has changed for women, but has it been enough?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 25, 2012 - Mary Troy answers her phone on a cold, Tuesday morning and, after introductions, is soon asked the question -- Are you better off than your mother? “Better off?” she asks. “In what way?” 

Exactly. Following much-noted electoral gains for women, the Beacon asked women, incuding Troy to evaluate progress on many fronts.

In many ways, since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 set out to offer women equal opportunities at work, and since Title IX was passed in 1972 working to offer girls equal opportunities in education, a lot has changed for women for the better.

Between 1971 and 1972, according to the AAUW, 294,015 young women were high school athletes. Between 2007 and 2008, that number rose 940 percent, to 3,057,266. In 1979, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to increase opportunities for women in business, women earned 62.3 percent as much as men, based on median weekly earnings. In 2010, they earned 82.2 percent as much, but the wage gap still persists.

2013 will see a record number of women in Congress, with 20 women in the Senate and at least 81 of the 435 in the House.

But the number of women on Fortune 500 boards or in top positions at those countries hasn't budged for years; Catalyst reports that in 2012, women held 14.3 percent of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies and 8.1 percent of executive officer top earner positions.

When Linda Nicholson was growing up and started looking for jobs, newspapers listed jobs for men and jobs for women. 

That doesn’t happen anymore. 

When Wendy Levitt, now 44, was in labor with her daughter, she was taking conference calls for work and fully expected to be back at it after a few days.

That happens a lot more these days.

“Our lives are much more complicated because we were raised to assume that we could have it all,” she says.

In large part, what’s changed for women today compared with their mothers, and even grandmothers, is primarily because of laws such as the civil rights act and Title IX, says Nicholson, a history professor and the Susan E. and William P. Stiritz distinguished professor of women's studies at Washington University. 

“But the crucial question is: What hasn’t gotten better?” 

Myth of having it all

Is Nadia Brown better off than her mother?

She gives a hesitant yes.

She has learned from her mother’s mistakes, like marrying too young. Brown, 30 and an assistant professor of political science and African-American studies at St. Louis University, is recently engaged.

Unlike her mother, she wasn’t encouraged to choose a career that would require her to take a backseat to her husband’s career and be available for raising children. And as a woman of color, in some ways, she’s had less obstacles than her mother. 

“The fact that I have a Ph.D. is something that would have been unheard of even for women in my mother’s generation,” Brown says.

Troy, now 64 and a professor in the MFA program at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, has traveled, lived in other countries, and never felt that she had to become a mother. 

“I don’t ever know if she realized it was a choice,” Troy says of her own mother.

And Levitt, the woman who was laboring while in labor, worked for more than a decade in marketing, finance and product development in the travel industry, ran four offices and had a team of more than 50 people. 

Her experience having a child and trying to have it all led Levitt, who lives in Woodbury, N.Y., to write the novel, “At the corner of Wall and Sesame,” exploring the work and life dilemmas many women now face. 

Generations of women have fought hard for women now to have the opportunity to have successful careers and raise children at the same time, but Levitt thinks that maybe we’re looking through the wrong lens.

Women can’t have it all, but they can make lots and lots of choices. 

In that way, perhaps, women today are better off than their mothers.

“We have choices,” Nicholson agrees. “The problem is that the choices tend to be none of them very good.”

Burden of beauty

Recently, one of Nicholson’s colleagues joked to her that it seemed all the female students’ clothes had shrunk in the wash.

The standards of beauty, Nicholson thinks, are different today than they were for our mothers. And not in a positive way.

One of Nicholson’s students is doing a research paper now on the trend of Brazilian bikini waxes, which, she thinks, shows the ever-increasing burden of trying to perfect our bodies.

There’s also more pressure on young women to be sexual, she says. 

Nicholson sees these social pressures for stringent beauty standards manifesting themselves through eating disorders. 

According to the Body Project, a program by Bradley University, the average woman today is 5’4" and 140 pounds, while the average supermodel is 5’11" and 115 pounds and 80 percent of women aren’t happy with how they look. 

The National Institutes of Health reports that one in five women now struggles with eating disorders or disordered eating. 

Body image and being healthy are ever more challenging for young women, Nicholson says, with strong media messages on the one hand and easy access to unhealthy, fast food on the other, leading to issues of discipline and control that often head straight for eating disorders. 

“It’s hard to not succumb to the temptations, but on the other hand, one pays for it,” she says. 

She can't do it all

The answer to the question of are you better off than your mother depends on a lot of things. How old are you? How old is your mother?

But issues of class and race are also important.

In her Ferguson neighborhood, Troy sees many women who don’t have choices about work and family balance. They have to work. 

A lot has changed for women of color, Brown says, but added to the myth of having it all is the myth of the super black woman who can do it all, raise a family and carry the world on her back. 

“You can’t have it all,” Brown says. “You need to just get rid of that notion.”

What Brown sees from women of color who have worked the power jobs is anxiety, depression and physical breakdown. 

For herself, Brown wants to have a brilliant career, she says, but she also wants to live past 55. 

Future for our daughters

This year alone, women have had some considerable successes in the public realm, including the record of 20 female U.S. senators who will serve in 2013. 

But some things didn’t change at all. In the 2012 Catalyst Census of Fortune 500, women held 16.6 percent of board seats, a number that hadn’t changed in seven years, women of color held only 3.3 percent of seats with no improvements, and women held 8.1 percent of the top earner slots at those companies. 

It’s exciting to have a time when girls can look at our government and see women, Brown thinks, but the downside is that few of those women have small, dependent children, and they continue to be under a burden of scrutiny about their personal lives that doesn’t apply to men. 

While the changes that have taken place have largely been legislated, what still needs work, Nicholson thinks, is from the cultural standpoint. 

Professional women need sponsors at work, Levitt says, not mentors, but women who will sponsor them up the ladder, advocating for their development and helping them find support as they shape the future of the company. 

Also, she says, women who have been through this already need to stop the “I did it, they’ll figure it out” mentality and work to help young women find solutions for having a family and a career.

“The good news is that the next generation is thinking about these things,” Levitt says. 

There also have to be some major cultural shifts with how we work, which have to come from the top. Can companies find ways to get the most out of people without expecting them to always be on their Blackberries? Levitt thinks that at least some companies are starting to toy with the notion that people work better when they’re not always plugged in and expected to be available. 

Other companies, such as Goldman-Sachs, started a return-ship program several years ago, she says, that works to bring women back into the work force once they are ready.

Men, of course, play a big role in all this, too, espcially when it comes to working moms. In a 2008 report for the National Science Foundation, married women with more than three children reported doing an average of 28 hours a week of housework. Men with the same circumstances reported an average of 10. 

“So it’s better,” Nicholson says, “but it’s still not good.”

So, what about you? Are you better off than your mother?

In some ways, the answer is probably yes, in others, maybe not.

With new opportunities come all new challenges, and they are ones Brown's grappling with now. Should she stay on the tenure track and wait to have children until she’s 35, or have children now, when her body is most ready, and juggle insecurities about her career with the challenges of raising small children? 

The dilemmas she faces are different, certainly, than her mother's generation, she says.

"But women are still asking the same questions."

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.