“[W]omen, especially in middle- and upper-income groups, moved steadily and massively into the paid labor markets. Most lower-income women had already been doing paid labour.

This post-1970 change in the conditions and lives of American women changed their families and households in ways that also altered US capitalism. Briefly, the mass movement of adult women, mostly married and with children, into paid, mostly full-time labor transformed households and families. Wives and mothers had long held disproportionate responsibility for maintaining the emotional integrity of the traditional nuclear family and the physical integrity of the traditional household. Even after those women undertook paid labor, they still performed the major share of the emotional and physical labor involved in shouldering those responsibilities, far more than their male partners. Women doing the “double shift” of work-place and household jobs simply could no longer devote the same time, energy, and attention to maintaining the emotional life of the family and the physical chores of the household as they had before adding work outside the household to their responsibilities.

Huge strains on families and households accumulated as a result of these changes. Divorce rates rose as tensions and strains within households mounted. Women brought their job stresses home; two incomes had to be jointly allocated and two sets of job-related expenses covered; children received less time and attention from parents. Women’s former household labor, such as shopping, cooking, cleaning, and repairing clothes, appliances, and furniture, was increasingly replaced by purchasing substitute commodities (prepared meals, cleaning services, and disposable goods). Given the poor mass transit systems in the United States, when wives and mothers took paid jobs, families often needed to buy and maintain a second automobile. On US television programs, situation comedies changed from celebrating the happy nuclear and patriarchal family of the 1950s and 1960s to laughing with compassion at the increasingly dysfunctional families of the last several decades. A historically unprecedented and growing proportion of the population began choosing not to get married.

Flowing from these family and household changes, US consumption of all kinds of psychotropic drugs, legal and illegal, has soared. We became, in one revealing phrase, a “Prozac nation.” Millions of family and household members felt acutely troubled that the support provided for them by traditional institutions seemed to be dissolving. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and the Republican Party, sometimes separately and sometimes together, found that by championing a “return to family values” they could very effectively draw new adherents.

The US economy adjusted to all these changes in family and household life, which were themselves consequences of earlier economic changes (above all, the end of rising real wages). The prepared-food and pharmaceutical industries boomed; so, too, did the women’s clothing industry, which quickly discovered that women who took full-time paid work outside the home needed new wardrobes. The pornography industry grew fastest of all. As the manufacturing sector kept shrinking relative to the service sector, typically male-identified jobs declined relative to female-identified jobs. Men’s real wages stagnated and became insufficient to yield the American Dream for their families and necessitated more women entering paid employment. The stresses and strains of all these changes made many men, raised with ideals of masculinity based on providing for their families, feel diminished, emasculated, and devalued. For many, pornography provided, in voyeuristic fantasy, the male control and domination that had eroded in their real lives.”

* * *

By Richard Wolff in Democracy at Work (2012).

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