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Changing Roles in a Changing Society For many years, the analysis of the behavior of men and women was heavily based on the importance of “man the hunter” and the biological function of woman as mother. A woman’s activities were centered around the home and her role as wife and mother. Any job she took outside the home needed to be compatible with her household responsibilities. On the other hand, a man’s role as provider pushed him to greater efforts outside the home. The popular perception was that male and female roles among nonhuman species provided support for the view that biology is destiny. More recently, however, anthropologists have found in their studies of animals that the male is not always aggressive and dominant and the female is not always passive and nurturing. Instead, behavior results from the influences of both inborn traits (“nature”) and the environment (“nurture”). Gender Roles & Economic Development Hunting and Gathering Societies In technologically primitive societies of hunters and gatherers, men hunted large animals and defended the tribe, while women gathered fruits and vegetables, hunted small animals, prepared the food, and cared for the children. This division of labor worked well when women were pregnant or nursing most of their adult lives and therefore could not participate in activities far from the home. Horticultural Societies In the somewhat more advanced horticultural societies, plants were cultivated in small plots near the home. Men continued to conduct warfare and also prepared the ground by slashing and burning. Women prepared the food and cared for the infants. Other activities were shared and the status of men and women was fairly equal during this stage. Pastoral Societies In pastoral societies, men herded large animals, an activity that often took them far from home. Herding provided much of what was needed for subsistence. Women tended to the home and had very low status. Agricultural Societies With the introduction of the plow, societies became more advanced agriculturally. However, only men owned the land and did most of the work in the fields. Women tended small animals and gardens and worked in the now permanent homes taking care of large families. A great disparity between the status of men and women developed. Along with developing agriculture, urban centers began to form with a growing class of merchants and artisans. Early Industrialization During the early stages of industrialization, much of the production that was previously concentrated in the household moved to the factory and the office. Women’s activities continued to center around the home. As their productive role declined, so did their status. In time, though, continued industrialization drew increasing numbers of women into the paid labor force. The U.S. Experience The Pre-Industrial Period In colonial America, as in other pre-industrial economies, the family was the dominant economic unit and production was the main function of the family. Both adults and children participated in production. Most of the necessities of survival were produced in the household. Some household goods were produced for sale and the proceeds were used to purchase some market goods. Men were primarily responsible for agriculture while women did most of the rest of the work. The productive role of children and the high infant mortality rates provided an incentive to have many children. (In the 1700s, women probably had an average of 8 to 10 children.) Industrialization With industrialization in the late 1700s and early 1800s, production moved outside the home. Women, however, were mostly confined to household work. Some women worked in the textile mills and other industries. But it was mostly young women who did so and, when they married, they usually left their jobs to tend to their households, which would soon include children. A more rigid division of labor within the home developed. The earliest labor force participation (LFP) data show that in 1890, 84% of men but only 18% of women were in the paid labor force. Of married women, only 5% worked outside the home. The American ideal of the family was the male breadwinner and the female homemaker who tended to domestic needs. Industrialization & Changes in the Household Despite new inventions, the time spent doing housework increased because standards for housekeeping rose. The fertility rate declined during industrialization, partly because the economic value of children from household production was greatly diminished. In addition, children spent more years in school and remained dependent on their parents for longer. Women born in the early 1800s averaged fewer than five births, and those born near the end of the century averaged about three births. However, the amount of maternal care per child increased dramatically. The man was the head of the household and the authority in all important matters, such as where the family would live. The woman made most of the everyday purchases but with her husband’s wishes and the pleasure of her family in mind. In the 1800s the ideal for femininity involved domesticity and submissiveness. Initially, the availability of women for work in industry was welcomed because they provided cheap labor, while agricultural production could be maintained by men. However, with the growing influx of immigrants, attitudes changed. Working men were eager to get women out of all but the lowest paying jobs. At this time, market work was common among single women and a small number of women chose careers over marriage as a lifelong vocation. However, exclusive dedication to the role of wife and mother was widely accepted as the only proper and fulfilling life for a woman. Eventually progressive modernization brought about dramatic changes in conditions of production and in the economic roles of men and women. Changes in ideas and aspirations followed and rigid differentiation of roles became less appropriate. As recently as 1940, the labor force participation (LFP) of married women was only 14%, while it was 46% for single women. Part of this difference is attributable to the “marriage bar,” which prohibited employment of married women and was in use from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. Another obstacle to married women’s employment was the lack of part-time jobs when women’s household responsibilities were quite demanding. 1890/1900 Women Distribution of Workers Men (Percentages) All White Nonwhite Professional 10.2 9.6 12.5 0.9 Clerical 2.8 4.0 5.2 0.4 Sales 4.6 4.3 5.7 0.1 Service 3.1 35.5 31.3 48.2 Manufacturing 37.6 27.7 34.7 6.4 Agricultural 41.7 19.0 10.8 44.0 Total Employed 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 When women did work, they tended to be concentrated in a few occupations, which were different from those in which men usually worked. At the turn of the last century, about 42% of men worked in agriculture and 38% in manufacturing. Only 3% were in service jobs. 1890/1900 Women Distribution of Workers Men (Percentages) All White Nonwhite Professional 10.2 9.6 12.5 0.9 Clerical 2.8 4.0 5.2 0.4 Sales 4.6 4.3 5.7 0.1 Service 3.1 35.5 31.3 48.2 Manufacturing 37.6 27.7 34.7 6.4 Agricultural 41.7 19.0 10.8 44.0 Total Employed 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 For women, however, about 36% were in service jobs, most of them domestic service. About 10% of employed women were in professional positions; almost all were teachers or nurses. Among black women, 90% worked as domestic servants or farm laborers. Clerical Work Clerical work was originally dominated by men. Before the 1900s, about 85% of clerical workers were men. Clerical jobs were attractive to women because the relevant skills did not depreciate much during periods out of the labor force and reentry was relatively easy. Employers were willing to hire women for clerical jobs because there was a large, inexpensive pool of women with high school educations who needed little or no training to perform the work. Women’s Rising LFP Women’s labor force participation has been rising ever since the 1890s, when the first official data were available. Women’s Labor Force Year Participation 1890 18% 1940 28% 1999 60% Participating in productive activities beyond housekeeping has tended to bring women a greater measure of equality. Gender roles tend to linger in spite of economic development. Women still have the main responsibility for the home and children, even though a large proportion is now in the labor force full-time. Jobs originally given to men because of the need for strength are still considered mainly male jobs despite mechanization.
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