Hey, the Gender-Role Revolution Started Way Before the Millennial Generation

The problem with saying that young people today are in "a generation of adjustment" when it comes to women in the workplace.
Bella Abzug participates in a pro-equal rights demonstration in 1980. (AP Images)

Millennial men and women face unprecedented changes in workplace gender roles. True or false?

Peggy Drexler writing at the Daily Beast, seems to think the answer is "true." She argues that "for men born after 1980, theirs is a generation of adjustment." She adds, "They have seen a rebuilding of architectures of support in everything from girl's sports to female-only scholarships to the broad encouragement for females to break down barriers." She then goes on to talk to some millennial men, who, it turns out, have some mixed feelings about women's advances in the workplace.

It's certainly true that gender roles have been changing in the last 35 years. But when you say that the millennials are "a generation of adjustment", the implication is that theirs is especially a generation of adjustment—that they are adjusting in a way that few have adjusted before.

This isn't true. The fact is, the adjustments that millennials are making are part of a long trend towards integrating women into the workplace that began, not with them, but with the generations preceding them. In Marriage, A History, from 2005, Stephanie Coontz points out that "Every single decade of the twentieth century has seen an increase in the proportion of women in the workforce." That trend accelerated after World War II, when there were lots of low-paid clerical and sales jobs to fill—and kept accelerating through the 1960s.

As a result, the family and its relationship to work changed drastically from the 1950s to the 1970s. Post-war, the two-person family with one breadwinner became both possible and normative in a way that, Coontz shows, it had never been before, and never was again. In the 1950s, Coontz says, surveys showed that most Americans believed that people who were single by choice were "sick" or "immoral". By 1975, only 25 percent thought that. The major transformation in attitudes towards gender, marriage, the family and, by implication, work, happened before the millennials were born. If there is a "generation of adjustment", that generation is not the millennials. It's the folks who grew up between the '50s and the '70s—the baby boomers and some of their kids.

What's wrong with the Daily Beast saying otherwise? What does it matter, really, if people do a little hand-waving about changing gender roles and work and the millennials? After all, gender roles are still in flux. What's the harm?

The harm, I'd argue, is that framing changing gender roles as a phenomenon tied to the millennials in particular obscures why those roles are changing. The massive shift in the relationship between women and work since the '50s has not been caused by college scholarships for women, nor by leaning in, as the Beast article has it. It's been caused, instead by two major, obvious, and often ignored facts. The first is contraception. And the second is a decisive and lasting drop in the standard of living.

Contraception is today so taken for granted that I think people forget how radically it has transformed not just women's lives, but society as a whole. As Coontz points out, in the 1960s, "For the first time in history any woman with a modicum of educational and economic resources could, if she wanted to, separate sex from childbirth, lifting the specter of unwanted pregnancy that had structured women's lives for thousands of years." And also for the first time in history, women could control their own workforce participation. Instead of having child after child after child, women who didn't want to be celibate (which is the vast majority of owmen) could plan children around their career, rather than vice versa. This puts a rather different spin, for example, on the millennial who Drexler quotes as saying that women are "getting extra support." It's true that in comparison to the rest of recorded history, women are getting more support. But the absolutely most important form that support takes is not some sort of affirmative action. It's the pill—which has, finally, allowed women to compete in the workforce on an equal footing with men.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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