What America Lost as Women Entered the Workforce

Civic organizations were built on the voluntary labor of women. As the demands on women's time increase, communities are suffering.

Harris & Ewing / Library of Congress / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

It’s a shame that Phyllis Schlafly had a corner on skepticism about women’s liberation. “Why should we trade in our special privileges and honored status for the alleged advantage of working in an office or assembly line?” the conservative crusader, perhaps best known for her successful campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, asked in 1972. “Most women would rather cuddle a baby than a typewriter or a factory machine.”

Schlafly masterfully sold the narrative that women’s rights, including those which would enable their greater participation in the workforce, would hurt women. In the process, she polarized the debate, making conservatives loath to recognize women’s gains, and liberals equally reluctant to acknowledge that progress might entail trade-offs. As more women have joined the workforce and become leaders in traditionally male spheres, gender roles have shifted, and women have lost their exclusive hold over traditionally female spheres. One of these is the home, as Schlafly argued. But women’s dominion over another part of public life has also declined: civil society.

Women have long formed collective organizations intended to improve American society. They volunteered their time, waged political campaigns, and advocated for the poor and elderly. They organized voters, patronized the arts, and protested the government. In the years since women’s liberation, this kind of civic engagement has dropped precipitously. The kind of community involvement that has replaced it, where it has been replaced at all, is a weak substitute: When women advocate, it’s often on behalf of their own kids or families. And when they get involved in causes, they tend to cut checks rather than gather in protest. The most vulnerable members of society have lost their best allies—women—partly because those women are too busy working.

That’s not to indulge in nostalgia for a period of American history when women primarily led clubs rather than companies. Women frequently organized to fight for rights they had been denied by men, and they often aspired to lead charitable organizations because they were prevented from pursuing other paths. But ironically, in winning fuller equality with men, some women lost a share of the meaning and purpose that comes from life outside of productive labor. This is not a story about women’s failures, or a polemic against their advancement. It’s a cautionary tale for men and women alike. The corner office isn’t always the pinnacle of leadership. Often, the most important leadership happens in local communities.

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Women’s groups haven’t just existed since America’s founding—they were instrumental in creating the nation. In her book, Natural Allies: Women’s Associations in American History, Anne Firor Scott writes that during the Revolutionary War, women “banded together to raise money, provide amenities to the soldiers, and support the movement for independence.” During the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century, “voluntary associations of all kinds proliferated, to supplement the old institutional structures of family, church, and local government.” Women often took up the causes of the “worthy” poor, especially women and children, forming organizations with elaborate names like the Female Association for Relief of the Sick Poor, and for the Education of Such Female Children as Do Not Belong To, or Are Not Provided for, by Any Religious Society.

Men formed associations, too, but they were different from those led by women. Men often did good works individually, rather than as groups, Scott wrote, and when they gave money, “they tended to make large gifts to institutions, particularly those that might bear their names.” Most of all, their civic activity was largely a form of self-advancement, Scott argued: “Benevolence figured in the building of a man’s career, both as a means of forming associations with other men and as a means of promoting a favorable public image.” But for women, participating in these organizations was their career—“an accepted extension of their defined roles as wives and mothers.”

Most importantly, these associations helped women develop a nascent sense of class and political consciousness, Scott argued. Charitable work exposed well-off white women to people of lesser means, and it offered women the chance to see themselves as independent of their husbands. As time went on, these organizations took up political causes such as suffrage, citizenship rights, and, later, equal-pay legislation, wrote the Duke University professor Kristin Goss.

As empowering as civil society was for American women, it was also constraining. “For centuries … we had this very distinct public and private realm in America,” said Melissa Deckman, a professor at Washington College. “Women were not allowed to participate in business or industry or politics. So women who had skills and time on their hands went into more civic activity.” Although groups such as the gender-integrated Independent Order of St. Luke were founded and sometimes led by black women, many of these organizations were led by white women, and “volunteering used to be in the arena of women with wealthy husbands,” said Thomas Rotolo, a professor at Washington State University. While men went off to be captains of industry, “women would stay home to deal with philanthropic activities.”

As women’s organizations got more politically oriented, they also started proliferating. In the second half of the 20th century, a number of new women’s rights groups formed, like the National Organization for Women, in 1966, and the Women’s Equity Action League, in 1968. But elsewhere in America, a shift was happening in traditional associational life.

In 1955, at least two dozen “membership” groups—made up of local chapters that held national meetings—could claim at least 1 percent of American adults on their rolls, according to the Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol. These were not just groups for women; they included mixed-gender organizations like the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, along with single-gender groups such as the Women’s International Bowling Congress. These kinds of organizations enjoyed success into the mid-1960s, Skocpol wrote. But as national-level, advocacy-oriented groups proliferated—almost all of them in New York City or Washington, D.C.—local, membership-oriented groups started seeing major declines. By the end of the 20th century, Skocpol wrote, this had led to a “top-down civic world”: When Americans get involved in public life, it’s usually to “send checks to a dizzying plethora of public affairs and social-service groups run by professionals.”

There are a number of pitfalls to outsourced communal involvement. The focus on national-level advocacy takes away from local groups; the vibrancy of grassroots-driven community organizations can’t be recreated by staffers in offices hundreds of miles away. People also lose the chance to mix with people outside of their wealth and class context: “Pre-1960s membership associations were much more likely to involve less privileged participants along with the privileged,” Skocpol wrote. “Privileged men and women who climbed the ladders of vast membership associations had to interact in the process with citizens of humble or middling means and prospects.”

“The moms do everything for the kids, and it spills over into school.”

In many communities, associational life is still going strong, but it can come with struggles. At the fall kick-off meeting of the Parent Teacher Organization at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C., three women greeted newcomers and ushered parents toward trays of tube-shaped pasta and salad. Mia Pettus, one of the co-presidents who has a junior at the school, said “it mostly is moms” who do the volunteer work for the group, even though nearly “all of us are working parents … [with] full-time jobs.” Another woman, Rhonda Davis Smith, said dads often get more involved with PTO at the high-school level, when they can coach or lead other activities for their adolescent kids. Over the course of an hour, roughly 40 parents showed up—three times as many women as men.

“The moms do everything for the kids, and it spills over into school,” said Angela Anderson, another of the co-presidents, whose daughter is also a junior at Banneker. Anderson is one of the few parents at Banneker who doesn’t work outside the home, at least while each of her four children has been young; but her husband jokes that she’s “the only stay-at-home mom with 10 jobs,” she said. Besides volunteering in her kids’ schools, she has been a Girl Scout leader for a decade and serves on nursing boards that lobby on Capitol Hill; she’s trained as an RN. But “I’m very sympathetic to other moms,” she said. “A lot of moms are obligated to work and don’t have the opportunity to stay at home with their children or go on field trips.”

In general, parenthood is a huge determinant of how women volunteer. In one study, researchers found that childless women are less likely to volunteer than their peers who are moms, although working mothers of young kids also had a hard time volunteering. Having a kid in school, however, makes women more likely to volunteer. “School-age children link their mothers to their community, often through the medium of social institutions organized around children’s needs, such as schools, churches, sports teams, [and] youth-development organizations,” the authors wrote. “[Far] from being an impediment to volunteering, children turn into an incentive; they become a strong tie to the community. Volunteer work becomes an extension of the mother role.”

American society desperately needs volunteers in order to function. For many families, kids make this need most clear: As the scholars Heather E. Price and Patricia Herzog Snell, the authors of American Generosity, wrote in an email, “Schools, activity clubs, carpools, and parent organizations commonly rely on volunteers to do work that has no budget, but needs to be performed to provide the children with a quality education, sports training, club interactions, schedule coordinating, and parent leadership.” Overwhelmingly, said Price and Herzog Snell, the people who do this work are stay-at-home moms. As Anderson put it at Banneker, “What we want to do is fill those gaps that the administration is not providing.”

Banneker is a magnet, and one of the academically strongest high schools in the District. It makes sense that parents would be so involved, but even at a such a great school, the principal said, “Sometimes we’ll have a meeting and there are five of us here.” Not all communities have parents who are able to spend time volunteering to support their kids’ education. And in those communities where parents can provide support, there can be an element of tribalism to the way people spend their time and resources. Christine Woyshner, a professor of education at Temple University, called it “amoral familialism.”

In the world of schools, this has been underscored by the rapidly declining membership in the once-powerful National Parent Teacher Association. Banneker is just one of the many schools whose parents have recently decided to form a PTO—a parent-teacher organization that isn’t affiliated with any national policy or advocacy group. The Banneker parents largely did it for the dues money; having to pay fees to the state and national PTA was effectively “a tax on parents,” Anderson said. Other parents at different schools have complained that PTA dues go toward lobbying for causes they don’t agree with.

The result can be that volunteer efforts, and money, often stay concentrated in the schools of kids from well-off families. Even at a place like Banneker, which is a Title I school, the involved moms who led the PTO were eager to eliminate as many fees as possible to get more parents to participate; membership has been low in the past due to costs, Anderson said. While local involvement is no doubt good for some kids and helps build the leadership skills of moms and dads alike, it can also exacerbate inequality among children in different areas.

By far, the people who have lost the most from the decline of local associations are those who are least educated and wealthy. College-educated Americans have always been more likely to participate in civic organizations than their less educated peers; according to a 2010 study by the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project, 77 percent of this group was part of a non-religious community group in the 2000s, compared to 86 percent in the 1970s. But the change has been much more significant for high-school drop-outs: While 51 percent of these Americans were involved in a non-religious community organization in the 1970s, only 22 percent were members in the 2000s. Another study found that highly educated Americans are roughly twice as likely to volunteer compared to those without much education. Evidence also suggests that low-income Americans are the least likely to volunteer their time, while middle-class Americans are the most likely.

“I work,” she said. “I just don’t have that kind of time.”

Although women’s workforce participation is one potential explanation for their lower levels of communal involvement, it’s not a complete one. Robert Putnam argued in his book Bowling Alone that these changes only account for part of the overall decline of American civil society. One of his key pieces of evidence is men: They, too, have largely quit their social clubs and civic groups.

Women have arguably lost more from the change, though. For uneducated women in particular, lower levels of participation in civil society means they have fewer chances to build leadership skills. A generation ago, the Boston College professor Kay Schlozman and her co-authors found that women state legislators tended to have a background in volunteer work, rather than careers in insurance or law like their male peers. Serving on a community-service steering committee or being responsible for kids on a field trip are ways of building communication and organizational skills, she said. “The domain of adult life in which that happens most frequently is work,” she added in an interview. “But one of the things about work is that it’s very stratified in terms of social class, so people who work with their hands get none of these opportunities.”

In terms of skill-building, working can be great for women’s leadership, especially in politics, Schlozman said. “Working women are more politically active than women who are out of the workforce. Even if women have traded volunteerism for jobs, that would enhance, not deter, them from political roles.” Yet, in the two decades since the mid-90s, when there was a major bump in the number of women elected to hold political office, those numbers have stagnated. In her research on young, female law-school and public-policy graduate students, Shauna Shames, an assistant professor at Rutgers University-Camden, found that these elite, Millennial women aren’t highly motivated to seek political leadership roles. They don’t think they can “make a difference” with careers in politics.

Some of the community work women once did now happens at non-profit organizations, where women actually get paid for the labor they previously volunteered. But non-profits aren’t exactly a bastion of women’s equality and empowerment. A strong majority of non-profit workers are women, and yet they only make up 43 percent of non-profit boards—and a third of boards for organizations with large operating budgets. Labor conditions at non-profits often mean women are taking pay and benefit cuts to work on behalf of causes.

Meanwhile, working in general can crowd out women’s volunteer work. One study found that the percent of women doing weekly volunteer work decreased from 16.4 percent in 1965 to 9.3 percent in 1993, a period during which women’s participation in the labor force went up significantly. The simplest explanation is that there just aren’t enough hours in the day; even Deckman, the Washington College professor, sighed a little when she mentioned being asked to bake for her kids’ school events. “I work,” she said. “I just don’t have that kind of time.”

It’s not that cultural infrastructure has changed so that women’s volunteer time is no longer needed.

It’s not that cultural infrastructure has changed so that women’s volunteer time is no longer needed. It’s that the infrastructure has selectively crumbled. Women with the time, education, and resources to support their communities do so, and other communities struggle. While the government can’t provide a sense of community connection, it could provide women and families more support so that they can lead their communities, including with policies that support mandatory overtime, for example.

Not all civic organizations are on an equal path of decline. A spokeswoman for the Daughters of the American Revolution, for example, reported that the organization’s membership has grown every year since 2007. With 183,000 members nationwide, the group is working to make itself more appealing to younger generations and put a greater emphasis on service work over high society. Some African American women’s organizations have also seen renewed interest, like the Links or Jack and Jill.

But in general, the organizations that were once the hallmarks of women’s leadership have much smaller memberships and less influence than they once did. While the United Methodist Women, the Woman’s Missionary Union, and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs each boasted more than 1 percent of American women as their members 70 years ago, for example, these organizations had lost 70 percent, 53 percent, and 83 percent of their memberships by 1995, respectively, according to Skocpal.

While this decline has affected the structure of society, it has also had cultural consequences. Women don’t just have more access to career opportunities—their lives are simply more. As Shames, the Rutgers professor, put it, “I sometimes think our own success in feminism … has done us in.” If feminism is a belief in the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes, perhaps this is an area where both women and men should strive to change the standard to which they’re aspiring: Everyone in the United States could benefit from more communal involvement, whether that means advocating for causes, volunteering with a charitable organization, joining a church, or just showing up to that Thursday night parent-teacher-group meeting.

As women have taken greater positions of leadership in the United States, they have also left a leadership vacuum behind them. In middle-class, highly educated communities, women may be busier and more tired than their mothers and grandmothers once were, but they mostly figure out ways to advocate for their kids at school-board meetings or volunteer to chaperone a class trip to the zoo. The people who have suffered most aren’t white and well-off; they’re lower income, poorly educated, and largely disconnected from the rich network of membership-based associations that used to provide both a local sense of community and a national voice in politics. Women in these positions have lost access to one of their only means of gaining leadership skills. And while many of their educated, wealthier peers now have alternatives to the suffocating housewife’s life that so enraged Betty Friedan seven decades ago, some experience it as an opposite kind of suffocation: a never-ending, ladder-climbing work life, the height of which is making money for someone else rather than building a world in which they’re invested.