This week Maria Shriver will star in an NBC media extravaganza about women in today's economy. In an interview with MSNBC previewing "The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Changes Everything," Shriver explained her interest, saying that her uncle John F. Kennedy had commissioned a study on women's status half a century ago (which Eleanor Roosevelt chaired until her death), and she decided to update it.
In presenting the commission's final reports in 1963, President Kennedy said "[W]e have an obligation to the skilled, the trained, the unusual women...[the] thousands of women getting out of college...to make full use of their powers."
The nation had a long way to go. A few years after the president's report, a Gallup poll reporter that 55% of those polled approved of a married woman earning money in business or industry if she has a husband capable of supporting her, but 40% still disapproved. A sea change in attitudes and in the preparations young women would make for the new world was in the offing.
In 1968 when the National Longitudinal Study of Youth asked young women whether they expected to be working at age 35, 28% of young white women said they did. But by the time they hit age 35, slightly more than 70% of them were in the workforce. In another National Longitudinal Study series from 1979, 72% of young women expected to be working at age 35. Within a short time, women's expectations about what their futures would hold changed dramatically, and they began to prepare themselves differently. Today the educational goals of the granddaughters of feminism today are ambitious and reflect the preparation they are making. In UCLA's data, more young women entering college in 2008 expected to get a master's degree (43%) or an advanced professional degree (33%) than said they planned to only get a bachelor's (21%).
Attitudes about careers and workplaces themselves have changed, too. Seventy-five percent of those polled in a 2009 Pew survey disagreed with the idea that women should return to their traditional roles in society. Most adult women say they face very little discrimination where they work. But women with the same level of workplace experience and education make just about what men make. Since 2001, when Gallup began asking a long battery of questions on satisfaction with various aspects of life in the United States, robust majorities answered that they are satisfied with the position of women in American life. Most women still reject the feminist label, and the debates from the 1960s and 1970s seem irrelevant to younger women. Less than a third of women in any major survey since the question was first asked in 1989 say they are feminists.
Yet, there are challenges. Women still do most of the housework, but they are doing less of it than their mothers did, and now men are doing more. Polls show that the division of housework is only a minor irritant in most households. The nation supports a woman's decision to work or stay home. Most working mothers these days (62% in a 2009 Pew survey) say if they could do it, they would prefer to work part time. President Kennedy said his administration was concerned about "what arrangements we can make for [working women], so they can maintain themselves, their homes, their husbands, their children" and about creating "institutions and structures" to make it easier for them "to fulfill their responsibilities to their children but also permit them to use their powers and to develop their talents."
Those concerns are still front and center, and women and men worry that too many children are being raised in day care centers. In this recession, when many men are losing jobs and more women are becoming sole breadwinners, there are new difficulties. Whether the Shriver Report, done in conjunction with the Center for American Progress, can be more than talk, remains to be seen.
Are you hopeful it will?
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.