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When NBC News and the Wall Street Journal asked whether more mothers working outside the home was a step in the right direction for American society, a step in the wrong direction, or something that wouldn’t make any difference, men and women agreed: A plurality of both sexes in the December 1997 poll said this was a step in the wrong direction (43% for men, 41% for women). Barely three in ten (31% for both men and women) thought the trend was a step in the right direction.
It’s interesting to note that the answers were not affected by whether the respondents worked or not: Forty percent of women employed full-time, 40% of women employed part-time, and 42% of women who weren’t working outside the home said the trend was a bad one.
When the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press posed a similar question to women in March 1997, 41% said the trend of mothers of young children working outside the home was a bad thing for society. Just 17% said this was a good thing.
Asked by Pew about other trends relating to families, the women in the poll felt that more single women deciding to have children without a male partner was a bad thing for society (65%). Fully 62% felt that way about more unmarried couples deciding to have children, and 56% about more homosexual couples deciding to do so. Fewer than 10% felt that any of these three things were a good thing for society.
As for having your cake and eating it too, when asked by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal to respond to the statement, “Most women can’t have it all–a career and a family–without making a lot of sacrifices in both areas,” a whopping 78% of women and 74% of men agreed.
So which would they sacrifice first, career or kids? Mothers of children under age eighteen surveyed in the Pew poll said that their relationship with their children was most important to their personal happiness (86% rated this aspect of their lives at “ten” on a ten-point scale). Just 30% of women employed full- or part-time rated their job as a “ten” in terms of personal happiness.
Furthermore, when Gallup asked in 1995 whether people felt they generally had enough time for their job, 74% said they did, 63% felt that way about sleep, and 55% about their household chores. Last on the list was their children: Just 44% of parents with children said they generally had enough time for the kids 54% said they did not.
Do these trends in public opinion represent a backlash against women? If so, it’s a backlash by women themselves. Since 1974, Roper Starch Worldwide has asked women whether they would prefer to stay home and take care of a house and family or whether they would prefer to work outside the home–if they were free to do either. In 1974, 60% of women said they would prefer to stay home and 35% said they wanted to work outside the home. When Roper repeated the question in September 1997, 52% said they would prefer to stay home, and 44% said they preferred to work.
But there’s hope for feminists: In 1991, Roper began asking men the same question. That year, 77% of men said they would prefer to have a job outside the home, but 19% said they wanted to stay home. In the new survey, fully a quarter of men said they wanted to stay home and take care of their homes and families.
Karlyn H. Bowman is a resident fellow at AEI.
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