How the social changes in women’s lives in western societies over the last 50 years have impacted on men

The roles of men and women in society and the family are always changing. During and after the industrial revolution the family moved away from the economically integrated and self-sufficient production unit (Dahlstrom, 1967). During the past 50 years there have been many changes in women’s lives in western societies, many of which have had an effect on men. This essay will discuss the major changes in legislation and social attitudes and the effects of these changes, concentrating mostly on the changes in Britain.

This essay will look in detail at the way that women seem to have become much more independent and no longer rely on men as much as they used to; therefore men are unable to fit into their traditional role of provider. Recently this issue has been addressed by sociologists and in 2000 Anthony Clare published a book called Masculinity in Crisis, suggesting that the changes in women’s lives have had an adverse effect on men, which has thrown masculinity into crisis.

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In particular, this essay will look at the changes in work patterns for women, the impact of the contraceptive pill, and new legislation which has been introduced which is making it more possible for women to live and bring up children, without the help and financial support of men. In the past it was thought that the woman’s place was in the home, bringing up children and all domestic labour was the woman’s responsibility. It was also clear what the man’s role was within the family; provider.

This attitude is changing more and more, and in 1984 women made up 46 per cent of the paid labour-force in Britain (Giddens, 1989). It has become more socially acceptable for a woman to be in paid employment. Dual income households are also necessary as consumer capitalism drives the family in western societies. Two incomes are often needed to maintain the standard of living that people have become accustomed to since the period of post-war affluence. This change means that women are moving away from the private side of family life and expanding their range of social contacts.

While this has made the marital relationship less exclusive and sometimes weaker, it also means that intimate relationships within the family have changed (Smelser, 1994). As women are working they have less time to concentrate on unpaid domestic labour. Men can sometimes struggle with the concept of their wife working. Beechey ; Whitelegg (1986:31) argue that Men’s authority, hence feelings of responsibility, self-image and even potency, will be undetermined if their wives’ employment threatens their role as breadwinner and head of household.

As the man’s role of provider is becoming diminished, the modern man is in crisis. The division of domestic labour is also an issue in dual earner households. The majority of housework and child rearing still seems to be the woman’s responsibility, especially when the woman works part-time. The Woman and Employment Survey showed that 44% of wives who worked full time shared the domestic labour equally compared to 23% who worked part time (Martin and Roberts in Fulcher and Scott, 2003). Income equity does not seem to play a part in male participation in housework.

There was found to be “no significant relationship between level of earnings and level of child-care and other aspects of the domestic division of labour” (Lewis and O’Brien, 1987:132). Men say that they don’t see themselves as housekeepers or childcarers and they do not want to take over the woman’s role, but expect to be supporting helpful fathers. Although generally women’s employment is low-paid, there has been a dramatic increase in the entry of women to managerial and professional careers.

In 1946 less than 1% of solicitors were women, sharply rising to 31% in 1994 (Elliot, 1997). The Medical Association reported in 2002 that 60% of medical students were women (Fulcher and Scott, 2003). Men are finding a lot of competition in the workplace from women and are even suggesting that femininity confers unfair advantages on women. Men seem clearly worried about the threat that women pose to their employment and chances of promotion (Abercrombie and Warde, 2001).

Part of the reason for the rise in numbers of woman in professional and managerial employment is the Equal Pay Act of 1970 and the Gender Discrimination Act of 1975. These new pieces of legislation in Britain tackled issued of gender discrimination in the public arena of employment regarding entry, pay, conditions, promotion and firing (Oakley, 1981). Employment is moving towards women’s skills and away from manual labour. During the 1980’s there was a huge rise in unemployment due to huge job losses in traditional industries such as mining and shipbuilding.

These jobs were dominated by men, resulting in a huge number of unemployed men. Jeremy Rifkin (2000) argues that the displacement of workers by machines is now eliminating service workers as well. As machines are taking over women are just as able to operate them as men are. The traditional jobs for women like carers, nurses and teachers were not affected in the same way as they were for men, and therefore the high unemployment had a greater effect on men. In the past the family was an institution for the exploitation of women by men.

A feminist approach describing the reason for the domestic division of labour, says that the problem was (and is) patriarchy (Fulcher and Scott, 2003). The power that men had over women meant they excluded women from the workplace so that they had to undertake all the responsibilities of domestic labour. Feminists have fought against the power of patriarchy and managed to gain equal rights for women in the workplace. Many women have taken advantage of this and it is now socially acceptable for women to play a major part in the paid work force as the power of patriarchy is decreasing.

The 1960’s has been considered a period of sexual liberation. The contraceptive pill was introduced and women were freed (theoretically) from the risk of unwanted pregnancies. Female sexuality was redefined as sex became a source of pleasure, rather than a means of producing children. Women’s sexual behaviour became more like that of men (Fulcher and Scott, 2003). Women became less passive in the sexual arena as women were freer to express their desire, rather than simply being the object of men’s desire.

One of the effects of the introduction of the contraceptive pill was that women could choose when they wanted to have children and could concentrate more on their career. As women could now choose as and when to have children, they could time career breaks better which has led to more women being employed in professional and managerial positions. Another implication of the pill was an increase of premarital sex as there was no longer the risk of pregnancy outside of marriage. The sexual revolution loosened attitudes towards premarital sex. The sexual revolution also had an effect on marriages.

There has been a growing importance attached to the sexual side of a marital relationship, and a satisfying sex life became one of the expectations of marriage (Richards and Elliott, 1991). This can be seen as continuing the process of changing marriage from a primary economic to a primary emotional relationship (Fulcher and Scott, 2003). The growing importance of a satisfying sex life has caused increasing dissatisfaction of both partners within marriage. Women are discovering that they don’t need men to provide for them and their family like they used to.

Women seem to be able to bring up families just as well without men present, as they are much more financially independent than they used to be, either because work, child support or supplementary benefits. Greater overall prosperity means that it is easier to establish a separate household, in case of marital disaffection, than used to be the case (Giddens, 1989:398). Schoen et al. (in Smelser, 1994) argue that there is evidence that the greater economic independence acquired by women is leading to increasing divorce rates.

The financial independence gained by women is making it more possible for women to leave unhappy marriages. Increased participation of women in the labour force is also opening up opportunities for new relationships to be formed. It has been indicated that women are more dissatisfied with marriage than men are. Thornes and Collard (1979) found that wives tended to believe that there were marital problems much earlier on in the marriage. Very relevant to the changing social role of women is the findings that women are, in general, less satisfied by their marriages than men (Abercrombie, Warde et al. 988: 292). Women are now expecting more out of their marriage, which men sometimes struggle with. Men feel that women expect contradictory qualities; women want their men to be masculine and strong, yet caring and compassionate. Women used to be expected to settle for an unhappy marriage and accept the duties and responsibilities of marriage. Oakley (1981) argues that an increase in divorce does not mean less happiness because romantic love and the emancipation of women have improved marriage, but made it inherently unstable.

The social attitudes towards divorce have changed; it is no longer seen as shameful and is popularly seen as an acceptable solution to marital difficulties. The first change in divorce legislation was in 1923 when wives were for the first time allowed to petition for divorce on the same footing as their husbands. In 1969 there was another change in divorce legislation, as divorce no longer had to be based on ‘marital fault’ but there was a general move to ‘irretrievable breakdown’ as the basis for dissolution of marriage (Beechey and Whitelegg, 1986).

The new legislation came into effect in1971; this contributed towards a sharp increase in divorces. Another factor that gave huge rise to the amount of divorces was the introduction of legal aid in 1949. This made divorce financially possible for everyone and meant that wives who were financially dependent on their husbands now had the right to legal advice and representation. The third factor that made it easier for women to leave unhappy marriages was the availability of Supplementary Benefit and local authority accommodation, allowing women to leave without the fear that they, or their children, will starve (Giddens, 1997).

This all adds to the fact that women are now financially independent and do not need men as much as they used to. In conclusion, the past 50 years has seen a great deal of change for women. Many more women are in paid employment than used to be and it has become much more socially acceptable. Women’s employment is still generally lower paid than men’s but there has been a sharp increase in the amount of women who now have professional careers. The Gender Discrimination Act has made it possible for women to work in jobs that were previously seen as men’s jobs.

Changes in legislation of divorce have given women more freedom and equal rights to men. These changes along with growing dissatisfaction within marriage have increased divorce rates. Women’s expectations of marriage have changed and women are now much more financially independent. Many sociologists have written about the changing patterns in women’s lives in western societies, but there are still a great number of questions unanswered. It is difficult to see what the main causes are for the changes, especially in divorce rates.

Are more women filing for divorce because increased independence is making it possible, or are women trying to gain increased independence because the rising rates of divorce show a need for greater independence? There is still a great deal of inequality with regards to pay for women and the number of women holding top positions within businesses, but this is changing. The changes in women’s lives have had a great effect on men. Men may be unable to fit into their traditional role of provider anymore, therefore they need to change and renegotiate their places within this culture.