Share Of Americans Who Embrace Working Women Hits An All-Time High

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Public support for working women hit some low points in the 1990s, but in recent years it’s spiked to all time highs, according to a new analysis from the Council on Contemporary Families.

The share of people who disagree with the idea that it’s better for men to earn money and women to take care of the home dropped from 62 percent in 1994 to 58 percent in 2000. But it turned around in 2006 and spiked up to an all-time high of 68 percent in 2012. Less than a third think it’s ideal to have a male breadwinner.

Public opinion has also moved on the impact working mothers have on their children. In 2000, about half disagreed with the idea that preschoolers suffer if their moms work outside the home, but 65 percent disagreed in 2012. And the share who agree that a working mother can have a warm relationship with her children increased from 60 percent in 2000, the same level as in 1985, to 72 percent in 2012.


CREDIT: David A. Cotter, Joan M. Hermsen, Reeve Vanneman

These questions have been asked in the General Social Survey every year since 1985. Huge gains were made between 1977 and the mid 90s. “[T]he rate and extent of change were nothing short of remarkable,” the brief notes. In 1977, two-thirds of Americans thought it was better to have a male breadwinner and a female housewife, and just a third disagreed. By 1994, only a little over a third thought that was the ideal, while 63 percent disagreed. Similarly, 68 percent thought a preschool aged child would suffer if the mother worked in 1977, but by 1994 nearly 60 percent disagreed; in 1977, 52 percent thought working mothers couldn’t have warm relationships with their kids as compared to homemakers, but just 31 percent agreed in 1994.

The researchers aren’t sure what’s caused the recent uptick. They didn’t find that it’s caused by gender, as men and women’s opinions have moved in tandem even as women are slightly more equal-minded. The differences in opinion have also moved in tandem for liberals and conservatives, although since the 2000s, the biggest increase in support for women’s equality came from conservatives. Education levels also can’t explain it.

The entrance of the Millennial generation might be a factor, as it is the most egalitarian one thus far. But all generations voiced an uptick in support in the 2000s. “The fact that the restart [of public support] takes place within generations at approximately the same time suggests that something may have happened – we just don’t yet know what,” the brief concludes.

As women entered the workforce and families began to rely on their incomes, the situation may have become normalized. In 1979, less than a third of mothers worked full time, but by the 2000s, 46 percent did. Today more than 70 percent of mothers with young children are in the labor force, and about half of American families have two working parents. Meanwhile, four in ten mothers are the sole or primary source of income for their families, a record number. A working mother has not just become the norm, but a necessity for many.

At the same time, while research has consistently found that working mothers don’t hurt their children’s development, starting as far back as the 1950s, some research got blown out of proportion in the late 80s and early 90s saying that daycare was harming children. In particular, research from Jay Belsky in 1986 found that infants in full-time care were at an elevated risk of developing behavior and social issues, even though he later clarified that he didn’t find fault with daycare per se, but the American form of it that has few quality standards. Those fears may have dissipated since then with new research. Not to mention that mothers in 2011 spent more time caring for their own children than in 1965.