For the first time in history, women in developed societies can take up any occupation or career they please. This has brought enormous benefits. But it has also had some less positive consequences—the death of sisterhood, a decline in female altruism and growing disincentives to bear childrenby Alison Wolf / April 23, 2006 / Leave a comment
Click here to read a reply to this article by Pat Thane, and click here to read Alison Wolf’s reply to her critics
In 1945 the British public sector abandoned the marriage bar, which had required female teachers and civil servants to stay single or resign in favour of male breadwinners. In the 60 years since, women’s lives have been transformed, and, with them, family and community.
You might not think it—given the media focus on pay gaps and glass ceilings, and the Women and Work commission’s recent finding that women in full-time work earn on average 17 per cent less than men—but for the first time, women, at least in developed societies, have virtually no career or occupation barred to them. The people most affected by this change, and the main subject of this essay, are professional and elite women. Women used to enter the elite as daughters, mothers and wives. Now they do so as individuals.
This marks a rupture in human history. It is one that has brought enormous benefits to many people, and to many women in particular. But its repercussions are not all positive, either for society as a whole, or for all women. We are no more likely to return to the old patterns than we are to subsistence agriculture, so we need to understand what the new female labour market means for all our lives. Three consequences get far less attention than they deserve. The first is the death of sisterhood: an end to the millennia during which women of all classes shared the same major life experiences to a far greater degree than did their men. The second is the erosion of “female altruism,” the service ethos which has been profoundly important to modern industrial societies—particularly in the education of their young, and the care of their old and sick. The third is the impact of employment change on childbearing. We are familiar with the prospect of demographic decline, yet we ignore, sometimes wilfully, the extent to which educated women face disincentives to bear children.
In the past, women of all classes, in all societies, shared lives centred on explicitly female concerns. Today it makes little sense to discuss women in general. Instead, they divide into two groups. A minority of well-educated women have careers. A majority do jobs, usually part-time, in order to make…