The Role of Women in America

LaVelle Ingram, Ph.D.


It is clear that women in America enjoy much more personal freedom and independence than women in many other parts of the world. This freedom is something we hold dear and one of the things that define contemporary American culture. However, it is also clear that many immigrants, coming from very different-thinking cultures, view such women with at least suspicion and at most contempt. Acquiring a functional view of the women in America might take some re-thinking on the part of some immigrants who may have had little exposure to women in the workplace, women in charge, or even women operating on their own. It might give a more accurate view of the real character and status of American women if you think of them as “honorary men.”

Different cultures espouse widely variant ideas of the proper role and place of women within a society. One coworker, from Egypt, informed me that women did not typically live outside of their parents’ homes there unless they were married. There, a woman setting up “house” by herself is assumed to be setting up a place of prostitution. Why else would she leave the guidance and protection of her family? This way of thinking was completely new to me and would be to most Americans. Here, females, just like males, are expected to move away from parents’ homes and set up on their own in order to prove themselves successful, fully functioning adults. True, a woman can more easily remain at home with her parents than a man can here, but past about age 25 others would begin to look at her askance. So expect the women here to live on their own, in apartments or homes that they own, and consider such a situation to mean simply that such a woman is an adult and that she can afford such accommodations.

Further, in many other places in the world, women are expected to hold marriage and children as their primary goals and interest. Here, women are generally more interested in these things than the men are, but they do not necessarily place them first on their “to do” lists. In America, a woman is just as likely to decide that her education, for instance, needs to be completed before she can consider marriage or family. She may decide that her career needs to develop to a certain point first. In short, an American woman may have the same kind of broad concerns about conducting her life that men have around the world. In the case of men, most folks would consider holding such priorities as prudent in preparing for life’s challenges, but women can still come under scrutiny for the same priorities. Here, it should not be surprising to find women delaying marriage and family into their thirties, forties or even fifties.

Finally, many cultures associate a female’s independence with evidence that she is morally and/or sexually slack. The title of this article is “honorary men” for a reason. It suggests that independent women in America should be viewed through the same lens through which most folks would view men. A young man, living independent of his parents, working on his education or his career, may be morally upright or morally depraved; he may be sexually chaste or sexually promiscuous. His status as an independent man cannot tell you these other aspects of his character. Rather, one would need to meet him and get to know him before one could make such judgments. This scenario is exactly the same for American women. A woman living on her own and conducting her own personal and professional business can run the whole gamut from dutiful, traditional and chaste to self-involved, nontraditional and sexually free. One would need to engage the individual woman in order to find out the truth.

Similarly, American women tend to wear jewelry and make-up, and to many immigrants, too revealing clothing. Yet American women are typically dressing within the norms of social correctness (and beauty) that all women follow in their own cultures. American women of all types even dress more conservatively as they meet the requirements of various workplaces. The few women who violate such codes receive the same shocked and negative reactions from other Americans that they do from immigrants. So, despite the make-up and high-heels, the skirts and the hairdos, remember that these women are meeting the norms of the society. American’s women’s style of dress, then, has little to do with her morals or her character. In short, it might make more sense just to think of us all as honorary men, and proceed accordingly




Women at Work



In colonial America, women who earned their own living usually became seamstresses or kept boardinghouses. But some women worked in professions and jobs available mostly to men. There were women doctors, lawyers, preachers, teachers, writers, and singers. By the early 19th century, however, acceptable occupations for working women were limited to factory labor or domestic work. Women were excluded from the professions, except for writing and teaching.

The medical profession is an example of changed attitudes in the 19th and 20th centuries about what was regarded as suitable work for women. Prior to the 1800s there were almost no medical schools, and virtually any enterprising person could practice medicine. Indeed, obstetrics was the domain of women.

Beginning in the 19th century, the required educational preparation, particularly for the practice of medicine, increased. This tended to prevent many young women, who married early and bore many children, from entering professional careers. Although home nursing was considered a proper female occupation, nursing in hospitals was done almost exclusively by men. Specific discrimination against women also began to appear. For example, the American Medical Association, founded in 1846, barred women from membership. Barred also from attending "men's" medical colleges, women enrolled in their own for instance, the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, which was established in 1850. By the 1910s, however, women were attending many leading medical schools, and in 1915 the American Medical Association began to admit women members.

In 1890, women constituted about 5 percent of the total doctors in the United States. During the 1980s the proportion was about 17 percent. At the same time the percentage of women doctors was about 19 percent in West Germany and 20 percent in France. In Israel, however, about 32 percent of the total number of doctors and dentists were women.

Women also had not greatly improved their status in other professions. In 1930 about 2 percent of all American lawyers and judges were women in 1989, about 22 percent. In 1930 there were almost no women engineers in the United States. In 1989 the proportion of women engineers was only 7.5 percent.

In contrast, the teaching profession was a large field of employment for women. In the late 1980s more than twice as many women as men taught in elementary and high schools. In higher education, however, women held only about one third of the teaching positions, concentrated in such fields as education, social service, home economics, nursing, and library science. A small proportion of women college and university teachers were in the physical sciences, engineering, agriculture, and law.

The great majority of women who work are still employed in clerical positions, factory work, retail sales, and service jobs. Secretaries, bookkeepers, and typists account for a large portion of women clerical workers. Women in factories often work as machine operators, assemblers, and inspectors. Many women in service jobs work as waitresses, cooks, hospital attendants, cleaning women, and hairdressers.

During wartime women have served in the armed forces. In the United States during World War II almost 300,000 women served in the Army and Navy, performing such noncombatant jobs as secretaries, typists, and nurses. Many European women fought in the underground resistance movements during World War II. In Israel women are drafted into the armed forces along with men and receive combat training.

Women constituted more than 45 percent of employed persons in the United States in 1989, but they had only a small share of the decision-making jobs. Although the number of women working as managers, officials, and other administrators has been increasing, in 1989 they were outnumbered about 1.5 to 1 by men. Despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963, women in 1970 were paid about 45 percent less than men for the same jobs; in 1988, about 32 percent less. Professional women did not get the important assignments and promotions given to their male colleagues. Many cases before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1970 were registered by women charging sex discrimination in jobs.

Working women often faced discrimination on the mistaken belief that, because they were married or would most likely get married, they would not be permanent workers. But married women generally continued on their jobs for many years and were not a transient, temporary, or undependable work force. From 1960 to the early 1970s the influx of married women workers accounted for almost half of the increase in the total labor force, and working wives were staying on their jobs longer before starting families. The number of elderly working also increased markedly.

Since 1960 more and more women with children have been in the work force. This change is especially dramatic for married women with children under age 6: 12 percent worked in 1950, 45 percent in 1980, and 57 percent in 1987. Just over half the mothers with children under age 3 were in the labor force in 1987. Black women with children are more likely to work than are white or Hispanic women who have children. Over half of all black families with children are maintained by the mother only, compared with 18 percent of white families with children.

Despite their increased presence in the work force, most women still have primary responsibility for housework and family care. In the late 1970s men with an employed wife spent only about 1.4 hours a week more on household tasks than those whose wife was a full-time homemaker.

A crucial issue for many women is maternity leave, or time off from their jobs after giving birth. By federal law a full-time worker is entitled to time off and a job when she returns, but few states by the early 1990s required that the leave be paid. Many countries, including Mexico, India, Germany, Brazil, and Australia require companies to grant 12-week maternity leaves at full pay.



The American Woman 

Eric Dingwall 1956, 1957

... many domestic and foreign observers have remarked that the United States seems to have a surprising number of men who remain adolescent and of women who play the roles both of doll and of matriarch, and they have not always realized that this is part of the American cultural pattern and the result of the domination of society by women. The conflict in the American soul, is an economic and a sexual conflict, and the American woman is, I think, at the heart of that conflict. It is women who set the stage and largely control the players in important sections of American life. America is a woman's world, a world in which, as a Chinese woman, Helena Kuo, remarked, women have succeeded in everything except in the art of being truly feminine. In this lies the tragedy and the danger. It is the purpose of this book to try to see how the American woman has attained her position and how the whole of American culture is permeated by her influence. p. 14


... many of the colonial women were soon engaged in tasks apart altogether from those connected with rearing a family. Except in professions such as Medicine and the Church, their activity was but slightly hampered, and they soon began to deal with administrative, executive[,] and legal matters, while some actually managed businesses ... The most important social unit in colonial times was natally the family, and, as we have said, the woman was the unchallenged head of the home, although her husband was nominally the head of the family... p. 38



... The gradually increasing importance of the mother and the supposed innocence of the female child had a profound influence on social custom and behaviour, since to the power exercised by maternal authority was added the myth that women were superior morally to the other sex, and that it was only through an inexplicable arrangement of Nature that they had to submit to what was, after all, something of a degradation. Thus, as we shall see later, women were being divided into two sections, the pure and the impure, and since the children of both sexes were under the influence of the mother, both boys and girls were early trained to conduct themselves in ways which were not only unnatural, but which led directly towards the formation of those neuroses which are so noticeable a feature of the American scene today.... p. 59


... It was the nineteenth century which saw the gradual emergence of the new American woman from the early days to the days of organized feminist agitation and subsequent power. Her dissatisfaction with her lot can be seen gradually increasing as the dichotomy of the sexes became wider and more pronounced. But through the whole of her numerous activities and troubles a single thread runs from which branch out numerous fibres in all directions. That thread is her love-life, and it is because her love-life is hopelessly awry that the American woman is as she is. She is too often a woman without love, for love in America is not what it is in the rest of the world. Woman is the centre of the moral chaos, the immaturity, the strange fetishes and the even stranger practices which are to be observed everywhere in the United States. Yet it is largely through her that the system which has put her in her present position is perpetuated.... p. 64