I am deeply grateful for all that was accomplished by second wave feminism. I love living in a world in which my job opportunities are not constrained because of what’s between my legs. That said, I also struggle with the externalities of the accomplishments in the 1970s. This week, I found myself thinking about the role of teaching and nursing in society and the relationship between feminism and those professions.
When my mother was entering the professional world, there were pretty much three options for women: teacher, nurse, secretary. Many women did not work and those who did were highly motivated, passionate, and underpaid. When barriers were eradicated, women left these professions to seek jobs in other fields that were better respected. Nurses were often just as knowledgeable about medicine as doctors and yet doctors were more greatly valued. Not surprisingly, as the years went b, many women who wanted to enter medicine chose to become doctors instead of nurses because the professional rewards were so much greater. When the sex barriers collapsed, women sought out “men’s jobs” because they were higher paying, higher prestige, and more flexible.
Since the 1970s, the number of brilliant, motivated individuals working as teachers and nurses in particular declined rapidly. Many women left these professions because they had many more opportunities and many men refused to do “women’s work.” Don’t get me wrong – there are some amazing teachers and nurses out there, but sexist constraint meant that the most brilliant, most passionate women inevitably went to these professions while that is no longer the case.
The problem is what has happened since then. I certainly don’t want to go back to the dark ages where women had no choice. But while we’ve opened up doors for women, we haven’t addressed how sexism framed nursing and teaching in ways that are causing us tremendous headaches in society today. Teachers are underpaid and undervalued because we took women’s work for granted. When teaching stopped being women’s work, we didn’t rework our thinking about teaching. As a society, we still have little respect for teachers and nurses and we pay them abysmally. This is deeply rooted in the sexism of the past but the ripple effects today are costly.
Let me addressing education specifically for a moment. Rather than addressing the issue head-on and finding market solutions that value teachers, we have created a cultural expectation of altruistic teachers. We run long NYTimes stories on individuals who grew miserable in their first career and came to teaching to make a difference. In fact, good teachers are almost always discussed as saints who gave up everything for the good of the students. While those individuals should be commended, shouldn’t this also be discussed as market failure? For each brilliant, highly motivated teacher out there, how many are there who aren’t particularly qualified or good at their job? And, more importantly, what are the costs of not incentivizing potentially amazing teachers to enter the profession by any means other than guilt?
I get uncomfortable thinking about the societal consequences of second wave feminism, especially since I’ve personally benefited from it so much. I don’t blame the feminists or the women who pushed forward to make change. But I do blame society as a whole for not taking stock of what was implicitly devalued and making strides to rework things. Even when nursing and teaching were “women’s work,” they were challenging professions that contributed greatly to society. I’m glad that women are not limited to just those jobs today, but it’s not because those jobs are worthless. We desperately need them and we need to rework our value systems to actually value such jobs. While women have made tremendous strides in the last 30 years, society has not done nearly as good of a job reworking how it thinks of historically women’s work.