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How the Sexual Revolution Changed America Forever

With a little pharmaceutical ingenuity, the double standard relaxed its clawing grip on female humanity.

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The long-term survival of the nuclear family depended on each sex’s willingness to fulfill its prescribed role. Men were to be dutiful to their corporate employers and to financially support their families, but to leave the daily tasks—and its pleasures—of raising children to their wives. Women were to seek fulfillment in their roles as wife, mother, and homemaker. By the late 1950s, some Cassandras were raising the alarm that American life had become a real life invasion of he body snatchers. Sociologists diagnosed the disease of the company man, while Hugh Hefner offered men relief with Playboy, the nation’s first mass circulation porn magazine. Even before the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s best-selling and wildly influential The Feminine Mystique, the placid mothers of the fifties were telling pollsters they wanted their daughters to graduate from college, go to work, and wait to get married—in other words, to not follow in their own footsteps.

The nuclear family order also depended on the ability of husbands and wives to sustain the arrangement economically. Whatever chance there might have been for it to survive the eruption of the sexual revolution, there was little hope for the model to withstand the whipsaw of the American economy and the rude return of insecurity brought on by the post-1973 economic troubles.

In the late 1940s, only one-third of all American women, single as well as married, worked outside the home, and women constituted only 29 percent of the nation’s labor force. By the early 1960s, women had steadily increased their numbers in the workforce. College-educated daughters chose to delay marriage and pursue careers, while their mothers, who were availing themselves of the new birth control technologies, went back to work after their children left home.

What started as a choice, for more spending money or for broader horizons, became for many women a necessity by the late 1970s. When income growth stagnated after the oil shock of 1973, women flooded into the paid labor force in an effort to maintain the family income. As far as the nuclear family was concerned, the change that reverberated most powerfully was the move of married women with children still at home into the workforce. In the mid-1970s, fewer than half of all women with children and teenagers at home worked. By 2000, 79 percent of American mothers with school-age children were working outside the home. A typical middle-class mother was putting in about thirteen weeks more of full-time work in the first decade of the 21st century than her counterpart had in 1979. Among two-parent families, a stay-at-home mother was on the scene in only one of every four homes.

The changes in the American economy after 1973 combined with other monumental social changes—the Pill, the sexual revolution, feminism, increased levels of education among women and men—to revolutionize the American family. American men and women began to marry later, have fewer children, and divorce more frequently. In the year the Pill went on the market, most Americans lived in nuclear families, the average married couple had four children, and mothers stayed home. By 2000, the average family had two children, one out of two marriages ended in divorce, and almost a third of American children were being raised by a single parent or an unmarried couple.

The 1950s neotraditional domestic ideal had been a fragile creation, a hothouse flower of Cold War culture, coaxed into bloom by long-deferred dreams of stability, hiring practices that discriminated against women, and the pseudo-science of pop psychology. Its prospects for longevity were always slim. Viewed dispassionately, the 1950s ideal of the nuclear family set itself against almost every demographic trend of the modern world, and Americans were, if anything, modern. From 1900 to World War II, women had been increasing their labor force participation, marrying at a later age, attending college in greater numbers, having premarital sex more commonly, bearing fewer children, and divorcing at higher rates. These trends, briefly, were reversed from the end of World War II until 1961; after the mid-1970s, they reasserted themselves with a vengeance.