From “Women’s Work and Economic Crisis Revisited: Comparing the Great Recession and the Great Depression,” a new essay in Ruth Milkman’s 2016 collection On Gender, Labor, and Inequality.
Overall, the gender anxiety that surfaced during the Great Recession was far milder and had far more limited effects on women’s daily lives than the backlash against women that had gripped the nation in the 1930s. By 2008 the formerly hegemonic family-wage ideology had long since faded into obsolescence, and the legitimacy of paid employment for women, regardless of marital status, was firmly established as well. Moreover, the ideals (if not the realities) of equal opportunity and equal treatment for women in the workplace were deeply entrenched, not only legally but also culturally. To be sure, there was less progress on the home front, as wives and mothers were still burdened with the vast majority of unpaid housework and caregiving, and in other arenas double standards on the basis of gender proved difficult to dislodge. But on the whole, the long historical arc of incremental progress toward eroding gender inequality continued its trajectory in the twenty-first century, barely interrupted by the Great Recession.
Against this background, the widely circulated concerns about “the rise of women” I described at the beginning of this chapter ultimately failed to gain much traction. Instead, and in sharp contrast, Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In, which celebrated the achievements of elite women and encouraged ambition among the entire female population, became a runaway best seller. Women continued their economic advances in the workplace and continued as well to surpass men in educational attainment. Even job segregation by sex had been reduced in extent relative to the mid-twentieth century, and as a result the gender gap in earnings also narrowed. These trends were further reinforced by the “Man-cession,” since men bore the brunt of rising unemployment.
Thus one point of contrast between the two economic crises involves the backlash against women’s employment, which was far less effective after the 2008 crash than it had been seven decades earlier. An even more striking difference between the two periods lies in their contrasting approaches to the problem of growing economic inequality. The Great Depression generated a political response, in the shape of the New Deal, as well as a historic upsurge of labor union organizing. Their combined impact led to what economic historians Claudia Goldin and Robert A. Margo famously called the “Great Compression”—a major reduction in income inequality that began in the 1930s and would endure for another four decades. In sharp contrast, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, which followed a three-decade period of widening disparities in income and wealth, no such political response took hold. The strong popular critiques of growing inequality and of the power of “the one percent” articulated during and after the Occupy Wall Street uprisings notwithstanding, inequality has continued to grow in the years since the 2008 crash, reaching levels comparable to that of the Gilded Age a century earlier.