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  • From Marriage to the Market: The Transformation of Women's Lives and Work
  • Simone M. Caron
From Marriage to the Market: The Transformation of Women's Lives and Work. By Susan Thistle . Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Pp. 311. $55.00 (cloth); $21.95 (paper).

Thistle is to be commended for undertaking such a large-scale interdisciplinary study of the changes white and African American women experienced with regard to unpaid domestic and paid labor in the twentieth century. Her work is a synthesis of a great deal of secondary sources combined with a primary analysis of the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series. The [End Page 656] extensive bibliography, figures, and tables alone make the book well suited for classes in gender and labor history, women's studies, and sociology.

Thistle analyzes gender and labor expectations from the nineteenth century to the present. In the nineteenth century husbands were expected to support wives in exchange for the latter's domestic work. Protective legislation in the early twentieth century "sustained" women's domestic chores, and "most black women as well as white women gave priority" to such tasks (15). The introduction of labor-saving devices and changes in food preparation in the 1920s saved women between nine to twelve hours a week in household chores. The years after World War II were truly transformative as push-and-pull factors led to a dramatic increase in female paid employment, especially among married women. New educational opportunities and the creation of twenty million new jobs in the postwar period pulled women into paid labor.

During this same period, support for women's domestic work weakened as legislation and cultural patterns that had buttressed marriage and parenthood disintegrated, pushing women into the workforce. Some women questioned the restrictive nature of domestic life, while some men rebelled at the burden of life-long financial support of a wife. The divorce rate doubled between 1964 and 1975 with the implementation of no-fault divorce, which led judges to encourage women to depend on their own paid labor rather than alimony, which had allowed them to stay at home performing domestic chores. Taboos against cohabitation declined, while birth control and abortion gained legal standing. The declining stigma attached to single motherhood resulted in the near demise of the shotgun wedding. The dismantling of Aid to Families with Dependent Children and the family wage and the failure of the state to enforce child support from "deadbeat dads" gave the final blows to domestic support systems for mothers.

With the increased role of women in the workforce, the majority of females depended on their own wages rather than their husbands as the main source of financial support. Two factors explain this development. First, men without higher education fared poorly in the economic realities of the 1970s and 1980s, leading many of them to accept their wives' employment. Second, decreasing marriage and increasing divorce left many women on their own financially. Women's large-scale entrance into paid labor, however, did not bring equality for many women who worked in low-paying service jobs such as day care, elderly care, home health care, fast food restaurants, waitresses, cashiers, maids, and hospital workers. These low-paying occupations could keep a woman alone above the poverty line but could not support a single mother forced off welfare and into the labor market.

The commercialization of these former domestic tasks spurred economic growth over the last decades of the twentieth century. Females provided the large pool of cheap workers that allowed these businesses to profit greatly, but women did not reap the rewards of their labor. As Thistle concludes, the [End Page 657] "new economy of the twenty-first century . . . has taken too much of women's time while paying too little for it" (140). In the end, Thistle argues that "the turn from marriage to the market has been more abrupt, the loss of support from men and the state more complete, and the consequences of that loss much harsher for less-educated, and for black women overall" (173).

One consequence of increased paid labor that many women faced was the exhaustion they shared. Working mothers grew frustrated at...


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