Studying women, which is what I’ve done for the past 30 years as an editor, is a little like studying Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog that emerges from hibernation every February 2. If he sees his shadow and re-turns underground, tradition holds, he has predicted six more weeks of winter. If he stays in the fresh air, spring is on the way. Phil doesn’t make a speech or issue a white paper. If you want to know if good weather is coming, you have to pay attention to a small thing: whether he goes back into his hole.
Small things matter. A change in what women wear or how they spend their spare time can seem minor but end up being a cultural bellwether. Take the moment in the late ’60s when women were finally permitted to wear pants in polite society. I don’t know exactly who blew the doors open on that one (possibly Yves Saint Laurent, who sent le smoking—the first tuxedo pantsuit—down the runway in 1966), but the impact went way beyond fashion. Before that date, I have vivid memories of freezing my miniskirted buns off in snowstorms on my way to a grade school where pants violated the female dress code. Today, can we even imagine forcing our daughters to be cold and skirted in order to get an education? Beyond that, pants enabled women to look masculine (and therefore serious) in the workplace, helping to level the playing field with men.
Or how about the surprise benefits of Title IX? The legislation, passed in 1972, was meant to provide, among other things, equal access for women to sports programs at federally funded schools. On the surface, it seemed that girls just wanted to play softball, but as history would have it, there was a lot more at stake. Numerous studies now show that high school girls who play sports are less likely to drink, take drugs, smoke or have unplanned pregnancies.
How women behave tells us a lot about where society is going. With the Great Recession, I think we may be at another Phil moment—and the change that women may be signaling isn’t necessarily positive. In More’s new, groundbreaking survey of women’s attitudes about work (“10 Great Careers for Women Who Want a Life,” on page 114), a full 43 percent of the respondents told us they are less ambitious than they were 10 years ago. When asked if they would apply for their boss’s job, 73 percent said no. For many of these women, work is still appealing; they just want more flexibility so they can have a job and a life. But if you keep watch for changes—if, like me, you’ve noticed that there are fewer women in Congress or that the number of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies has declined—our story is a must-read.
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