The Equality Trap

The Equality Trap

Mary Ann Mason reprint 2001
This title is available at

Introduction: The Birth of an Idea

I am stopped dead on the San Francisco Bay Bridge. I shut off the engine; I have not moved for twenty minutes. The minutes and then the hours tick by. My heart beats faster and louder as I stare at the dashboard clock. I was due to pick up my four-year-old son at five o’clock. The hands are crawling past six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock. Finally the cars break free and I race to the baby-sitter’s house. She primly informs me that she had no idea where I was and she has called the police to take my son. Choking with anxiety, I drive to the police station. The cruel-mouthed sergeant tells me that my son has been sent to his father. The police have determined that I am clearly not a fit mother and will no longer be allowed to take care of him.

This is my recurring nightmare. It is founded in a real incident which occurred ten years ago when I was living through a painful divorce and trying to learn the difficult role of single-parent working mother. The real life incident did not end disastrously; the baby-sitter was merely annoyed. But clearly the sharp anxiety and profound feelings of inadequacy which were evoked by that very troubled period have not yet been put to rest.

The recurrence of this nightmare always reminds me that no matter how calmly and logically we present our ideas, they do not descend upon us as pure thoughts. I have wrestled with the concept of equality between men and women for more than twenty years. My understanding of equality and its consequences has been shaped as much by my evolving role as student, wife, mother, single parent, working mother as it has by my professional activities as a labor historian and lawyer. But it was the wrenching experience of divorce that has most profoundly affected the way in which I have come to see the problem of equality.

When I arrived in California in the late sixties with an almost completed Ph.D. in American history, the idea of complete equality between the sexes seemed perfectly reasonable if not self-evident. At that point it suited my life experience as well. I had graduated from an Eastern women’s college where I was taught that a competent self-confident woman could do anything a man could, and I had entered a marriage based on an explicit agreement to divide household chores evenly.

As soon as I landed my first teaching job, at a small women’s college in Oakland, I eagerly introduced courses in women’s history and black history and tried out the social theories I had learned in graduate school. I was particularly enamored with the analogy between slaves and wives in the nineteenth century. Both had acquired a dependent, even childlike personality (the Sambo figure and the doll-wife) because they were treated as dependent children by their protective husbands/masters. Advancing this observation to the social turbulence of the sixties, I felt it was obvious that if blacks and women were treated exactly the same as the white men who still held the reins of power, they would grab those reins of power. Race and sex were simply part of a mind-set that allowed white men to dominate.

My young white women students were impressed by this theory, my black students were not. Members of the then notorious Black Panther Party, whose headquarters were just down the hill, occasionally came to talk to my classes, and they did not want to be compared with women. They believed the analogy was implicitly racist.

I completed my Ph.D., with a specialty in labor history, bore my first child, and found myself jobless. This, at least, was not a product of discrimination, since there were no jobs for fresh Ph.D’s in history, men or women, in 1972. But of course, as a new mother and the wife of an employed academic, I could not leave the San Francisco Bay Area to follow a job.

Like many unemployed Ph.D.s of that era, I chose to return to law school. I made the difficult but not impossible child-care arrangements without complaint, and rarely mentioned my toddler in the company of my fellow law students. The flexibility of student life allowed me to spend a good deal of time at home, and I saw little problem in handling motherhood and career. It seemed clearly possible to do it all. I took for granted the support of my husband, who both paid the rent and took care of our little boy during exams.

The jarring and irreparable blow to my ideal of equality between the sexes occurred when my marriage of twelve years ended, shortly after I had completed law school. The marriage ended for all the modern reasons: finding oneself, outgrowing each other, etc.

This was California in the mid-seventies, and I experienced, with firsthand pain, the effect of the new no-fault laws I had studied in law school: no contest, no alimony, minimal child support, and assets cut down the middle, which for most women meant sale of the family home and a move downhill to a small apartment. I learned quickly that working full time as a lawyer with the responsibilities of a single parent was a vast universe away from being a student mother with a husband. Getting through each day, simple survival, was all I could manage.

Both by chance and by choice I became a family-law practitioner; that is, I got women through their divorces. Everyone had her story, and most were far worse than mine. Many of my clients had been working full time before the divorce to build a livable family wage between two people. Their income alone could not support their own lives, let alone the children for whom they inevitably became totally responsible. Some of these formerly solid middle-class wives found themselves asking for food stamps and Medi-Cal, the health insurance for the poor.

These painful life experiences forced me to reexamine all my beliefs regarding men and women. What was it that I and all my clients had lost? We had lost the support of our husbands, and we had lost the protection of laws that were supposed to come to the aid of women and children in times of crisis, That hateful word, “protection,” which I had been confident created only de­pendence and timidity, I now saw in a different light.

It occurred to me that I as much as anyone, and more than most, was responsible for creating a climate of opinion which proudly declared that women could take care of themselves as well as men could, and that the union of a man and a woman was an egalitarian arrangement a which could be ended at the whim of either. This simply did not work when women had children. A family with children is not an egalitarian arrangement but rather a mutual-support society where all the members, children and father as well as mother, depended upon one another for emotional support and physical protection from the outside world. The degree of each member’s contribution varies with age and over time, but nobody keeps score.

I looked anew at what was happening to women in the work world. While I turned my back to pursue law, the entire American labor scene had been transformed. Married women with children were flooding into the labor force because their husbands were no longer earning a “family wage.” The postwar shift away from a manufacturing economy and toward a service economy severely reduced the number of high-paying jobs for steelworkers while producing a vast number of low-paying jobs for file clerks. Not only could women get these jobs, employers preferred them over men, since they came cheap. Even women like me who had entered the male-dominated professions came relatively cheap. Because of our children we could not compete for the high-paying, high-pressure, time-intensive jobs.

Almost overnight, women have become the new immigrants. They are taking over the low rungs of the labor market, usurping the role played by generations of new immigrants who began their climb with these jobs. In a manufacturing economy, new immigrants dug for iron ore and coal; in this service, information economy women process paper. Today’s immigrants cannot even compete with women for these jobs, since they do not have the required language skills.

It struck me that the idea of equality for women has worked well for the economy but not for women. In order to survive as an economic giant, America has had to lure women into the workplace at low wages. The egalitarian ideal glorifies work, even its meanest forms, for all women, including mothers, and it asks for no favors. It is clearly to the advantage of employers and the government to treat women as it treats men. The kinds of special consideration today’s working mothers desperately need — maternity leaves, children’s sick leave, flexible hours, part-time work with medical benefits, and child care — cost money. It costs little or nothing to hire a woman rather than a man as long as the woman does the same job as a man and asks for no special consideration.

I now understand the adamant opposition of most feminists of the 1920s and 1930s, like Jane Addams and Florence Howe, to the Equal Rights Amendment. They grasped the fundamental truth that modern women have lost, that women need special consideration in their role as mothers. Equality is a two-edged sword that can cut women down as well as help them up. Equality works as a strategy only in the limited situations where women are actually in the same situation as men. It can therefore be a useful strategy for young women students, or for women who will not have children and wish to compete with men. Women with children will always get the sharp edge of the sword.

I wrote this book so that I could better understand, and hopefully help others better understand, the forces that shape American women’s lives today; for surely there has never been a more confusing or troubled time for women in America. I have found that it is far easier to look into the past and analyze the mistakes of those who are long dead, as an historian, than to provide concrete strategies for new directions for the living.

Intellectually, my struggle with the idea of equality between the sexes will surely go on, but personally I have made a separate peace. Unlike most of my divorce clients who are still single parents, I have had the good fortune to remarry, to have a second child and to enjoy the support and protection, as well as the responsibility, of a complete family. I have continued the difficult balancing act of full-time work and children, spending a good part of the last ten years working with reentry women in a paralegal program which I founded and continue to direct. I listen to and learn from these women, who represent all ages and backgrounds. Their stories have helped me articulate the ideas which are the foundation of this book. I have changed their names to protect their identities, but their voices come through clearly.