11 November 1998
For immediate release
We often think that the idea of 'having it all' is a new one. But as the high-octane career woman of the eighties melds into the multitasking woman of the nineties, a piece of research by Prof. Pat Thane of Sussex University shows that, despite the enormous changes women have undergone over the century, they have long shared the wish to 'have it all'.
Prof Thane's research, which is "the most ambitious collective history of educated women so far", has involved qualitative and quantitative studies of hundreds of women who have graduated from Girton College every decade this century since 1920. Prof Thane has discovered that, certainly in the post-war period, "most women with university degrees want to have paid work and do voluntary work and raise a family and look after a household." Rather than yearning for a place on the masculine career ladder, many women have rejected the option of devoting themselves to an unwavering career trajectory, and have actively sought out a multivalent role.
Pat Thane is keen to point out that this process is not only a question of being pulled towards a role which isn't dominated by career ambition, but also of being pushed away from a career by society's expectations - "Women haven't just made the choice to prioritise other things over their careers, they have also been horribly constrained. But many of them have not let themselves worry about it because there is just no point. They know perfectly well that there is discrimination, and they just don't want to bang their head against a brick wall for the rest of their lives. They make the choice to make the best of what they've got."
Pat Thane's research shows that this attitude changes somewhat in the generations of women who graduated after the 1960s. Before this period it was more usual for educated middle class women to rely on the full-time wage of a husband and the childcare support of other family members. However, rises in the divorce rate and changes in societal expectations made the desire for a career more prominent, at the same time as removing some of the means of support. From the evidence of this study it seems that 'having it all' is harder now than it was thirty years ago, even if women do have more 'it' - 'it' being financial independence and career success.
Ironically, the 60s generation, who had the most chances and the highest expectations, were the most unhappy and the least fulfilled of the respondents.. Women from the immediate post-war period often felt that they were more fortunate both than the generations before them and the generations after them - although still suffering from discrimination, their expectations were not so high, and many of them perceived this to be positive - "they feel that younger generations are under so much more pressure," Prof Thane says. In contrast, the post-60s women were "much less likely to be blasť about discrimination. They were much more unhappy - more of them were divorced, more of them had failed to achieve career ambitions. They were more likely to have had aspirations which were very difficult for them to fulfil."
The multi-tasking role which women have had forced upon them may be a choice for some and a constraint for others. As Pat Thane points out, "even when women regret the loss of career opportunities, none question the worth of children." The study shows that women's lives and expectations have changed hugely over this century, and as Prof Thane says, "what is notable is that men haven't changed, and the multifunctional role of women is only a problem because men haven't yet accepted that they ought to relax their careers a bit and take on more of a household role. In general, the changes in women's lives have been dramatic, in a very short space of time, and the changes in men's lives have been minimal."
For further information please contact Sally Hall, Information Office, University of Sussex, Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 678335, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or Pat Thane, School of Social Sciences, University of Sussex, Tel. 01273 678884.