The Women of Ellensburg: Issues of Women in Washington State
Fundamental Changes in the American Family
Among the most significant changes in American life in the last two decades has been the change in families. The 1950's was the most family-oriented period in a hundred years with a 96% marriage rate, the youngest marriages on record, and a baby boom that did not end until the 1960's. By contrast, the family of the 1970's is much changed. The current birthrate is the lowest in U.S. history and one-half the 1950 rate. Marriage rates are the lowest since the Depression. Many people are delaying marriage, and divorce has come to be more accepted as a way out of a relationship that isn't working. The number of couples colhabitating without marriage has doubled since 1960, creating a new category of family. And, during this same period, there has also been a vast increase in the number of single-parent families.
These changes have impacted the lives of women and children in fundamental ways and require that shifting family patterns be recognized and examined.
Rights of Homemakers
In the past, a woman often described herself as "just a housewife." Her hard work to keep the family functioning was unpaid and, as a result, undervalued. Today, both conservative women and feminists are demanding that the genuine value of the job of homemaker be recognized. Feminists are, in addition, proposing that part-time jobs or shared jobs be available if homemakers choose outside employment and that homemakers receive points toward civil service jobs similar to the point system veterans receive. Conservative women especially believe that the right of a women to choose to remain at home should be respected and recognized as an intelligent and creative one.
Due to the fact that 95% of single parents are single mothers, single parenthood is largely a wornan's issue. Almost 25% of U.S. families are headed by single mothers. Of all the poor families in the country, more than 44% are headed by women. This situation has resulted in many problems for both these women and their children. Some of the problems are overt: Women need jobs with adequate income to support their families or the assurance that child care support payments will be made; without one or the other, they are often forced onto welfare. Children need child care while their mothers are working, or they become "latch key" children who, every day after school, go home to a silent house or are left to entertain themselves. Single mothers are the highest risk group in this society for serious depression as a result of overwhelming life stress factors.
According to feminists, single mothers and their children need neighborhood family resource centers to provide services like child care, counseling, support groups, referral services, and education programs. It is proposed that child care be available 24 hours a day for children up to age 18 with payment on a sliding scale. Child support legislation should be vigorously enforced and medical and dental care made available to all children without penalty to their parents. It is proposed that sick leave be expanded to include family illness, that tax exemptions be granted to single parents, and that discount privileges be granted to single parents similar to those granted to senior citizens. Developing an extensive aid-to-education program using a model comparable to the G.I. bill is also proposed.
One of the most unfortunate by-products of the rapidly rising divorce rate has been the special hardship it has imposed on women over 35. These divorced women, together with others whose husbands have died, make up a group - almost a class of women - called "displaced homemakers." Their numbers are estimated at between three and six million women.
These women are uniquely unprepared for single life in the 1970's. Most accepted the women-should-stay-home edicts of the late 40's and 50's. Because their contributions as homemakers were not recognized as having economic value, they are ineligible for unemployment benefits, worker's compensation, or pensions. Many are too young to qualify for Social Security, and their children are frequently too old for them to qualify for welfare. The displaced homemaker has almost always been out of work for a number of years and lacks marketable skills and recent job experience. She must often contend with age, as well as sex, discrimination. In Washington State, community property statutes do not provide for awarding alimony per se.
Legislation has been introduced at both state and federal levels to establish displaced homemakers centers that will offer training, counseling, and other support services for these women. In addition, it is proposed that Social Security System regulations be changed to make these benefits community property so that both spouses would have eqaul claim to benefits accrued during marriage. Employers and labor unions should be made aware of the reliability and stability of displaced homemakers to aid in their being considered for employment. School age women should be encouraged to plan for an entire lifespan so that the 25 years women are statistically shown to be employed will be spent productively.