Patricia Auspos

Published On


Page Range

pp. 405–422


  • English

Print Length

18 pages


  • Patricia Auspos (author)
The Webbs and the Mitchells, the two couples who were most successful in establishing a more equitable balance of marriage and career, were committed to rewriting the rules of professional life as well as married life. They founded new types of research organizations and educational institutions, applied research in new ways, and adopted collaborative leadership and cooperative ideals in the organizations they headed. These two-pronged efforts reinforced the values the Webbs and the Mitchells espoused in their work and their domestic lives in ways that strengthened both.
Elsie Clews Parsons’s efforts to shape her marriage and affairs in accordance with her feminist beliefs were less successful. She had few opportunities to apply these values in the workplace, although she did try to move her colleagues in that direction. The wives in the more traditional couples -- the Palmers and the Youngs – failed to reconcile the tensions between their work roles and their domestic lives. Unable to break free from conventional gender stereotypes, Alice and Grace deferred to their husbands at home, bowing to their authority rather than asserting their own, and found multiple ways to limit the effects of their revolutionary careers on their roles as wives.
What was needed to bring about major and lasting change in the marriages of this early vanguard of dual career couples was a conscious commitment to more equality in the home and the workplace, and a simultaneous assault on both fronts. A similar approach would prove critical in enabling large numbers of middle-class wives to carve out professional careers in the 21st century.
It took decades of struggle before that was accomplished. From the 1920s through the 1960s, middle-class working wives and mothers wrestled with the same obstacles and challenges as these early women professionals did. In both the workplace and the home, they were bucking cultural norms that continued to define middle-class womanhood in terms of motherhood, wifehood, and homemaking, and expected women to be supportive and deferential to men. Middle-class wives who combined marriage and a professional career in these decades fell back on the same strategies that the women in this early generation utilized.
A widespread assault on the patriarchal underpinnings of middle-class marriages and workplaces did not take hold until late in the 1960s. Fueled in part by Second Wave feminism, women won legislative protections and legal redress against problems that had long been treated as personal and individual, but were newly seen as structural and systemic issues. Intent on having careers, women began flooding into graduate and professional schools, married later, had smaller families, and stayed in the workforce after they had children. These changes have been as revolutionary for men as for women.
Women who combine marriage and career are no longer flouting middle-class conventions; they are part of a trend that is reconfiguring middle-class culture and slowly reshaping workplace practices and domestic life. Middle-class women increasingly expect their male spouses and partners to share equally in housekeeping and childrearing, and men are doing more of these tasks than they formerly did. But women still do the bulk of the domestic work, and report that their male partners do less than the men think they do. Progress has been made, but more is needed.
The five remarkable women depicted in this book – and the equally remarkable men they married – helped to pave the way for these changes. Alice, Grace, Elsie, Beatrice, and Lucy would be delighted to know that middle-class women have so fully entered public life and are no longer expected to choose between marriage and a career. They would be thrilled to see that men are taking more responsibility for rearing children and managing the home, although they might lament the loss of live-in servants. And they would undoubtedly applaud shifting notions of gender – especially standards of masculinity – that are helping to turn modern-day husbands into supportive partners and companionate spouses for accomplished women who find self-fulfillment in working outside the home.


Patricia Auspos


A graduate of Barnard College, Patricia Auspos earned a Ph.D. in Modern British History from Columbia University and taught at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She researched and wrote about social policy issues and programs as a staff member at MDRC and the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, and as an independent consultant. Breaking Conventions is her first book. She lives in Jackson Heights, New York City.