Working Women in America: Split Dreams (2nd Edition).

Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Gregg Lee Carter

New York: Oxford University Press. 2005

300 pages


Working Women in America: Split Dreams (2nd edition) was selected by the academic librarians' magazine Academia as one of the l,000 core books (Winter, 2005) that all libraries should have in their holdings. According to the Library Journal Academic Newswire's May 19, 2005 Publishing Report, it was in the top ten best selling books in business and economics for the collections of academic and public libraries during the winter of 2004/2005.

 

Review of the 1st Edition

Working Women in America: Split Dreams.

Sharlene Hesse-Biber and Gregg Lee Carter

New York: Oxford University Press. 2000

235 pages

 

Working Women offers readers a comprehensive yet manageable exploration of the world of women and work. Of note is the authors' inclusion throughout the text of women of color and women in developing countries. Broad and diverse levels of analysis are employed; the differential effects of legal, economic, religious, and family structures on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, age, and location are examined. Hesse-Biber and Carter explain globalization and the relationship of women working in Western capitalist countries and women working in developing countries as well. These efforts create a more useful and comprehensive picture of women and work. Overall, the book is highly readable and quite suitable for undergraduates. The use of photos and narratives as well as the authors' straightforward writing style will certainly keep students engaged in the text.

 

The authors' discussion unfolds within the context of sociological theory. The first chapter presents functionalism as the foil to the authors' structuralist perspective. At first it seemed that the functionalist "straw man" would be old hat. After all, functionalism has been well critiqued for quite some time. However, the authors show that functionalism is alive and well in modern manifestations of attitudes toward gender and work in the United States. Their interesting argument for the relevance of opposing functionalism becomes a deconstruction of common attitudes toward women and work. For example, the authors successfully break down standard definitions of work. Arguing that many conceptions of work stem from the functionalist stance that women and men are "supposed" to serve different labor functions, the authors counter this functionalism in several ways. They show that definitions of women's work roles have actually been male-oriented, with the invisibility and invalidation of women's labor as consequences. The contribution of women's unpaid labor is reconsidered and women's long-standing participation as workers is illuminated. Structuralism explains how the organizations and practices of institutions serve to "confine the majority of women to jobs characterized by low wages, little mobility, and limited prestige" (p. 14). The emphasis on social structure as problematic is in direct opposition to theories that attribute individuals' positions in society to free choice or to the fulfillment of "natural" roles or functions. These theoretical explanations are succinct and accessible so that even students new to sociology can understand them.

 

Subsequent chapters deal with more specific topics such as a history of working women, women in specific job sectors, and working women and family. Chapter two, "A Brief History of Working Women," is a particularly engaging account of women's longstanding contributions to both the market and the domestic sphere. Hesse-Biber and Carter deconstruct the binarism of male as paid worker and female as unpaid domestic worker well. In fact, women throughout history have combined both marketable labor and unpaid domestic labor; although women's paid labor has often been rendered invisible. This historical analysis is complete, with numerous photographs and vignettes. The authors include many comparisons of the historical experiences of white, African American, Latina, Native American, and Asian American women.

 

The book continues with segments on occupational sex segregation, the glass ceiling, the wage gap, and the effect of the women's movement and legislation aimed at equality. Chapter four introduces students to basic concepts of socialization and gender roles. The authors manage to do this with great ease and clarity so that students with no prior knowledge of sociology can readily understand the concepts. The consequences of gender role socialization and work roles are discussed. Other issues such as the clustering of women in low-paying jobs, sexual harassment, professional women, and the effect of globalization on women in developing countries comprise chapters five and six. Chapter seven tackles the issues that women encounter while managing both work and family life. The structural analysis continues by demonstrating how women's unequal position in the family is related to their unequal position in the economy. For example, the fact that (paid) working women are also expected to remain primarily responsible for the household and children is related to cultural expectations that women should sacrifice their careers for the family's sake. Women's unfair burden in the household discourages them from pursuing high-level demanding jobs in the workplace. While men's career trajectories are relatively straightforward, women's are fraught with contradictions, uncertainty, stress, and additional burdens. The final chapter of the book focuses on the state of women and work today. The authors conclude that traditional attitudes persist and that gains in equality are fragile, prone to backlash and "retrogressing," and that a strong continuing women's movement is crucial. In essence, the goal is not to split family and work life but rather to reconcile them in a fulfilling way.

 

Working Women is well written and would be an excellent primary text in an undergraduate course on women and work. The book is captivating, cutting-edge and strikes a delicate balance between being comprehensive and lengthy. I imagine that the chapters would serve as great springboards to discussion and debate in an undergraduate class. The many narrative excerpts, illustrations, and charts help to make the material infinitely accessible and relevant. The book lends itself particularly well to hands-on learning opportunities. Many undergraduate students today work. Thus, as a supplement to the chapters, they could integrate on-the-job observations and experiences into their coursework. Instructors could require students to keep a journal of job-related insights that are relevant to the issues in the book. Interviews with working women could also be enlightening. An easy way of accomplishing this would be to have the students interview a longtime working woman in their lives, such as their mothers, aunts, or grandmothers, or even a professor. They could learn about the dynamics between family responsibilities and outside work, about changes in women's work situation over time or about the unpaid labor of women. All of these topics would directly complement the book chapters and would follow in the book's style of bringing first-person experiences into the analysis.

 

Although the text is great for undergraduates, I would not recommend it for use in graduate-level courses. The approach to sociology is certainly beginner-level, as theories and basic concepts are explained as if the reader has no sociological knowledge. The fact that non-sociology majors can understand the text is an asset; the high degree of accessibility of the book makes it versatile and appropriate for virtually all undergraduate students. The authors' ability to integrate consistently issues of race, ethnicity and location into their discussion and to weave their structuralist emphasis throughout gives the text cohesiveness. This consistency and theoretical grounding should also make teaching rather easy, as the text's many issues can be tied together under a structuralist perspective that integrates race, gender, and so forth. In addition, the organization of the book provides a perfect syllabus. The topics proceed in order as follows: introductory material, theoretical bases, historical background, specific topics and issues (covering several chapters), and issues in the future.

 

The only concern that I have in using this book in the classroom is the flip side of one of its assets: the fact that it is not overly lengthy. By itself, the book may not provide enough reading material for an entire semester. So, although the book succeeds at being quite comprehensive without adding fluff, instructors may need to supplement the book with other readings in order to have enough material. In-depth case studies or examples of some of the many issues raised in the book would be good choices for supplemental articles. For example, ethnographic work or interviews on macquilas would be an excellent addition. A study of women working in defense factories during World War II would be another great supplement. Or, perhaps a reading on the monetary value of women's unpaid domestic labor could be used. The prospects are endless, since there are so many hot topics covered in the text. Overall, I think that Working Women is an excellent choice for a primary text. It is refreshing, illuminating, at times touching, and certainly engaging.

 

Teaching Sociology (October, 2000)
 

 

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