The superwomen have arrived! And they mean business. Striding into court, the boardroom and the corner office, immaculately turned out in power suits, accessorized with a status watch, designer bag and keys to the beamer, the women of the 1980s exuded confidence and success. They surpassed their mothers’ wildest dreams. There were no limits to what they could accomplish. Working round-the-clock ensured their flawless performance — mistakes were not an option! But it left little time for themselves — or anyone else. How were they going to fit everything in — a career, a relationship, marriage and children? Could they have it all? If so, how would they stay awake?
Being a Superwoman Is Exhausting!
The barriers keeping women out of managerial and professional jobs ceased to exist. Millions of women now filled high-paying positions in banking, law, medicine, science, and politics. Even the Supreme Court counted a woman among them. Thanks to those black robes, Sandra Day O’Connor never fretted about what to wear! Gender equality meant gender-neutral language — mankind became humankind, countryman became country dweller. The trend in education guaranteed a continuous flow of women executives and professionals for decades. By 1986, women earned more than 50% of college and masters degrees, and 30% of professional degrees! Success was sweet and power exhilarating. But women were beginning to pay a price -– exhaustion and disappointment. High-powered careers with 60-hour workweeks posed challenges. Women grappled with the question -– “How do I juggle everything?” And wondered whether the promise of the women’s movement – you can have it all -– was true.
I’m Not a Feminist, but . . .
The young women of the 1980s felt equal to men. They were living the hard-fought successes of the women’s movement, but shunned the feminist label. In their eyes, the movement had served its purpose. Betty Friedan (considered the catalyst for feminism with her book The Feminine Mystique) lamented the loss of young women and the floundering of the movement. In her book, The Second Stage, Friedan urged the next generation to not reject feminism, but regroup and develop new goals in light of women’s new reality. Women could have it all — careers and personal lives – but they needed support with child care and flex time. Otherwise, she argued, burn-out was inevitable. In 1982, a Time Magazine cover declared “The New Baby Bloom” was here –- career women were opting for pregnancy. Why did it have to be either or? By the late 1980s, the media declared that some women were wistful for the simpler times before Women’s Lib. The next generation would strive to integrate all the roles a woman wanted, and was entitled, to fulfill -– mother, wife and career-woman!
Could Shopping Be an Addiction?
President Ronald Reagan, and his wife, ushered in a new era in 1980. They –- being from Hollywood and all -– brought back glamour and opulence to the White House. Reagan promised to restore the American Dream of upward mobility, re-affirming the values of individualism, success, wealth and even luxury. Marketers honed in on the baby boomers, who were entering their prime earning years and flush with disposable income. After an initial economic downturn in 1981-1982 (the deepest since the Depression), the economy boomed for five extraordinary years. Americans went shopping! A desire to flaunt newly-acquired wealth (for some, mostly on paper) made them fall in love with status items. Shopping became a past time, and a way to soothe anxiety. By the late 1980s, popular magazines were addressing what had become a social problem -– compulsive shopping –- evidenced by closets full of unworn clothes that still had the sales tags! “Shopaholics” entered the lexicon.
What Broad Shoulders You Have!
Clothing made the woman. A well-cut suit in black, gray or navy, with strong shoulders, and a modestly above-the-knee skirt spelled “authority.” Not only did the “power suit” –- accompanied by designer accessories – shout success, they boosted a woman’s confidence as she moved through a man’s world. A suit was armor -– shielding a woman’s vulnerabilities and cloaking her sexuality. Reminiscent of the 1940s -– the last decade women were proving themselves in the male workplace –- shoulder pads defined the look. They were everywhere! Suit jackets, blouses, t-shirts, even robes and pajamas. It’s as if women couldn’t let their guard down anywhere! Synthetic fabrics were now considered déclassé and natural fabrics — wool, cotton, silk were preferred. Spikey heels with pointed toes injected a dose of sex appeal to the androgynous business suit. Casual wear continued to revolve around blue jeans – acid-washed, tight jeans were the trendiest. What was once taboo and considered a sign of ineptness -– letting your slip or bra strap show- became mainstream as young women embraced Madonna’s lingerie look, happy to flaunt their assets — unlike their older corporate sisters.
Living in Sin?
Premarital sex was a foregone conclusion. By 1980, 80% of men and 65% of women had engaged in premarital sex. Almost 75% of teens had intercourse before they were 20. Virginity had become a quaint term from a by-gone era! Madonna’s famous song was not about a virgin, but about being “like” a virgin. For parents and grandparents, mores had changed rapidly — and radically. They had little choice but to accept this new lifestyle. Marriage was still a significant milestone, but the rituals leading to it changed. Almost half of all couples marrying in the 1980s lived together first — previously known as living in sin. And they were in no rush to marry. By 1988, the age of first marriage was approximately 26 for men and 24 for women. Living together meant they could test their compatibility –- with simpler clean-up if their match wasn’t made in heaven! A small minority (4% of all couples) declared their love by cohabitating –- and never took marriage vows. The 1970s divorce revolution obviously created some marriage-skeptics!
The Nuclear Family – 1980s Style
Family life no longer required marriage. In the early 1980s, almost 25% of births occurred to unmarried couples. Children born out of wedlock were generally accepted. Neither mother nor child suffered the stigma they would have a generation ago. Two-thirds of young people believed it was okay to have kids without marriage. The nuclear family was evolving. By 1988, the Leave It To Beaver household with both natural parents (who’d only been married once) was the experience of just a little more than half of all kids. Family life was transitory with many parents moving in and out of relationships -– nearly a majority of kids spent at least a part of their childhood living in a single-parent family. New evidence suggested that children from broken homes do not fare as well as those from intact families. Reagan passionately argued for a return to traditional values, declaring that the American family was a victim of “moral decay.” Society –- and its people — had changed for better or worse!
Change Is Coming!
The dominance of the big three networks was challenged by new competitors, FOX and cable. By 1989, 60% of homes with TVs had cable service. Its offerings were limited to CNN, MTV, ESPN and Nickelodeon, but the seeds were planted for what would eventually become a “500 + channel” revolution! Day-time talk shows with Oprah, Geraldo and Phil Donahue rivaled the tawdry storylines of soap operas. News organizations shifted their goals from serving the public good to generating profits. Comedy was king with hits like -– The Cosby Show and The Golden Girls. Dallas and Dynasty fed the public’s insatiable desire to vicariously live like the rich. Personal computers were a part of middle-class life at home, and in the office. VCR sales sky-rocketed, and gave viewers freedom to watch what they wanted, whenever they wanted. Movie-goers fled to the theaters to watch comedies, chick flicks, traditional fare and blockbusters with special effects. A new music emerged –- rap –- which shocked many adults with its sordid lyrics. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was the best-selling album of all time. The digital compact disc and its CDs radically altered the music business. If they only knew what the internet and iTunes had in store for them!
It’s Morning in America-– Sort Of
The Reagan presidency defined the decade and inspired an era of self-interest. Reagan successfully achieved his goal of dismantling the “Great Society” which, he argued, fostered a “culture of dependency.” He slashed funding for the poor in favor of tax cuts, reduced the size of government and supported business with easier regulations. But a decade of economic boom and many busts challenges his legacy. Americans experienced the worst economic downturn since the Depression in his first two years in office. Budget deficits and interest rates soared. Unemployment hit 10%. The economy recovered — primarily due to a radical drop in oil prices -– and Americans were once more optimistic. When Reagan ran for re-election, his campaign slogan, “It’s morning in American again,” resonated with the electorate. He won by a landslide! However, by 1987, the stock market crashed -– the largest single loss in history. It was followed by yet another recession and a host of financial scandals. The public began to lose confidence in Reagan’s leadership. As a social conservative he supported the Adolescent Family Life Act of 1981, which limited sex education for teens with a program encouraging “chastity and self-discipline.” Let us know how that worked out! He was the first president to oppose abortion -– perhaps giving radical anti-abortionists justification to target clinics and doctors with bombs and death threats. He failed to address the AIDS epidemic until Rock Hudson’s death in 1985, and then refused to support safe sex and condom use. Instead, he encouraged abstinence and a ban on HIV positive immigrants. Love him or hate him –- Reagan was an icon of the 1980s!
The Quest for Balance
The women of the 1980s were extraordinary. With their skill, power and success they proved to themselves — and the world — that they were equal to men. Now their challenge was to fully realize themselves – to embrace their desire for a career, as well as loving relationships and children. They knew it was possible to have it all. They just had to find the right formula!