The women in the 1990’s were hitting their stride. Women as executives, lawyers, doctors were accepted as the norm. Comfortable with their new roles, women were no longer afraid to show their femininity. They tossed their androgynous business suits and embraced softer looks, even dresses.  Most families had two wage-earners and juggled household and child care responsibilities equally between husband and wife. To single career women their independence and professional lives meant everything. Many wondered how they would fit marriage in – or, if they even wanted to marry.  Yet others were determined not to miss out on motherhood. What was the path to fulfillment? And could they figure it out in enough time?


Women were independent – presumably equal to men – so what did that mean for dating and romance? Who makes the first move? Who pays for the date?  Should you let him open the car door for you? Would sex on the first date brand you a loose woman? And if so, should you care?  Oh, life was so much easier with rules!  Adding to the confusion – both men and women showed little interest in marriage. In one survey, 62% of singles between the ages of 25-29 were not interested in marrying “any time soon.” The more educated and ambitious a woman, the more threatening marriage seemed.  Many believed a husband would squash her individuality and thwart her potential for success. Career and independence were paramount. Friends who married young were seen as tragic heroines – who would never fulfill their promise. The women of the 1990’s were fulfilling their mothers’ deepest desires and heeding their advice – but mom’s needs and outlook were fueled by the 1950’s. Was marriage really a death sentence?


After years of casual relationships – serial monogamy and a few one-night stands –  many women woke up in their 30s “baby crazy” with no eligible husband in sight. Tick-tock, tick-tock went their biological clocks. In the area of fertility, women were not equal to men. Their eggs had a shelf life – men’s sperm was non-perishable. A man could start a family whenever he wanted – at 50 or even 60!  Life was so unfair! Despite women’s focus on careers, a 1995 poll showed that 55% of women wanted marriage, family and a career – hoping to balance all three. A minority, 26%, wanted marriage and children, and didn’t care about a career! (Think Bridget Jones.) When The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right came out in 1995, it quickly became a bestseller – 2 million copies in 27 languages! The Rules urged women to play hard to get in order to attract and marry the man of their dreams. It was controversial, but tapped into many women’s fears. What if the relaxed rules about dating and the casual attitudes towards marriage reduced the chances of a woman having what she really wanted? 


“Mommy wars,” coined by Newsweek in 1990, described the cultural clash between two groups of mothers: those who decided to forego their careers – or take the off-ramp temporarily – to be at home with their kids and those who worked and raised kids with the help of day care centers or full-time nannies. More than 50% of married moms with kids under the age of one were in the work force, yet the number of married moms opting to stay-at-home began to climb in the 1990’s.  Each group defended their position, but both were filled with self-doubt. Stay-at-home moms believed they were putting their kids first, but felt inadequate next to career women. Working moms – who were after all doing it all – were smug and condescending to their counterparts. They felt a happy mom makes happy kids. Yet, they worried what effect day care or being raised by a nanny would have on their kids, and ached at missing the first baby step and other milestones. With women opting out, feminists (they were still out there) feared that the fight for family-friendly policies -like flex time and quality, affordable childcare – would never be won. Many families found alternatives – some women started home-based businesses, others who out-earned their husbands worked, while the dads stayed at home. Talk about equality!!   


Women were no longer struggling to get their foot in the door. They were on the inside. But that didn’t mean they weren’t discriminated against. Working women – with or without children – faced a myriad of challenges in the work place. The glass ceiling meant a woman could advance only so far. In 1991 the U.S. Labor Department study of nine Fortune 500 companies confirmed that women and minorities faced barriers in their careers – the glass ceiling – at a far earlier stage than had been previously believed. They were excluded from essential networking and mentoring. There was little support for civil rights legislation to counteract this inequity. In 1999 just 3 women headed a Fortune 500 company.  Working mothers, who struggled to do it all, paid a price for motherhood. There was the “mommy track” which meant you could only advance so far – akin to the glass ceiling, or the “mommy tax,” which meant a lifetime loss of income that a woman suffers – even if she leaves only temporarily. Even if a woman could negotiate shorter, more flexible hours, she knew that merely asking for it could jeopardize her career.


It took courage, persistence and much heartache to stand up for your rights, but many women did battle in the courtroom – quite successfully! Companies were creative in interpreting the laws. Just ask the women at PacBell whose pensions were docked for their pregnancy leaves, while those of men on disability were not. PacBell learned that pregnant women could not be discriminated against and paid $25 million dollars in settlement claims for pensions. Other lawsuits established that a victim of sexual harassment need not show that she suffered physical or serious psychological injury as a result of the harassment. It was just plain wrong and illegal – regardless of whether it required two years of therapy! Mitsubishi paid $34 million and CBS paid $8 million to settle sexual harassment claims from hundreds of women. When Anita Hill, a lawyer and professor, testified against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, alleging sexual harassment when they had worked together, it rocked the nation. The Senate hearings were televised. Hill was savaged by a number of male senators who accused her of fantasizing. Thomas was ultimately confirmed. But one year later, more women than ever were elected to Congress – perhaps women were galvanized to go to the polls? In a later book, Thomas would portray Hill as “touchy” and prone to overreacting to “slights!”


Conspicuous consumption was out. Subtle sophistication was in. By the mid-1990’s dressing in all black was de-rigueur and shoulder pads had – thankfully – died. Women no longer felt the need to dress like a man. They were ready to be professional women. Donna Karan’s “capsule dressing,” quality jersey pieces that could be layered and coordinated to create a variety of looks, became the iconic look for upscale professional women. The clothes had authority, yet were feminine, and brilliantly hid a woman’s flaws.

By the late 1990’s, flirty circular and pleated skirts were worn with long-line jackets. Women even sported feminine dresses in bright silks and accessorized with colorful pashminas. Women allowed themselves to be pretty again. At the same time, business rules for dressing were relaxed. Casual Fridays meant blue jeans and a blazer. This trend became so widespread that “dressing down” became acceptable in virtually every aspect of life – even at work. 


Everyone watched a lot of television. 98% of households had one, and the average viewer watched seven hours a day! There was plenty of good entertainment on the small screen — some say it was another golden age of television with comedies like Friends, Cheers, Home Improvement, Seinfeld and Frasier, and dramas like The West Wing, The X-Files and The Sopranos. Cable catered to niche markets – sports, cooking, women, history, science fiction, and film buffs. Real World was the first popular reality television show, followed by Survivor. With so many scandals – O.J. Simpson murder trial, Monicagate, Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill – live courtroom and congressional hearings mesmerized the public as much as any movie or series.  For film it was the era of mega movie stars – Demi Moore, Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner, among others. Women loved Pretty Woman, a Cinderella-type story about a streetwalker as much as they loved the feminist-tinged revenge story of Thelma and Louise. In music, CD burners and online sharing sites like Napster and Kazaa, which offered free downloads of music, tore the industry apart. The major labels fought back with lawsuits, but their victory would ultimately be short.


With a six-year expansion, the third longest in record, the 1990’s were a prosperous and optimistic era. Unemployment hovered around 4%; the minimum wage increased. Investors poured money into startups and quite a few millionaires were created. Flush with wealth, people invested in their homes – many a “mc-mansion” was built. Martha Stewart inspired an interest in homemaking, cooking, gardening, and new respect for family and holiday traditions. She made domesticity desirable. Bill Clinton’s presidency from 1993 – 2001 was ambitious. Although his attempt at universal health care failed, he successfully got welfare reform passed, as well as the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. The budget surplus he oversaw during the last three years of his presidency now seems like a miracle that may never be repeated! Despite numerous scandals – including his dalliance with an intern, Monica Lewinsky, aka Monicagate – Clinton proved to be “Teflon Bill,” seemingly unscathed by impeachment hearings and allegations of sexual harassment. When he left office, he had his highest approval ratings!


The women of the 1990’s were secure in their role as working women and professionals. Most believed fulfillment came from their careers. But many began to wonder if marriage and children weren’t also part of a full, rich life. Their dreams needed to be their own – not just the dreams of their mothers who came of age in a different time.  They needed to define fulfillment for themselves, based on their own reality.  The beauty of the 1990’s — the choice