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10-08-2015, 22:26

Expanding Roles for Women

One area of significant change in postwar European society was the role of women. Although women were found in professional careers and a number of other vocations in the 1920s and 1930s, the place for most women was still in the home. Half a century later, there were almost as many women as men in the workplace, many of them employed in professions hitherto reserved for men. One consequence of the trend toward greater employment outside the home for women was a drop in the birthrate. The percentage of married women in the female labor force in Sweden, for example, increased from 47 to 66 percent between 1963 and 1975. In many European countries, zero population growth was reached in the 1960s, and increases since then have been due solely to immigration. In Italy and Spain, the flood of women into the workplace resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of children born annually, leading to fears of an absolute decline in total population. In newly united Germany, it has been estimated that nearly half a million immigrants will be required annually to maintain the current level of economic growth in the country. But the increased number of women in the workforce has not changed some old patterns. Working-class women in particular still earn salaries lower than those paid to men for equal work. Women still tend to enter traditionally female jobs. A 1980 study of twenty-five European nations revealed that women still made up more than 80 percent of typists, nurses, tailors, and dressmakers in those countries. Many European women also still faced the double burden of earning income on the one hand and raising a family and maintaining the household on the other. Such inequalities led increasing numbers of women to rebel against their conditions. The participation of women in World Wars I and II helped them achieve one of the major aims of the nine- teenth-century feminist movement—the right to vote. After World War I, many governments acknowledged the contributions of women to the war effort by granting them the vote—Sweden, Great Britain, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Women in France and Italy finally gained the right to vote in 1945. After World War II, European women tended to fall back into the traditional roles expected of them, and little was heard of feminist concerns. But with the student upheavals of the late 1960s came a renewed interest in feminism, or the women’s liberation movement, as it was now called. Increasingly, women protested that the acquisition of political and legal equality had not brought true equality with men. A leading role in the movement was played by French writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986). Born into a middle-class Catholic family and educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, she joined the existentialist movement, which was the leading intellectual movement of its time in Western Europe, and became active in political causes. In 1949, she published The Second Sex, in which she argued that living in male-dominated societies, women had been defined by their differences from men and consequently received second-class status. “What particularly signalizes the situation of woman is that she—a free autonomous being like all human creatures—nevertheless finds herself in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other.” De Beauvoir played an active role in the women’s movement during the 1970s, and her book was a major influence on women in both Western Europe and the United States. Feminists in Europe came to believe that women must transform the fundamental conditions of their lives. They did so in a variety of ways, forming numerous “consciousness- raising” groups to further awareness of women’s issues and working to legalize both contraception and abortion. A French law passed in 1968 legalized the sale of contraceptive devices. In 1979, abortion became legal in France. Even in countries where the Catholic church remained strongly opposed to contraception and legalized abortion, legislation allowing them passed in the 1970s and 1980s.