There's a poignant moment in Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed when Barbara realizes she could be earning more at her entry-level jobs, but for employer tricks. It's the height of the dot-com bubble and the labor market is extremely tight. But workers like Ehrenreich are still earning barely more than minimum wage.
The key, Ehrenreich discovers, is that employers have eliminated bargaining. They rush workers through the hiring process, so that successful applicants immediately become workers and are scheduled for an orientation. There is never a moment when the employee, treated as a free agent, is presented with proposed pay, hours and benefits and asked whether she will take the job or pass. In fact, such information is disclosed only after the worker has been "hired", grudgingly, secretly and often inaccurately.
The same trick has been used on the American family over the last three decades. Women won the freedom to enter the professional workforce and have gradually won something approaching a level playing field. With wives going off to work, many families have increased their contribution to the labor pool by 50 to 100+ percent.
But, like the Wal-Mart hires in Ehrenreich's book, families squandered their bargaining power. Fathers lost a chance to cut back their own hours and spend more time with the children. Prospective mothers entered the workforce as second-class citizens, still saddled with all child-rearing obligations and winning few special protections to mitigate this. And everyone, including most especially single parents, suffered by inheriting a world where home ownership, college education and quality healthcare are available only to the overworked dual-income couple or the especially rich.
A huge pool of skilled workers was dumped into the American labor force and, even as we reap the benefits, Americans are still paying a dear price. I would never begrudge women the rights they fought for, but I might turn back the clock, if only to make sure it is women, children and men who benefit most from those hard-won freedoms, not hiring managers, homebuilders and retail shops.