Roles of Women: Norms and Culture
Women's Roles and the Promise of American Law
Kenneth L. Karst
University of California School of Law, Los Angeles, CA

The idea of promise has been central in defining the meanings of America and the aspirations of individual Americans. This paper examines the interaction of law with other instruments of cultural development in shaping American women's socially permissible aspirations. Two dimensions of cultural difference are salient: cultural changes over time, and differences among cultural groups. Focusing on the period since the Second World War, the paper sounds two themes at the heart of the modern women's movement, both translated into law: equal access to the world of work, and emancipation from male control in the family and other intimate relationships.

As women in postwar America increasingly entered the work force, they were overrepresented in "helping" jobs (nurse, teacher, secretary); paid less than men were paid for the same work; and excluded from many labor unions. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited both racial discrimination and sex discrimination in employment. Title VII has changed the culture of women's work, altering the ways in which women see themselves and are seen by others. Women of color, however, have found special difficulties in taking advantage of Title VII. More generally, three gender inequalities remain: a wage gap that is narrowing but still significant; a scarcity of women in top managerial jobs; and the continuing cultural expectation that women, working or not, must perform domestic duties. Thus, although Title VII has been a cultural success for women, the larger culture's traditional images of women continue to limit women's aspirations.

Men's legal control over women's sexuality and maternity is a story thousands of years old. The movement seeking votes for women aimed in part at increasing women's control over their private lives, but not until the 1960s and 1970s did women receive constitutional recognition of rights to control their own sexual expression and to choose whether to bear a child. At stake was not only power to make intimate decisions, but capacity to participate fully in the public world of work. The Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade was one stimulus to a politics of cultural counterrevolution that produced scores of state laws designed to restrict abortion severely, and even affected the selection of Supreme Court Justices. By 1991 the Roe precedent looked shaky, but the next year the Court reaffirmed a woman's right of reproductive choice. The 1992 opinions show that the right recognized in Roe had its own acculturating power, even among Justices. Again, women of color have encountered special obstacles in exercising rights to reproductive choice. And the prevalence of domestic violence challenges any generalization that women have taken control of their intimate lives.

A recent book depicts the rise in women's status as the inevitable result of changes in production from households to business and industrial firms. This paper, in contrast, concludes that the efforts of the women's movement, translated into law, have contributed vitally to women's widened choice of roles, and that similar efforts are required to fulfill the law's promise of equality.