The 1990s Shift in the Media Portrayal of Working Mothers

Motro, Joanna and Reeve Vanneman, 2015. "The 1990s Shift in the Media Portrayal of Working Mothers." Sociological Forum 30(December): 1017-1037.


A cultural theme of distressed working mothers depicts working mothers as caught between the demands of work and family in an unforgiving institutional context. Susan Faludi first identified this theme as a conservative backlash against feminists’ attempts “to have it all.” But a similar narrative helps support demands for more flexible work–family policies and more significant housework contributions from fathers. We explore the actual trends and prevalence of this distressed working mothers theme by coding 859 newspaper articles sampled from the 1981–2009 New York Times. Articles discussing problems for working mothers increased in the mid-1990s and have continued increasing into the twenty-first century. Other themes about problems and benefits for working mothers show quite different trends. There is also an unexpected mid- 1990s shift in attention from problems working mothers are having at home to problems at work. The increase in the distressed working mother theme coincides with the mid-1990s stall in the gender revolution. The simultaneity of the cultural, economic, political, and attitude trends suggests that the rise of the distressed working mother theme and the stall in the gender revolution may have mutually reinforced each other over the last two decades.

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