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What did civil society lose as women entered the workforce? Examining the complex ways in which civic organizations – once built on the voluntary labor of women – are now suffering…

A few weeks ago, our daughter brought home from school a field trip announcement for students in her grade and a request for parent chaperons. The field trip announcement was followed a few days later by an anxious note about there not being enough volunteers to accompany some classrooms and a plea for more parent volunteers.

Now, it’s not that parents don’t want to volunteer. But in our neighborhood almost every parent works, and most parents work full time. A stay-at-home mom? My children don’t know any. Parents who spend 40 (or more) hours a week at the office and more hours commuting can’t be regular school volunteers and struggle even to volunteer to chaperon a single field trip: the thought of giving up one of a limited allotment of “personal days” or the pressure of a looming deadline simply crowds out volunteer time.

The Atlantic’s Emma Green’s recent essay, “What America Lost When Women Entered the Workforce,” looks at this phenomenon writ large. As she observes, when women started working in greater numbers and for longer hours, not only were family life and workplace culture profoundly changed, but so was civil society.

The changes in civil society, Green argues, have mostly been for the worse because women volunteer less, and because they causes for which they volunteer have changed.

The first part of Green’s argument, that women volunteer less, is straightforward: There are only so many hours in a week, and when so many of those are spent at work it’s just much harder to find time to volunteer.

But the second part of Green’s argument, that working has changed the nature of the causes for which women volunteer, is more complex. In a past era, Green argues, women volunteered for a very broad range of causes, including on behalf of those outside their own social sphere:

"[Women] volunteered their time, waged political campaigns, and advocated for the poor and elderly. They organized voters, patronized the arts, and protested the government. … Women often took up the causes of the “worthy” poor, especially women and children, forming organizations with elaborate names like the Female Association for Relief of the Sick Poor, and for the Education of Such Female Children as Do Not Belong To, or Are Not Provided for, by Any Religious Society."

Nowadays, Green, argues, if working women volunteer, their volunteer work is typically limited to causes that immediately serve “their own kids and families,” such as their children’s schools. In the past, women surely volunteered at their children’s schools—but they had, on top of that, time to volunteer for Female Association for Relief of the Sick Poor too. When women can volunteer less, they unsurprisingly prioritize causes closest to their own household. The consequence, Green argues, is that “the most vulnerable members of society have lost their best allies—women—partly because those women are too busy working.”

On top of that, the working mothers who do volunteer are more likely to be wealthier and better-educated—and when they spend their volunteer time at their children’s schools and in their local community, their efforts further enhance the opportunities and privilege already concentrated there. The changes in women’s patterns of volunteering may contribute, if Green is correct, to increasing social and economic inequality.

Of course, the changes in women’s roles have brought innumerable positive effects to civil society too—but Green’s essay emphasizes the complex consequences of the entry of women, and especially mothers, into the workplace.

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