The great social and economic changes of the 21st century have transformed the relationships between men and women. Education, employment and progress in women”s rights have encouraged more reduced family units. Migration to urban areas and to the United States, accelerated by agricultural decadence, also broke up families and weakened the ties of support among them and their communities. The transition to this new order has also led to divorces and an increase in the number of families run by women, while the aging of the population has established the need for creating new ways of support between generations. It is important to recognize, along with other ways of cohabitation, this tendency towards diverse family bonds.
In an atmosphere that promotes feminine employment in labor intensive industries and the expansion of independent living, the employment of women increased from 20% in 1950 to 30% in the year 2000, allowing many families to live over the level of poverty. In many cases, the female”s income was the only means of family support. The need for women to work outside the household became more evident with the decrease of employment opportunities for men. As a result of this economic strategy, the male employment rate dropped from 70% in 1950 to less than 50% in the year 2000.
The equality in education opportunities for men and women also contributed to an increase in the proportion of women”s employment. Women got to represent over 60% of the university tuition roll in the 1980s. For that reason, by the 1990s they outnumbered men in obtaining university degrees. Women incorporated, not only into careers considered to be “feminine,” like teaching, but also into mainly “male-oriented” professions, such as engineering.
Among the women of lower socioeconomic classes, the access to housing and other public services also offered means of family subsistence. The pressures to subsist for some and the expectations of improving the economic conditions for others caused the tendency of less numerous families. By means of sterilization, pills, abortion, and other birth control methods, the total rate of fertility, which in 1950 was higher than five children per woman, decreased in the 1990s to two children per woman.
On the other hand, legal changes reflected the struggles of women for the equality of gender rights in society in general, and in family relationships in particular. Laws matching the rights of spouses, reinforcing the equality of gender rights in the work environment and establishing measures against sexual harassment and violence in couple relationships were added to the recognition of the right to vote (1936) and the prohibition of sexual discrimination in our Constitution in 1952.
Social and legal transformations have promoted more balanced relationships, mainly in families in which the spouses share economic responsibilities. Decisions on reproduction, upbringing, or budget can be shared, as total prohibitions and violent behavior by men become more unacceptable. However, some inequalities that generate tensions remain. For example, there are still more men than women in the work force. On the other hand, many families maintain unequal conditions between genders, including the responsibility for the upbringing of children and the domestic work, which remains “a task for women.” These tensions intertwine with the economic and social problems prevailing in our society such as unemployment, the pressures of longer work days, and the fear of an increase in crime.
The transition in gender relationships has increased ruptures within traditional family patterns. The resistance of men to establish more just relationships with women brings about conflicts within couples, while the advances in women”s autonomy allow them more opportunities to separate from their partner if they consider that the relation ship is unhealthy or harmful. In Puerto Rico, divorces have increased dramatically to the extent of reaching more than 5 for each 10 marriages in 2002. Divorced women, in turn, who remain, still more frequently than men, responsible for the household, usually become heads of the family. Families headed by women increased from 16% to almost 27% between 1970 and 2000.
The increase in the expectations of life of our population, higher among women than men, promoted additional alterations in our families. Less prone to new marriages than widow-en, women older than 65 that survive their partners join other heads of family or find other arrangements, where many stay under the care of grandsons and granddaughters. On the other hand, the middle-aged generation, mainly women, have to support the older generations, while continuing to be responsible for their own children. To these transformations, one should add the consensual homosexual and heterosexual couples and networks among friends and other patterns of cohabitation that also become more visible in our country. It is, then, the diversity of families in transition that we should recognize and support in our political and social practices to create spaces of mutual support and more equal bonds of intimacy in Puerto Rico.
Alice Colón Warren
Social Investigation Center
University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras
Author: Dra. Alice Colón Warren
Published: December 26, 2007.
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