Nonetheless, many things have changed dramatically for working mothers in the last 40 years. For starters, there are simply many more of them. In 1975 some 47 percent of mothers were in the labor force (defined as working or looking for work), according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number grew steadily in the '80s and '90s, peaking at almost 73 percent in 2000.
And as the number of women in the workforce swelled, so, too, did their contribution to family incomes. In 1970, a typical wife chipped in about one-quarter of her family's income, or 26.6 percent. By 2010, the median wife's contribution grew to 37.6 percent of her family's income. What's more, nearly 40 percent of working wives now out-earn their husbands, making them the primary breadwinners.
"In the '70s, women in the workforce who were also mothers were pathmakers. They were … breaking ground," says Barbara Risman, professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an executive officer with the Council on Contemporary Families. "Now your average mother is in the workforce. The stigma and revolutionary fervor is behind us, and women today feel they have a right to some workplace flexibility.... That's a really big change."
Of course, things haven't changed for some groups. By and large, black mothers and others from lower-income families have always worked, not because they were pathmakers but because they had to. The greatest change is observed in middle-class, mostly white mothers who elected to join the workforce.
Those moms have reaped the fruits of their foremothers' struggles. Moms like Carrie Wojtaszek, an event and sales manager in Syracuse, N.Y., who never had to hide her pregnancy from her employer, as scores of women before her did, and enjoyed the freedom to use her entire maternity leave. Or Nadia Amin, a Westchester, N.Y., physician whose employer's on-site day care allows her to have lunch with her 3-year-old daughter every day.