Displaced Homemakers: Then and Now

Tish Sommers and Laurie Shields
Laurie Shields (left) and Tish Sommers

In the 1970’s, as the American divorce rate rose, women who performed unpaid work in the home and who relied on husbands for economic security increasingly found themselves displaced. With limited paid work histories, many ended up living in poverty and confusion, struggling to achieve independence in a culture that had dismissed them.

Two extraordinary women, Laurie Shields and Tish Sommers had experienced the “displaced” phenomenon themselves. They put together a national coalition of activists and successfully lobbied 39 states and the federal government to create programs to train and counsel women.

Tish Sommers came up with the term “displaced homemaker” because she saw parallels between the experiences of women who were ousted from the homemaker role they expected to play for life, and the experiences of people who are forcibly exiled from their homes through political upheaval. Women who were displaced as homemakers by death, divorce, desertion, or disablement of a husband could find themselves ineligible for Social Security benefits, for unemployment benefits, and for welfare benefits. With little paid work experience, they could appear unemployable. As Laurie Shields notes in her 1981 book, Displaced Homemakers: Organizing for a new life, “homemakers assumed that retirement benefits, health insurance, and economic security flowed from their marriage.” When marriage ended, or a husband became unable to work, the safety net of marriage came unstrung.

How widespread was this phenomenon? In 1976, the Department of Labor estimated there were 4 million displaced homemakers in America, and that 3 million of those were between the ages of 40 and 64. Statistics like these, and the personal stories of women who’d been displaced, created a public outcry and support for programming. Columnist Ellen Goodman noted that women in these circumstances were caught “between the expectations of one decade and the reality of another.”

The first displaced homemakers program was authorized by the California legislature in 1975. By 1979, approximately 300 programs operated nationwide, but opposition among anti-feminists was strong.

schlafly
Phyllis Schlafly promotion for defeat of the E.R.A.

Phyllis Schlafly, perhaps the most well-known anti-feminist of the time, and, ironically, a “career woman,” was especially suspicious of displaced homemaker programs, calling them “nothing but indoctrination and training centers for women’s lib. The feminists who run such centers use them to push ERA, abortion, federal child care, lesbian privileges, etc.”

Sommers and Shields were puzzled by the level of outrage against displaced homemaker programs. They wondered if some of it was age bias. Nevertheless, they persisted through years of drafting legislation and lobbying in Congress and at the state level. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the revised Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which included provisions related specifically to the employment needs of women, providing a method for funding programs for displaced homemakers. In 1984, passage of the Perkins Act, which provided career-development funds for women’s training, further ensured the viability of displaced homemaker programs.

The Displaced Homemakers Network formed by Sommers and Shields evolved into a national organization that hosted annual conferences where program staff from across the country met to exchange strategies for helping displaced women. Some of the challenges faced by women at that time included a high rate of unemployment ascribed to age and a lack of paid work experience, along with limited opportunities for assistance from social security, unemployment compensation, medicaid, and benefit or pension plans arising from the husband’s employment.

Displaced Homemaker Programs (DHPs) provided services across the nation through the end of the twentieth century. With support from state, federal, and private foundation grants, the programs helped women achieve economic independence and personal confidence. The first challenge to their funding arose in 1998 when the Perkins Act was stripped of its gender-equity provisions. In the past ten years, there have also been funding cuts on the state level.

For example, in Florida, Displaced Homemaker Programs drew on a state trust account that was funded by state marriage and divorce fees. The trust was dissolved in 2017 by Governor Rick Scott. Of the seven programs active at that time, only one remains: a program at Santa Fe College where I was lucky enough to collaborate with the DHP staff as part of my work with the Women’s Economic Stability Initiative.

DHP pantsuits

Here we are (at left) in a photograph taken shortly before the 2016 presidential election. The poster image is of the program’s patron saint — Rosie the Riveter. The Santa Fe program survived budget cuts thanks to college president Jackson Sasser’s commitment to the program.

My experience on the fringes of Santa Fe’s DHP proved to me without question that there is still a deep need for programs that help women navigate changes brought on by the loss of financial and emotional support. But who is today’s homemaker, and how likely is it that she will experience some version of being “displaced”?

Although more women today have college degrees than ever before, younger women opting to stay at home to care for children still suffer serious impairment to their overall earning capacity. And as health care costs increase, many older women choose to care for elderly family members at home, giving up or reducing their employment income.

Disagreement exists about the current American divorce rate. Some academics see the divorce rate going down, while others argue it’s holding steady at about 50%. Interestingly, though, at least one group of researchers claims the divorce rate for people aged 55 to 64 “has quadrupled over the past three decades.”

In the ever-changing culture of America, disruption and displacement seems more likely than not. Women, and men, will continue to lose the security of marriage and family. They will need programs like Santa Fe’s that support their employment goals and personal goals. “I’m living proof the program works,” said one participant in an interview with local media. “I can smile again. I have self-confidence. They’re my family.”

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