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Was 1946 a Watershed Year?
By: Lyle E. Schaller

Millions of Americans point to 2008 as a watershed year in American history. Most are referring to the election of a man to the office of President of the United States who traces half of his recent ancestry back to Africa. The election of the first woman to that office also will be referred to as a decisive turning point in American history.

A couple of generations ago, Frederick Jackson Turner became famous when he identified 1890 as the "closing of the western frontier." For thousands of mature Americans, 1941 stands out as a pivotal turning point in their lives. In recent years, business writers have made many references to 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression as a watershed year. December 2007 is now referred to as the beginning of the current recession. Most Americans age two and over date the beginning of modern America as the year of their birth. All before that is ancient history.

For many policy-makers, both lay and clergy, one reference point in defining "contemporary reality" is the year the current pastor or senior minister arrived. Another benchmark or watershed year was when this congregation relocated the meeting place. If we look back in American history and use 18 years as the age of entry into adulthood, 1843 stands out as the year when one-half of the residents of the United States were children or youth and one-half were adults. Thanks to medical science and other variables, by 2007, the median age of the American population had doubled to nearly 37 years. Another benchmark is the population of the United States reached 300 million in 2006, which is double the total population in mid-1949.

Why So Few Women?
If we look back nearly two centuries to the United States Census of Population of 1820, the first to report the population by both gender and place of residence, the male population of nearly 4.9 million exceeded the female population of 4.7 million. By 1850, the gender gap had grown to nearly a half million or 11.8 million to 11.3 million. A half century later, in 1900, that gender gap had increased to over 1.6 million with slightly over 38.8 million males and 37.2 million females. Two decades later, in 1920, it was 2.1 million with 54.3 million males and 52.2 million females. Thanks in part to World War II, by 1945, that gender gap was down to 143,000, and in 1946, for the first time in American history, the female population in the United States outnumbered the male population by 70,757,000 to 70,631,000. Eight years later, in 1954, females outnumbered men, 81,761,000 to 80,656,000, by more than a million.

Why did the male population outnumber the female population for most of the history of this nation? A dozen explanations could be offered, but three stand out. First, most of the immigrants to America from Europe and Asia were men. In 1923, for an extreme example, a total of 145,084 immigrants were naturalized—139,073 males and 6,011 females. One explanation was many of the men came to escape compulsory military service. Another is, in many European families, the oldest son inherited the father's job and younger brothers came to America in search of a future.
If the focus is broadened to count all immigrants admitted in a particular year, between 1900 and 1914, the male proportion varied between a low of 63.2 percent in 1912 and a high of 72.4 percent in 1907.

Another explanation is that while men were more likely than women to be killed while at work in the mines or the factories or the fields or in transportation, women were more likely than men to die while giving birth to a child. The maternal death rate for mothers plunged from 80 per 10,000 live births in 1920 to 15.7 per 10,000 in 1946 to 1.2 per 10,000 live births in 2006.

A widely discussed third explanation was gender discrimination. Back in the first half of the 20th century, men were encouraged to smoke cigarettes, but women were discouraged.

Or Was 1926 the Watershed Year?
At this point, students of the women's liberation movement may raise a serious question. When did the economic culture of the United States begin to make the changes required to accommodate more women?

How did the driver start that best-seller automobile, the Model T Ford, in 1918? Since the Model T did not have a left-hand front door, the driver climbed in on the right-hand side and set the spark and throttle levers at the equivalent of ten minutes to three. He next walked to the front of the vehicle, prepared to control the choke by a wire on his left forefinger, cranks the engine, jumps into the car, and readjusts both choke and throttle. On a cold day, that exercise might be repeated two or three times. On a bad day, the engine backfired and he suffered a broken wrist. In 1919, the electric self-starter became available as an option at extra cost.

Finally, in 1926, in an effort to increase sales, Henry Ford decided to make the electric self-starter, demountable rims, and balloon tires standard equipment on the passenger versions of the Model T. The Tudor sedan did cost $495 (about $6,000 in 2009 dollars) in 1926, but the electric self-starter eliminated one reason for a woman to need a husband.

Will It Continue?
By the end of 2007, females outnumbered males in the American population 153 million to 148.7 million. Will women continue to be a majority? We don't know. The future always brings unanticipated consequences. The number of American women being killed in military service continues to climb. The number being murdered by a husband or boyfriend also appears to be increasing.

On the other hand, since the death rate per 100,000 residents in every age group continues to be higher for American males than for females, that post-1946 version of the gender gap may continue to increase. In 2005, for example, the death rate was 762 per 100,000 male children before their first birthday and 619 for females. For ages 1-4, it was 33 per 100,000 males and 25 per 100,000 females, for age 5-14 those numbers were 119 for males (down from 168 per 100,000 in 1950), and only 42 for females (down from 89 per 100,000 in 1950). By the end of 2007, the gender gap in the American population was expressed by a median age for females of 37.9 years for females compared to 35.3 years for males.

Women are both more numerous than men in the adult population, they also are outliving adult males. For examples in the 65-74 age bracket, the annual death rate for men was 2.64 percent in 2005 compared to only 1.75 percent for women. For those ages 75-84, the annual death rate for men in 2005 was 6.4 percent compared to 4.5 for women that age. That helps to explain the current financial crisis for Social Security and Medicare!

The Impact on the Labor Force
The long-term impact of that watershed year of 1946 also can be seen in the American labor force. More and more jobs formerly held by adult males are being filled by women. That long list includes physicians, attorneys, university presidents, parish pastors, governors, editors, senators, elementary school teachers, chief executive officers of large corporations, cabinet officers, generals in the American military forces, and denominational executives. In one big line in reports on the American labor force where men continue to outnumber women by a huge margin is "currently unemployed."

Observers of the American political scene are now asking two questions. One is will Barack Obama be the last male President? Others are asking will the current First Lady become the first woman to be elected to that office?

Will the Majority Rule?
For many generations, children attending the public schools in America have been taught that, in this nation, the majority wins. Candidates for elective public office also are guided by that concept, as are candidates for leadership in several Protestant religious bodies. From this observer's perspective, that train already has left the station. The response comes in two parts. First, yes, the majority will continue to set the policy and determine the direction this institution will follow. Second, there always will be a place reserved for men. Restrooms and the defensive line in professional football are only two of the examples on that long list.

Options for Your Church?
A hundred years ago, in the typical congregation in American Christianity, men outnumbered the women. One reason was the gender gap described earlier. A second was authority. In nearly all religious bodies and congregations, men held all or most of the positions of authority, such as pastor, elder, bishop, treasurer, or lay leader. Men had to be present to fulfill their duties.
Today, a growing proportion of those positions of authority are being filled by women.

Perhaps more influential is that most of the channels being used to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ are ones in which the women born in America after 1920 excel over men born after 1920. That list includes listening, reading, art, peer learning experiences (as contrasted with teacher-led classes), intercessory prayer circles, music, missionary organizations, and actively responding to the message in Matthew 25:34-45.

A rapidly growing response to that paragraph has been to replace coed groups and ministry teams with all-male or all-female task forces. Another is to offer more opportunities for all-male teams to be engaged in meaningful and memorable off-campus experiences in ministry

The combination of affluence, easier access to education, egalitarianism, and self-autonomy have opened the door to giving an increasing proportion of the adult population in America the freedom to do what they do best.

Lyle E. Schaller is a retired parish pastor and parish consultant.

Copyright 2009 by Lyle E. Schaller

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