Talcott Parsons, later to become a target of feminist criticism, began writing on the family during the same period as Philip Wylie and Lundberg and Farnham. While most other sociologists were devising scales to measure the personal compatibility of prospective marriage partners, Parsons was engaged in a genuinely analytical attempt to understand how family structure and its mode of articulation with the "occupational sphere" affected both genders. For Parsons the mid-twentieth century situation for middle-class women looked like this: They had been educated similarly to men
at least through college and were taught to value occupational achievement but were then married and were faced with a husband who was totally immersed in a career away from home, a shrinking domestic role, and, most important, a lack of a clear-cut definition of just what women's "role" was.
Parsons did not consider either strict domesticity or a full-fledged career as a viable solution. He also saw problems with what he called "the glamour role" and with "the good companion role" as compromises. The glamour role emphasized women's specific sexuality, while the good companion role stressed cultural and humanistic interests that wife and husband had in common. But glamour and exaggerated sexual differentiation could not last forever, and "the good companion role" was not something that husbands had time to share (pp. 95–98).
In historical perspective, the glamour role was a precipitate of the heterosexual imperative and the "emancipation" of women in the 1920s. The good companion role was essentially an updated version of the cultural interests, charity work, and moral activity that occupied nineteenth-century wives. Neither updated version provided any real solution to inequality. Parsons concluded that "in the adult feminine role there is quite sufficient strain and insecurity so that widespread manifestations are to be expected in the form of neurotic behavior" (p. 99). Although Parsons failed to predict the reemergence of feminism, he was keenly aware that the "feminine role," as he called it, was a crucial point of "strain" in the nuclear family system.
Parsons was also well aware that some middle-class married women worked outside the home. His own wife worked as a secretary on the Harvard campus while he was teaching there. He did not stress the positive advantages of working for women, however, but focused instead on the destabilizing consequences of women's competing occupationally with their husbands. He pointed out that the jobs middle-class women held were usually not full-fledged careers and hence were not a threat to the solidarity of the couple.
Understandably, Parsons's hypothesis that marital solidarity would be threatened by wives' having jobs comparable to their husbands struck liberal feminists of the 1960s and 1970s as highly reactionary. He appeared to be opposing equal job opportunities for women by saying that occupational equality was incompatible with stable
marriage. But he can also be interpreted as saying middle-class women's jobs were far from equal and were therefore not comparable to their husbands. From a more radical feminist standpoint, as we shall see later, Parsons was correct about there being a negative association between marital stability and occupational equality. Parsons, however, did not understand the degree to which financial dependency rather than "role differentiation" may have been accounting for the "marital stability" associated with the non-employment and low-paying jobs of wives.