The L.A. Women : The Faces Behind the Statistics

<i> Cathleen Decker is a Times staff writer. </i>

THE LOS ANGELES TIMES POLL conducted phone interviews last fall with 1,635 women to find out how they feel about the quality of their lives in Southern California. The women were asked more than 80 questions, with emphasis in four areas: Personal beliefs and attitudes, career, relationships and family. They were also asked if they would agree to talk again in person after the results of the poll were compiled. Seven women were then selected from this group and were interviewed in their homes, to add a human dimension to the numbers in the poll results. Their stories follow the analysis of the poll.

SO MUCH FOR Los Angeles women as the vanguard of a new-wave, outre life style, shopping bag in one hand and Gucci clutch in another. The real Los Angeles woman, more often than not, has been married, has a child or two, probably a job, doesn’t have enough money for a maid--and is satisfied with her life.

She also likes herself. There is precious little angst , it turns out, in the real lives of half of Los Angeles County: Women here say they like their ages, they like their looks and, best-selling diet and exercise books to the contrary, they even like their weights . Those who have mates find them largely ideal, and those who don’t say they have no intention of lowering their standards to get one. Their health, mental and physical, is good; their self-esteem is high. Juggling kids and careers, or embracing one or the other, they are on their way to having it all--and think they will get it.

That rosy scenario is true, according to the poll results. It is also true that behind the glow lie many different worlds. A thousand variables combine to make the life of each woman in Los Angeles singular; those minute differences can be buried in an avalanche of data about the “average” woman. But the mass of information does serve as a check on our common perceptions.



It’s more than an empty adage, for example, that rich is better. Ask the rich. To hear Los Angeles women tell it, the wealthy are happier in myriad ways. They enjoy culture, favoring museums and reading over shopping and television. They are healthier and possess self-esteem to match their wallets.

Together with the affluent areas of the San Fernando Valley, the Westside is the more worldly half of Los Angeles, contrasted with the Central and Southeast areas. But wealth hasn’t completely smoothed the lives of Valley residents. They have more difficulties balancing jobs and family, and they undertake more psychotherapy. (On the Westside, more women reported consulting channelers than psychiatrists or counselors.)

Strong differences surfaced among Latinas, black women and whites. (While Asians are highly visible in the area, they still compose only 6.2% of the population, according to the 1980 Census, while Latinos make up 24% and blacks 9%. The number of Asian women in this poll’s random sample was representative of the population at large, but, using current poll-analysis techniques, it was too small to be statistically significant: It would be inaccurate to generalize on the basis of those responses.) Black women are more ambitious and career-oriented: They strongly favor social strides that have broadened women’s options. Latinas, on average, are less likely to drink and use drugs than their counterparts, have lower self-esteem and are the least likely to have considered divorce. Whites, who on average make more money, report enjoying the highest self-esteem.

Women born to the baby-boom generation, between 21 and 40, are more likely to have chosen a career than older women, yet their range of options also gives them an uncertainty about their lives. They have considered divorce more frequently than older women, and are more likely to think they married and had children too soon.

But overall, Los Angeles women pronounce themselves satisifed with their lives.

The Times Poll surveyed women over age 18 across Los Angeles County during five days in October. The poll was designed to give a true cross section of women in the county, and the margin of sampling error is plus or minus three points.



NOWHERE DO THE distinctions separating women’s lives come so sharply into focus as in the arena of personal beliefs: what they want, how they feel, what they think. For most, the answers are an amalgam of traditional and new.

What do L.A. women want? According to the poll, their top two goals in life are having a happy marriage, named by 37%, and helping others, 21%. Those are followed by career and a desire to be creative. Power and fame rank low on the list, with 1% each. But among women who’ve never been married, career takes top priority, followed by marriage and helping others. Four percent choose fame. A happy marriage appears to be the most popular goal in both the Valley and Southeast areas, where it was chosen by 46% of the women--about double the number on the Westside.

A majority, 69%, of the women support efforts to strengthen women’s status in society, while 17% oppose them and 14% aren’t sure. The strongest opposition, 19%, comes from the Valley and Southeast, and by far the most support is from Westside women and those with family incomes greater than $40,000. In those two groups, half the women strongly back increases in women’s status, and they’re joined by about 30% who somewhat support the increases.

If some social values are shifting, others are solid: 90% of Los Angeles women agree that religion plays an important part in their lives, a ranking that increases to 96% among Latinas and blacks and drops to 78% among residents of the Westside. (Latinas and blacks also put the highest priority on helping others.)


Beyond that, there are profound differences, many tied to income. Almost seven of 10 women in households making more than $40,000 a year describe themselves as “very satisfied,” a number that shrinks to 56% among middle-income women and to just less than half of those in households earning under $20,000. Sixty-two percent of the wealthier women say they are in “very good” health, far more than the 42% of poorer women who make the same claim. And wealthy women are twice as likely as poorer women to favor birth control.

Poorer women were three times as likely as their higher-income counterparts to report that they have not attended a cultural event in the past year, and say they’re apt to spend their spare time watching television. These women are also far less likely to drink and use drugs. And 17%--almost one in every five--say they are often lonely.

Predictably, more Westside women than any others pronounce themselves “very satisfied” with their lives. Although they drink and take drugs more often than others in the survey, they describe their health as better.

In the midst of a culture that emphasizes youth, how do Los Angeles women feel about aging? Sixty-nine percent of Westside women say they’re looking forward to growing older, compared with the countywide poll average of 61%. And responses vary greatly among racial groups. A striking 85% of black women say they’re aging contentedly, a number that drops to 65% among whites and 48% among Latinas.


Blacks and Latinas, on average, earn less than white women, and black women express the most dissatisfaction with their lives. While 58% of whites and 55% of Latinas describe themselves as “very satisfied,” only 41% of blacks are; 17% of blacks describe themselves as “dissatisfied,” contrasted with 8% of Latinas and 10% of whites. Black women are more assertive in their support for women’s rights: 81% favor the Equal Rights Amendment, higher than both other groups.

Latinas, the most traditional group when all the poll questions are considered, suffer most when it comes to self-esteem: About one in six say their self-esteem is “low,” well above the others.


ACCORDING TO THE Times Poll, half of the county’s women work full or part time, and nearly 60% of those working women need their jobs to support themselves and their families. But would they work if they didn’t have to? A substantial number, 42%, say yes, while 47% would stay home. Moreover, eight of every 10 women believe they can have both a successful career and a happy family. And almost a third say that working women are in fact better mothers than their stay-at-home counterparts. Almost half of the black women feel that working women make better mothers, while a third of Latinas and fewer whites share that opinion.


Black women, younger women and residents of the Westside and the San Fernando Valley put more stock in careers than their Latina, older and Central and Southeast county sisters. Nearly 70% of blacks, for example, say they would continue working even if they had the option of staying home, far above average.

“It might well be that money is the way to have independence and equality,” Poll Director I.A. Lewis says.

Women living on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley are more strongly committed to their careers than Central- and Southeast-area women. About half of Westside and Valley women would opt for a career over home, while 42% of Central-area women and only a third of Southeast women would care to stay on the job. Southeast- and Central-area women are likewise less sure about the practicalities of combining career and family, but, in a surprising turn, they show more confidence than their career-minded counterparts that working women make better mothers.

Non-working women, the most socially conservative of the bunch, are fairly evenly divided about the effects of a career on a woman’s family life, but the idea that working torpedoes the family seems on its way to extinction. Twenty-eight percent say working women make worse mothers than non-working women, while 25% say working women are better mothers, and another 31% say job status makes no difference.


Working women and those whose households bring in more than $40,000 per year are more prone to say they’d work even if they didn’t have to. More than half the wealthier women say they would continue working, a proportion that declines to 34% among women earning less than $20,000. Of women who are currently working, more than half say they would keep their jobs even if it were not financially necessary. And 85% of both working women and those in the wealthier bracket say they could balance home and career.


MEN DO LEAVE a bit to be desired, or so say Los Angeles women. They are more likely to cheat on women than women on them and, more than that, they often don’t dispense the respect women deserve.

But those are two of the very few low notes in the sunny description of the love lives of Los Angeles women. While a recent, highly controversial survey by author Shere Hite shows women extremely dissatisfied with men, the Times Poll found just the opposite.


Nearly six of every 10 women say they are involved in a serious relationship, while 37% say they are not involved at all. Of those who are seriously involved, 78% rate their relationships--on a scale of one to 10--as an eight or better. Almost 40% give them a perfect 10.

Ninety percent of women say they are always faithful to their mates, a leap above the 77% who believe that their mates are always faithful to them. Married women are the most pleased with their lives.

“The conventional way of life is alive and well in Los Angeles,” says Lewis. “It really does show that marriage is a happier relationship and being single isn’t so sharp.”

Overall, there seems an all-or-nothing dichotomy: Almost 70% of women say they have never thought about divorcing their current mates. But of those who have, 85% considered divorce a “likely” possibility for themselves. The tendency to get out of unfulfilling relationships might account for the high rankings given those that continue to exist.


The top three places to meet a man, say Los Angeles women, are at church, work and classes. A quarter of the Latinas say they meet men at dances, and 41% of blacks cite church as the best place. Wealthy women say sports activities present good opportunities.

What women value in the men they meet is uniform. They seek mates who are honest and considerate, and a good sense of humor doesn’t hurt. Asked to select the most important qualities, only 5% picked “good-looking” and 4% picked “rich.”

Women in households that earn more than $40,000 are more likely to be involved in a serious relationship than women in poorer families, and they are more confident of their mate’s fidelity. Only seven of 10 women earning less than $20,000 per year say their mate is always faithful, compared with 84% of wealthier women.

Westside and Central Los Angeles women are happiest with their relationships--44% of Westside women and 46% of Central-area women describe them as a 10. The number of reported “perfect” relationships declines to 37% among Southeast women and 28% in the Valley. Westside women also give men higher marks, with 18% saying there is “nothing” wrong with the way men think of women. Only 11% of Valley residents, in contrast, make that argument. Valley residents, and a quarter of the women in Central and Southeast Los Angeles, say the thing that bothers them most about men is that they don’t treat women with enough respect. Another 14% of Valley residents say men mistreat women with “physical dominance,” a figure far higher than that reported in any other section of the county.


Black women and Latinas report the least satisfaction with their mates, and black women and whites are more apt to be unattached. Black women are also more critical of men than their Latina or white counterparts: Almost one-third say men have too little respect for women. Only 53% of black women say their mates are always faithful, dozens of points lower than women of other races, and 77% of black women say they have been faithful--15 points fewer than the 92% of Latinas and whites who claim fidelity.

The survey also shows that despite broad publicity about the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, four out of every five women have made no changes in their life styles. Black women and San Fernando Valley residents have responded more than other groups to the pleas of health officials, with 25% of black women and 20% of Valley residents saying the AIDS crisis has affected their life styles.

What prompts couples to marry? Love and companionship are the top reasons, followed distantly by a desire for security, children and sex. And most marriages break up, say survey participants, because of money problems, because partners have fallen out of love or because of another man or woman.



THE CLASH between family and career, although it’s downplayed by many women, nonetheless concerns many. Women, far more than men, still take responsibility for child care and housework even if they work outside the home; at best, such tasks are shared.

And the strong current of economics runs through the conflict between family and job. Poorer women report the least conflict between their two worlds, as if the need to work salves their concerns. But poorer women are more likely to lament that they married too young and became mothers too early.

Overall, half the women surveyed are married, a quarter are divorced or widowed, and 19% are single. A little more than half the women work, and half of the working women have children. And therein lies the dilemma.

While close to six of every 10 women say their jobs and families haven’t had negative effects on each other, nearly a quarter of the women have job-family conflicts sometimes or often.


Almost a quarter of Los Angeles women say that even if they hold full-time jobs, women should bear most or all of the child-rearing responsibilities. When that same question was asked of women in a national 1984 Times Poll, only 16% of women felt they should handle the dual burden. (There is some comparative good news, however: Only 18% of Los Angeles women this year say that working women should do most of the housework, down from 25% in 1984.)

It was among the financially secure that ripples of difficulty in balancing family and work appear most obviously. Thirty-one percent of those living in households making more than $40,000 annually say that their family affects their career “often”; only 24% of those making between $20,000 and $40,000 agree, and even fewer women, 14%, of those making less than $20,000 say their career and family collide. Similar differences occur when women are asked if their job affects their family.

But the poor seem less satisfied with the way their family lives have taken shape. Thirty-three percent of women in the lower economic group say they married too young, and 30% say they wish they’d waited to bear children. Only 20% of those making more than $40,000 say they married too young, and 21% say they were too young when they had children.

Black women and Latinas express more misgivings about marriage and children than whites. A third of Latinas and blacks say they were too young when they married and bore children, while only one in five white women share that opinion. About a quarter of Latinas and blacks say they would consider themselves “fortunate” if they never married, contrasted with only 14% of whites.


Younger women also show more strains in managing their families than older women whose children tend to be grown. A third of baby-boom generation women feel they married and had children too young, while of older women only 15% say they married too young, and 21% say they bore children too young.

“Most people today are more willing to marry later than they used to,” Lewis says. “It could be a change in attitudes that is making them unhappy.”

But the impact of children is by no means limited to the negative. Nearly three-quarters of Los Angeles women say having children enhances a marriage, while a mere 5% say it hurts the relationship.

In sum, says Lewis, L.A. women haven’t abandoned the traditional values and usual satisfactions. “It’s almost like they’re taking on more. They’re confident, self-confident, and willing to plan for greater opportunities.”


Further information regarding this study is available by writing to the Los Angeles Times Poll, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.