Several weeks ago I sat next to a very nice older couple on a plane. I estimated their ages at as close to 80 which means they were probably born at some time in the 1930s and came of age in the 1950s.
In between watching Law and Order: SVU episodes on the airplane TV service, I was scribbling some notes on a legal pad as I reviewed some work materials I had brought along with me. This prompted the Mrs. to open up a fresh line of chit chat with me, as she, with a wide-eyed look on her face inquired,
“Do you work outside the home?”
I have to admit…I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question in my life. Nor, quite frankly, did it ever occur to me that anyone would think it even was a question to be phrased that way. I’ve heard “what do you do?” or “where do you work?” but I don’t think I’ve ever been asked if I worked. And needless to say, explaining to this lovely woman precisely what Human Resources professionals do presented somewhat of a challenge.
But the conversation got me thinking about the varying perspectives we have of women in the workforce; viewpoints that are often glimpsed through a cultural or historical lens. It’s quite probable that a young woman coming of age in the post WWII era was content (perhaps) with her life and resigned to the fact that her role was to work ‘at home.’ A woman reaching the voting age in the 1950’s was but one generation removed from even having the right to vote. Thanks to the feminist movement, the Mrs. was able to head to the polling place and pull a lever to show that she did, indeed, “Like Ike.”
But it’s possible she doesn’t want to acknowledge or express any gratitude to feminists; that’s somewhat common. Whether first wave (primarily focused on suffrage and reproductive issues), second wave (primarily focused on equality) or third-wave (challenging and redefining ‘feminism’), feminists have often made men and women uncomfortable even while pushing for societal change that forever changed the lives of women:
- In 1848, the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. At the end of the convention, some radical resolutions were adopted – shockingly calling for equal treatment of women and men under the law and voting rights for women.
- In 1870, for the first time, the US Census counted “females engaged in each occupation.” At that time, women comprised 15% of the workforce.
- In 1920, the US Department of Labor formed “The Women’s Bureau” which was tasked with collecting information about women in the workforce and ensuring safe working conditions. Later that year, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was signed into law, granting women the right to vote.
- Between the 1930s and 1950s, a number of business and school districts enacted “marriage bars” which allowed them to fire single women when they married and also allowed them to refuse to hire married women.
- In 1961, President Kennedy established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and in 1963 the Commission issued a report documenting substantial discrimination against women in the workplace. Specific recommendations were issued by the Commission including instituting fair hiring practices, offering paid
maternity leave, and ensuring access to affordable child care.
- In 1968, the US Supreme Court ruled that sex-segregated help wanted ads in newspapers were illegal.
I’ve thought of this conversation quite a bit lately. It’s entirely possible that this couple have no children or grandchildren. For surely if they do have grandchildren they’ve found that many (dare I say most?) young women fully intend to continue their post high-school education and work outside the home. While there are some people who yearn for a return to a society with strictly-defined gender rules based on religious reasons, I find it hard to believe that the majority of westerners don’t appreciate how the role of women has changed.
I, for one, tip my hat and raise my glass high to salute Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and all the other brave women who paved the way.
Now let me get back to work.
Photo credit iStockphoto
What a great article! My mom never had a chance to prove what she could be. She went, as she told me, “from being my daddy’s little girl to being your daddy’s little girl.” My high school aptitude tests were on the pink form; how could we have aptitude for the jobs men do? One of my first jobs was at an employment agency where we carefully coded job requirements “must do heavy lifting” where the employer demanded a man (file clerk? heavy lifting?) and “must be perky” where only a woman would do, and then had to whisper among ourselves the receptionist requirements like “blond, 36-24-36.” And now colleges have more women than men, women run companies of all sizes, they serve in jobs once thought to be men’s jobs, and the news says companies with women on the board see the difference on the bottom line. Could there be a more amazing time to be a woman?
I remember those days of the ‘secret code words’ – and I get mad all over again thinking about it. Sadly, in the not too distant past, I’ve run into Hiring Managers who have soooooo wanted to base job requirements/hire candidates along stereotypical characteristics. So they lean over and conspiratorially whisper “I need someone, you know, ‘perky’” At which point I call them on their BS.
I loved this article Robin. From time-to-time I have to admit some jealousy that in previous generations of women working outside the home wasn’t expected. And I do wonder what my sense of self would be like if I had been active in the Junior League, hosted dinner parties for my husband and played bridge on Wednesdays. I bet I would have been able to make a mean pie! It seems less likely that older generations would be jealous of the kind of pace we have lead to feel a sense of achievement. Keep up the great work!
I, alas, would probably never mastered the art of making the perfect crust. But I wouldn’t mind taking an afternoon every week to go play Canasta. I play a MEAN game of Canasta.
Actually, Bonni “can” host a great party, make a mean pie, and run a great business. This really confuses her Mother-in-Law.
Working outside the home is overrated. I work inside my home — in my yoga pants! 😉
Thank goodness Elizabeth Cady Stanton believed in the right to wear yoga pants!
In my extended family, I was the first woman to (1) get a bachelor’s degree, let alone a master’s degree, (2) live on my own (so not with my parents or other relatives/family friends) between college and a later marriage, (3) earn what was then called “a man’s wages,” and (4) see myself as entirely equal to any man. On my first job out of college in the summer of ’67, in the programmer training program at a major insurance company, I and the few other women in the program were paid about $25 less per week than our male counterparts, all of whom had the same credentials — liberal arts degrees from Ivy League or Seven Sisters schools. And when I asked about this obvious disparity, I was told — seriously — that men needed to earn more because they would be supporting a family. Your wonderful post isn’t just an interesting bit of equal rights history to me; it’s my own life story. And lest anyone think we’ve turned a corner and there’s no going back, just try to think of a dozen female CEOs of significant HR technology companies out of the hundreds of possibilities.
Naomi – you are such an inspiration to me and to countless other women – whether they work in our extended HR profession or share their talents in another sphere. Some day, I hope, we will be able to point to an abundance of female CEOs across the entire spectrum of industires.