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