Women’s Work

political-cartoon-entitled-the-sky-is-everettMy daughters almost didn’t believe me a few years ago when I told them that at their age practically the only respectable professions open to me were secretary, teacher, nurse or possibly social worker. My family thought that even though a Bachelor’s degree was necessary, I should become a nurse because it was a good career for a woman. My brothers were encouraged to be scientists and athletes.

My daughters were astonished to hear that women’s jobs use to have their own section in the newspaper, filled mainly with openings for nurses, secretaries and teachers as well as jobs for child care providers and housekeepers. There were no fire fighters, only firemen. No mail carriers, only mailmen. Lawyers, doctors, pilots, engineers, scientists and the military were always assumed to be men’s professions. Jobs were always manned (versus staffed), and all sorts of employment terminology was otherwise gendered to exclude women. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who graduated third in her class at the Stanford Law School in 1952, was refused even an interview with at least 40 law firms because she was a woman.

There was no Title IX until 1972. The only interscholastic sport girls participated in at my high school was tennis. I was an excellent swimmer, but there was no swim team; I was a good archer as well but was told archery was a “boy’s sport.” Instead of playing sports, girls tried out for cheerleader, song girl, flag girl, majorette or the drill team.

Misogyny, both from within my family and from the outside community, was a constant companion growing up. I was forever being told that I couldn’t do things, or go places my brother could because I was a girl, although I could easy beat up my brother until high school – I was strong! Girls were not allowed to wear pants or jeans at my public high school; we had to wear a ‘uniform’ of a gray or black skirt to cut back on ‘competition.’ There was no uniform for boys though. I remember being called in and ordered to kneel once in front of a ‘jury of my peers’ because someone reported that my skirt was too short (it wasn’t), a humiliating experience. My sister and I were expected at a young age to make our beds every morning and pick up after ourselves because that’s what girls did, while my mother made my brothers’ beds every day and cleaned their room. I was told I needed to learn how to cook and sew and clean in order to “catch a husband,” and women in the community often winked and asked if I was going to college to earn my “M.R.S. degree.”

While I was in college, I worked in a nursing home as an aide, where men were paid more for doing the same work as the female aides; I was threatened with termination when I brought it up to management. Women did end up getting a raise, although we were still paid less than the men and still did the same work. I’ve had friends though who had to sue to receive the same pay men were getting for the same work, or because they were denied a promotion because they were female. At one job I applied for the first question the manager asked another employee when she took back my application was whether or not I was ‘good looking.’ Wearing pants to work? Not allowed until I was in my 30s. I’ve been touched inappropriately at work, called ‘honey’ and ‘babe’ by male co-workers, and informed I didn’t dress ‘sexy enough.’ An instructor told me I could get a better grade if I went out with him; I was reprimanded when I reported the harassment to his (male) superior. The only job I was ever let go from, at age 23, was because I wouldn’t play along with another male employee higher up in the chain.

Brett and I have raised our daughters to believe that they can do anything they set their minds to, that no goal is out of their reach, and no career or path is closed to them. We have never expected them to feel tied to any role, or bound by anyone else’s outdated or misogynistic requirements. I think we’ve done a good job, and I feel sorry for anyone who tries to tell them what to do, how to dress, or heaven forbid, touches them inappropriately because they are women.

Our young daughters are feeling crushed and confused now, and frightened as well about the future. They heard how our President-elect talked about women during the election, from grabbing their private parts to calling his opponent ‘nasty’ to saying he could do what he wanted to women because he was famous. They saw the ugly words on the t-shirts many of his supporters wore, the signs they carried, and heard the slurs that were used to describe women. They watched as the press allowed this behavior to become normalized during the election, how people who shouldn’t have looked the other way did exactly that.

Women have been knocked down, abused, ignored and not taken seriously for far too long, even by other women. We continue on nevertheless because that’s what women do.  We’ve always been strong, competent, experienced and fierce even though those qualities haven’t been and still aren’t always appreciated. We are not equal no matter what we do though; misogyny still runs deep through our society and colors our lives and our worlds. If you don’t believe misogyny played a large part in Tuesday’s election results, start by imagining a woman, from either party, running for president with five children from three (still living) husbands, and think about how far she would get with that as part of her background.

I no longer believe a woman will reach the top of the ladder during my life time. I have to continue to hope it will happen in my daughters’.

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20 thoughts on “Women’s Work

  1. Lizzie Dinawi says:

    I am hoping its 2 steps forward and one step back but my disappointment in society has never been so great as this year (brexit). I only have sons and they know nothing but equality but if i had daughters what would I tell them. Sad times indeed

    Like

    • Laura says:

      Thanks. While this is my story, I know there are thousands of other women who have experienced the same or worse. And there are others who will deny things like this were/are going on because it didn’t happen to them.

      Like

    • Laura says:

      It is sad, isn’t. Even if this isn’t what happened to you, we all need to acknowledge that this was happening to others, probably far more than we know. I actually think my story is pretty mild compared to what other women have experienced.

      Like

  2. Hawaii Planner says:

    There’s been a lot of mudslinging, and I’m exhausted by all of it. I have no daughters, but my husband is a minority, and the kids have been terrified. 10 year old boys are not well known for processing complex information that clearly also fails adults.

    It’s been a very, very difficult week. Teaching my young men to value everyone. I live in a VERY bubble part of the blue world, and even we had a racial incidents at school this week. Breaks my heart. It’s really hard to share that perspective with someone who hasn’t been through it personally before.

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  3. Hawaii Planner says:

    And, I didn’t address the major point of your post. I work in one of the most liberal companies in the world (hurrah – it’s an amazing place. I don’t love my job, but feel very blessed to be with my employer) & even there, there is most definitely a strange bias. I’ve been in tech for 20 years, & I’ve seen & heard almost everything.

    Your girls will be in a generation on the fringe – knowing that everything is possible, and knowing that there are still battles to wage to support their sisters. Keep on, lovely lady!

    Also, heading to Hawaii in two weeks (Maui!) – can’t wait! Good weather vibes, please. 🙂

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    • Laura says:

      I have been thinking of you and your family these past few days. I don’t know what to say because I think the fuse has been lit but we don’t know yet how big the stick of dynamite is at the end, and who is going to get hurt, and when and how. There has already been racial and gender harassment from outsiders on the Wellesley campus directed at students there. It’s very easy to say “let’s see how it goes” or “let’s all take a deep breath and calm down” if you’re not a member of a minority in this country. In our case, we know that while many see our daughters as intelligent and beautiful young American women, many others they only see “immigrant,” “outsider,” or “not-American” (“China Doll, exotic, submissive, and so forth are bad enough). The stories pouring in from around the country these past few days have been frightening.

      As humans, if we haven’t experienced something personally, it’s very hard to imagine such things are happening or have happened. Many are incapable of putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. This goes for misogyny and gender discrimination as well. If you, as a woman, haven’t experienced it, or maybe only mildly, it can be difficult to imagine what other women have been or are dealing with, let alone recognizing it unless it’s so blatant it can’t be ignored.

      Anyway, big hugs to you and yours. I will keep thinking good thoughts. Have a wonderful trip to Maui! Some day I’m going to have to try harder to entice you to come and check out Kaua’i.

      Like

      • Hawaii Planner says:

        You said it perfectly. It’s very, very difficult to imagine these things without walking in someone else’s shoes. I very much grew up in a bubble, so it was a real culture shock when I started working in a very diverse place. My marriage obviously brought much more education on how people treat others. Someone this week commented on how lucky I am because my children “look white”. . .

        Yes! We definitely plan to visit Kaua’i! It’s on our list. Right now the boys are still in a the hotel pool/calm beach phase. Probably one more trip & then we’ll be ready for more adventuring. 🙂

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  4. Libby from New England says:

    Lovely and thoughtful post. I’m younger than you and have had wider opportunities but there was still a lot of sh*t happening in the workforce in the 80’s and 90’s.

    One thing we can learn from Germany in the 1930’s is that if enough people have the courage to speak up, we can provide some balance. I am deeply grateful to live in a democracy where we can hold public and opposing views from our elected officials.

    I texted a friend on Wednesday morning asking if the West Coast would like to join the Northeastern states, with our combined wealth and highly educated populations, and secede from the Union….she texted back that we would need to build walls to keep out the red states! Funny and not funny at the same time.

    Like

    • Kris says:

      I find it quite upsetting you are comparing the election to Donald Trump to Hilter and the Holocaust. He has not orchestrated the genocide of a people numbering the millions. He has not completed the forceable annexation of other countries in attempt to control an entire continent. He has not relocated and enslaved hundreds of thousands of people for labor. He has not banned abortion among the German white Christian women while encourging for the practice for everyone else. There is no eugenics program to kill homosexuals, disabled, mentally ill, and sterilize hundreds of thousands more. Sadly the US had a eugenics sterilization program as well back in the day. He has not done away with presidential term limits to become a dictator for life. It is quite insulting to those who lived and died in that time to minimize all that transpired. He has not served a moment in elected office to criticize. He was not in the military. He has been and continues to be until end of January a private citizen.

      Like

      • Laura says:

        Kris, Hitler wasn’t HITLER in the beginning either. Most Germans who voted for him in 1933 probably saw him only as someone who wanted to “make Germany great again” and who would make the trains run on time, with no idea what was coming down the road. Many Germans most likely felt fine about him, but the violence and hatred that surrounded Hitler even at the beginning also made many other people feel frightened and unsafe. Many people here now are nervous and frightened as well and don’t know what’s coming down the road either. Many can only look back at the racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and other forms of hatred that were presented up front and center during Trump’s campaign, and are scared, maybe frightened out of their wits. That’s what I feel Libby is saying in her comment. Americans are blessed to live in a democracy where we can speak our minds, speak out against our elected leaders without fear, and freely assemble to protest if we believe something is wrong.

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  5. Libby from New England says:

    Germany had major financial difficulties after WWI, which were further exacerbated by the world depression. Hitler played to “average Germans” by blaming Communists, Socialists with their trade unions, and Jews for the economic woes of the “average German.” He also supported violent acts in the name of his party. All a decade+ before the atrocities of WWII.

    I find similarities in Trump’s rhetoric of blaming others for the economic woes many people in the US have experienced as well as the violence that occurred during many of his rallies and since 8 November.

    In many, many countries of the world, we couldn’t even be having this conversation. I am deeply appreciative of the US Constitution which gives us the freedom to express our opinions.

    Like

  6. Mary C. says:

    Thanks for the lovely and heartfelt post. You are not alone; knowing that there is a community of like-minded people out there is a great comfort to those of us who share your fears and concerns.

    Like

    • Laura says:

      Thank you – I know there are a LOT of us out there. I’ve always been an optimist, but right now I’m feeling very scared and unsure about how things are going to turn out.

      Like

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