[EDITORIAL NOTE: Regarding the link about face aging technology showing up on the Facebook walls of some of you yesterday: that most definitely was not from me. It was spam. Being Facebook illiterate, I have no idea how it happened or how to prevent it. (I gather, from the news media, that Facebook is frequently subject to these attacks.)
The only reason I have a Facebook account – and the only thing I use it for – is as a secondary distribution point for this blog for Facebook users who asked. I’ll be rethinking that now.
Inequalities remain – women still lag in the paycheck, for example – but overall, “we have come a long way, baby.” I think, sometimes, we forget that.
For at least 30 years, young women have known from the cradle that they can grow up to be doctors and lawyers and corporate chiefs just like men.
That wasn’t so for us who are elders now. We are the last generation to know what it was like for women before the dramatic changes resulting from the mid-20th century women’s movement.
When I started working in the late 1950s, women had few choices beyond teacher, nurse and secretary. I could not get a credit card in my own name, buy a house or sign most contracts.
The few women who attended college then were said to be there for their MRS. degree and that was a joke only the first time you heard it. Many of those young women dropped out as soon as they married part way through their four years.
For those of us who went to work instead of college, it was legal for employers to pay us less for the same jobs men did. Men needed more money, the reasoning went, because they had families to support. Sometimes employers did not hire qualified, young married women because they might become pregnant before long and in those days, most women became full-time mothers.
If a woman wanted or needed to end a pregnancy, there was nowhere to go but a back-alley abortionist who was, with rare exceptions, not a physician operating in unsanitary conditions. Many women died.
You all know the story of how it began to change for women. In 1963, the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan kicked it off. It astonishes me now, given what a turgid read the book is, how many of us read it and how inspired we were.
Thousands of women joined ad hoc study sessions with friends (remember consciousness raising groups?) often in secret because husbands, in those days, had the power to control what their wives read.
Life didn’t change overnight. Even though my husband and I would surely have been bankrupt if we had relied on his financial skills, he got the credit rating when we divorced in 1971, and no company would give me a credit card although it was, by then, legal for me to have one in my name alone.
It took a long time for the language to change too. As late as 1975, women of all ages were still called “girls” and the honorific, Ms., for those brave enough to use it, remained suspect.
During the long years of transition, there were impassioned arguments about whether men should open doors for women and if they should still walk next to the curb (or was it the building?) when with a woman – uh, girl, whatever. It seems so silly now.
I clearly recall the first time I actively stood up for one of my new-found rights. At the local television show where I worked in New York, I had been asked to train a man who had been promoted to producer.
A few days later, quite by accident, I saw our show’s paychecks laid out on a desk in the production manager’s office as he prepared to distribute them that week. The producer-in-training’s check was about a third larger than mine.
I was livid. What came rushing to mind was a similarly unfair situation when I was 18, working at an insurance company and heading up a small department of four people.
One day I was called into the company president’s office and told to train a new girl for my job. Oh, no, he said, there was nothing wrong with my work, but the new girl had a college degree.
Later I learned that she was also the president’s daughter’s best friend. If you were a girl in those days, 1959, and if you were as young as I was then, you didn’t argue with your boss, especially if he was a man.
But I immediately took the week of vacation I was owed and found another job within a couple of days leaving the new girl on her own. (I told you the other day I can be mean.)
Back to that TV show in the mid-1970s. I took my fury home with me that night to ponder my options. Then, in a closed-door meeting with the production manager, I calmly explained what I had learned about our salaries, noted that I was far more experienced than the new producer and that I expected an adjustment in my weekly check.
It was amazing how quickly my salary was raised and not only that, my next check contained an additional amount equal to six months of the raise.
Although the federal equal pay act was a decade old at the time, it was still widely ignored and women had only recently begun to sue in situations such as mine.
I was immensely proud of standing up for myself this time instead of skulking off without a word of protest at being wrongly treated. It was one thing, within the women’s movement, to write letters, to march, picket, carry signs – all important in reaching the goal. This, however, was personal and I had done it myself, for myself. And I had won.
But it was bigger than that too. Mine was only one small act of resistance to the status quo of women (more politely and quietly, by the way, than I would handle it today). But in cities all across America, millions of others were standing up too for their own and others rights and each one helped make a difference in changing the world we live in.
Nowadays, our personal physician or lawyer is as likely to be a woman as a man. Women today can be soldiers and astronauts and truck drivers and anything they can imagine. The number of women CEOs and senators and representatives is growing – not enough yet, but we are gaining on parity and any woman can aspire to be president, even ones who are unqualified – just like men.
That wasn’t true when we were little girls, but because of us, our generation, little girls today can grow up to be anything they want to work for. Sometimes I am awed when I think about what we accomplished. It’s never easy going against entrenched culture.
So here’s today’s assignment: Tell us about your experiences with the women’s movement. How did you become aware of it? How did it impact your life in the early days? How do you think your life has been changed because of it?
Men aren’t off the hook for this today. Many of you did join us and certainly your lives have been changed too.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Shao Zhu