Flashbacks May 2006

Women at Work

Articles from the '70s, '80s, and '90s address the ongoing obstacles that career women face.

Much has lately been made of the alleged battle between women who work and those who opt to stay home with children. Mothers who decide to return to the workplace are often portrayed as power-hungry climbers who shun the simple home life in favor of glamour, prestige, and expensive accessories. Despite such popular stereotypes, however, the path of the career woman has never been a smooth or easy one. Even now, though significant strides have been made toward leveling the playing field, women still face obstacles—some covert, others blatant—to their professional acceptance and advancement.

In the years since the women’s movement awakened many Americans to the idea that women as well as men might harbor ambition, a number of Atlantic articles have commented on the professional status of women—assessing their progress and considering just how far they ought to go in their quest for equal treatment and compensation.

In March 1970, as the women’s movement gathered steam, The Atlantic published an issue almost entirely devoted to the question of “Women’s Place.” In a forty-one-page collection of articles, the magazine addressed the question of why, as the introduction put it, “American women, while enjoying more material, political, and social advantages than any other women in history, are nonetheless so discontent with their lot.” One reason for women’s dissatisfaction, the collection made clear, was the ongoing problem of inequity in the workplace. In her article, “Job Discrimination and What Women Can Do About It,” sociologist and women’s rights activist Alice Rossi shared galling anecdotes she had heard from women held back from advancement in their careers. “I never wanted to teach grade school children,” one woman had told Rossi. “But I found so much prejudice and resentment against me in my first job in an architectural firm... that I couldn’t take it. I left and switched to teaching art. At least I feel welcome in a school.” Another explained,

I had the experience last year of seeing a job I had filled for two years upgraded when it was filled by a man, at double the salary I was paid for the same work. College trained women are lumped with the secretarial and clerical staff, while college trained men are seen as potential executives. A few years of this and everybody is behaving according to what is expected of them, not what they are capable of.

Rossi attributed part of the problem to a kind of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” confusion over appropriate feminine comportment:

If [women] are vital and assertive, they are rejected as “aggressive bitches out to castrate men.” If they are quiet and unassuming, they are rejected as “unlikely to amount to much.” Women who try to ease their acceptance by male colleagues in a masculine profession with sweetness-and-light talk may be kept on in the particular low-status niche they occupy, but then find that they are rejected for promotion because they lack drive and ambition.

She urged women to lobby for more expansive anti-discrimination laws and to exercise vigilance in ensuring that those already on the books were being respected.

Also in the March 1970 issue was a short piece by Diane Schulder, a New York Attorney, who offered a dismaying look at various laws from the not-so-distant past. Schulder pointed to one nineteenth-century law that barred women from working as attorneys. She quoted the 1872 ruling in which the Supreme Court upheld the decision:

Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.

Another Supreme Court ruling, issued as recently as 1948, upheld a law prohibiting any woman except “the wife or daughter of the male owner” from working as a bartender.  The court explained its thinking as follows:

The fact that women may now have achieved the virtues that men have long claimed as their prerogatives, and now indulge in vices that men have long practiced, does not preclude the States from drawing a sharp line between the sexes, certainly in such matters as the regulation of liquor traffic.
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