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.

Today, most of the explicit barriers to female participation in the workforce have fallen. But in many fields, women continue to be significantly underrepresented. One such field is politics. In her 1992 article titled “Crashing the Locker Room,” lawyer and essayist Wendy Kaminer took a considered look at the shortage of women in Congress.

The exclusion of women from Congress is not exactly news; it’s history. Only fourteen women have ever served in the U.S. Senate, and the majority of them inherited their husbands’ seats or were appointed for limited terms by governors with whom they had political or personal connections…. Out of 11,230 people who have served in Congress, only one percent have been women. Today there are two women in the Senate and twenty-eight women in the House (out of 435 members). In other words, women constitute 5.6 percent of Congress, an increase of only about three percentage points since 1971.

Kaminer spoke with a number of female politicians from both parties who discussed what they saw as some of the barriers to female political success. They cited a variety of factors—from voters’ perceptions of women as less tough and competent than men, to the fact that most women lack powerful political connections. Many also lamented the inordinate amount of attention paid by the media to female politicians’ physical appearance and marital status. As Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland put it, “If you’re married, you’re neglecting the guy; if you’re divorced, you couldn’t keep him; if you’re a widow, you killed him; if you’re single, you couldn’t get a man.”

Kaminer noted that many of those women who do make it in politics have done so by deliberately capitalizing on feminine stereotypes. A number of women, she noted, have won campaigns by playing up their femininity and making the case that they are somehow congenitally best suited to look after the needy, safeguard the welfare of children, govern by agreeable compromise instead of confrontation, and generally keep government running smoothly, as though they were keeping house. But while such tactics can be successful in the short term, Kaminer warned, the longer-term results may be damaging:

The dangers of using stereotypes like these should be clear to generations of women who have had to prove their unfeminine ability and had to fight for the right to exercise power overtly outside the home, as well as covertly within it. By claiming “feminine” virtues, women may effectively deprive themselves of “masculine” strengths. Whether women candidates can exploit feminine stereotypes without ultimately being defeated by them is an unasked question at the heart of many women’s campaigns.

Other Atlantic writers, however, have taken issue with the idea that women ought to assert their “masculine” strengths in every arena. In a June 1980 article titled "Annie, Don’t Get Your Gun," Mary Jo Salter reacted negatively to a proposal by President Jimmy Carter that women should be subjected to the draft. Carter professed to have put forth the proposal on feminist grounds, on the theory that men and women should be treated equally across the board. But Salter objected, pointing out that women are physically less robust than men and temperamentally less bellicose. Laying claim to equal rights, she argued, should not have to mean pretending to be the same:

To be man’s equal, must we share his wardrobe of three-piece suits and military uniforms? It may be understandable, but is certainly regrettable, that “equality” in so many cases means conformity to the male habit. To earn the right to speak our minds, must we agree that we’ve always been “highly combative,” or that we ought to let them teach us how to be? Too often we’ve been told that to be dedicated professionals, we must eagerly sacrifice all for our jobs and neglect our children (if our offices allow us time to give birth at all). Now, to be dedicated citizens—and feminists—we must accept the male notion of citizenship as including compulsory military service. We are not nearly assertive enough, I think. If we were, we would balk at the all-encompassing view that equality means identicality—and that identicality, to return to the clothing metaphor, means that both sexes wear pants, not skirts.

A decade later, military sociologist Charles Moskos likewise took up the question of equal opportunity in the military. For his article “Army Women” (August 1990), he spoke with a number of female soldiers and learned that from carving out privacy within mixed-gender tents during field maneuvers, to coming to terms with the generally much lower cleanliness standards of their male compatriots, women in the Army face an unusual set of challenges. Many, he discovered, find themselves in the lonely position of avoiding closeness both with their male peers (for fear of being accused of improper conduct) and with their female peers (for fear of being suspected of homosexuality). Perhaps most frustrating of all, he learned, was that, according to Army rules, a woman often has “to be removed from an assignment she has been trained for simply because there is danger.” He quoted one female helicopter pilot who was not allowed to fly with her peers during the invasion of Panama:  “I was insane with anger,” she told him. “After nine years of training they left me out. It was the ultimate slam.”

But there will always be those who doubt women’s claims that they are being discriminated against in a systematic way. In a September 1986 article “Women in the Work Force,” George Guilder suggested that women have in fact have come farther in their quest for equal opportunity and control over their careers than the statistics superficially seem to show. True, he conceded, there are far fewer women in the workforce than men, and overall they make less money. But a more nuanced analysis of the data, he argued, reveals that highly educated women who are unmarried and work full time do earn about the same amount as their male counterparts. It is the highly educated, affluent women who are married, he suggested, that scale back on their work, skewing the statistics to show a lower level of female participation at lower pay.

So are women as a group being discriminated against? Guilder, for one, thought not. “Let us at least consider the possibility,” he wrote, “that many women, deliberately rejecting the values of male careerists, are discriminating against the job ‘rat race’ and in favor of their families.”

—Elizabeth Pantazelos