Women In The Workplace Still Face Inequality

By the end of 2010, women will likely make up the majority of the workplace. And though they've made many gains, they still deal with inequality. Nancy Gibbs, the Time's editor-at-large, and New York Times columnist Gail Collins examine how women have changed the workplace.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

A generation ago, a vocal women's movement argued there was no reason they couldn't have it all: fulfilling careers, rich family lives, prominent roles in politics and business - most of all, the freedom to make their own choices. A special report in this week's Time magazine finds that American women have made huge strides in the workplace since those days. By year's end, for example, women will make up more than half the workforce. That persistent wage gap is still there, but it's closed significantly. And Time's poll found more than three quarters of adults say that's good for both society and the economy.

But balancing the demands of the workplace with a family remains a serious problem and interestingly, both men and women say their employers have not done enough to accommodate a world where 70 percent of American families have a working mom. So employers, we want to hear from you today. How has the growing number of women in the workplace changed the work environment, and what have you done to accommodate working parents? Tell us your story. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, NPR's 50 Great Voices project. You can send us an email with your nominee. The address again, talk@npr.org. But first, women, families and the workplace, and we begin with Nancy Gibbs, editor-at-large for Time and a contributor to Time's special report, "The State of the American Woman." She joins us from the studios of Time in New York City. Nice of you to be with us today.

Ms. NANCY GIBBS (Editor-at-Large, Time Magazine): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And when it comes to women, work and family, what's surprised you in these findings?

Ms. GIBBS: Well, I was surprised that after at least a generation of having this argument about, you know, the battle of the sexes and women's place and where is it, that both men and women essentially say, that's over. It's not where people's heads are. When you ask people, do you think that men lost the battle of the sexes, a majority of both say no. But that doesn't mean they think women lost it, either. It means they just think we have more important things to do and talk about now.

CONAN: And it was interesting that both men and women argue that there has not -being done enough by employers to accommodate both men and women who have to deal with their families.

Ms. GIBBS: That's right. And you know, issues that have been framed perhaps falsely but persistently as women's issues up until now - issues like child care and paid family leave and elder care - across the board, we found that men and women alike, by large majorities, felt that institutions, whether government or their employers and the private sector, have not adjusted to these fundamental changes in the American family.

CONAN: Things like flexible hours, more time off. More - specifically, more paid time off.

Ms. GIBBS: Well, the thing - flexibility really was the watch word again and again, of what - you know, when we asked people what it is that you most need in order to be able to make this balance work, that the appeal of flexibility so that people can juggle. You can't predict when a crisis might hit your family, whether it's with an elderly parent or with your children. And being trusted to be able to get your work done, but perhaps have your hours - have to be more flexible is something that workers across the board really crave.

CONAN: My favorite was when these schools would cancel suddenly at 10 o'clock and send the kids home.

Ms. GIBBS: And of course, who is supposed to be at home to receive them?

CONAN: Exactly, if both parents are working. And that seems to be the environment that most families are in these days, and these studies are fascinating. Men - or 71 percent of men say they're comfortable - more comfortable than their fathers with women working outside their home. Eighty percent of men and women are comfortable with the idea that the female partner earns more than the man. But the fact is in many cases, maybe in most cases, both are working outside the home, and flexibility's paramount.

Ms. GIBBS: That's right. And the one thing I thought was very striking was that when we asked people what do you think is best for children, therestill are very traditional views about what children need. And a majority of both men and women said that the fact that a generation ago, a majority of kids were being raised by a parent at home and now that number is below 30 percent, that that is a bad thing, that that's bad for children. And so you would think that these two things are contradictory, if it's good that more women are working, but it's bad that more children are not being raised by a stay-at-home parent. But I think that really does point to this sense that particularly employers have not made it more possible for families to manage these competing demands and competing pressures more easily.

CONAN: And we say the word employers as if it's some sort of, you know, as if they're not people, too. Of course they are. They have, probably, kids at home as well. And they're in the same situation. Nevertheless, they're under a lot of economic pressures, too.

Ms. GIBBS: I think that's right. And of course, you know, it varies widely across different sectors of the economy, and there are some - there are large corporations that have made tremendous advances in figuring out how to accommodate the needs of working families - not necessarily out of, you know, great corporate benevolence but out of self-interest, that as a way of winning and retaining top talent, that having a workplace that is viewed as being family friendly and flexible is a very attractive quality for many companies.

CONAN: And we want to hear especially from employers today, but other people who work of a living, too. What has happened in your workplace to accommodate working mothers and fathers? And, well, have you done enough, employers? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

We'll turn next to Gail Collins, an author and a columnist for The New York Times. Her new book is called "When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present." It came out earlier this month. And she joins us from our bureau in New York. Good of you to be with us today.

Ms. GAIL COLLINS (Author; Columnist, The New York Times): Good to be here.

CONAN: And you chart the amazing progress that American women have made, or they're making change, in any case - I think most would say it's progress - in the last 50 years, in just 50 years. But one of the interesting findings of this study is that well, yeah, it's progress and it's important that women go out in the workforce, but women say they're not as happy.

Ms. COLLINS: Well, you know, part of that is I remember Ellen, the great columnist Ellen Goodman, saying years and years ago that, you know, in the '70s, that she found that all of her women friends were happy and her men friends were all miserable because her men friends grew up thinking they wanted to be president of the United States, and they wound up just being a professor at a college. And their - her women friends thought that they would just become housewives, and they wound up being professors at a college.

CONAN: At a college.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: So the women were really happy. And I think, truly, a lot of the unhappiness is not grief or misery so much as just the feeling of either trying to meet expectations for themselves that are so high, or just trying to get everything done that they want to do. There's a richness in life that I think should be celebrated but boy, are people hassled and harassed these days.

CONAN: And by that gap, we're talking about the difficulty of juggling the job and the family.

Ms. COLLINS: Absolutely.

CONAN: It was fascinating to me the speed with which you commented this happened. There's a great quote from you in the Time article that said: It happened so quickly, neither side had time to go to the barricades.

Ms. COLLINS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: We might have worked it out entirely differently if there had been a plan, but no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It is remarkable, when you think about it. Was there a turning point, do you think?

Ms. COLLINS: Yeah, there - but in the mid to late '60s and early '70s, everything literally changed, almost overnight. It was just stunning. Within a decade, things that people had thought for a million years about women and the way they were just ended over - almost overnight. And it was a combination of, on the one hand, the birth control pill arrived. The civil rights movement arrived, which made us very sensitive to unfairness in any way, shape or form. And the economy changed. And that was probably the most important of all. The economy needed more women workers. There weren't enough men. Women could do the job, sometimes even better than men that were coming on the line. And the American family after World War II had gotten used to a lifestyle that they were certainly not prepared to give up, yet after - when the '70s kicked in and the economy faltered, it no longer became possible to support it with one person's income.

CONAN: So almost 40 years ago, that change happened. A lot of workplaces have yet to accommodate to it. How has your workplace changed to accommodate the larger number of women? And employers, have you done enough? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Richard on the line from St. Louis.

RICHARD (Caller): Hi. I have to admit that at the beginning, working in architecture, the women who came to the profession were wide-eyed and very optimistic about being shown as equals in a meritocracy to their male counterparts. And I have to admit - and I don't want to say which firm I'm working with - but we took advantage of that, and we paid them lower wages, and they were happy with this.

Now, it's repugnant because we look at now as a meritocracy. But one of the things that showed up for me - and I think was hinted at in your conversation -was that the paradigm through which men had worked in the workplace was a bankrupt paradigm already. And when you talk about the war of the sexes, you're right, there was no time for anybody to man any barricades.

What's really occurred is that women have acceded to the paradigm men had, which was spending less time with your family, coming home tired and not even having the energy to complete the necessary tasks, and really missing out on the very essence of what family and what culture is about for the sake of a buck.

And so, you know, I want to end with saying that the women have shown themselves, in many cases, to be far more excellent in the job than the men, more detail-oriented and full of integrity in a way that, I hate to say, I did not see in the hires and my peers, and I'll leave it at that.

CONAN: Well, Richard, what time period was this when you were hiring women for significantly less?

RICHARD: It started in the '70s, and it has gone to the present.

CONAN: To the present?

RICHARD: To the present. And women are still not earning, dollar for dollar, what men are.

CONAN: And if they start out at a lower salary, of course, even if they stay for 30 years, they're still going to be earning less.

RICHARD: The unfortunate truth.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much. I appreciate your candor, Richard.

RICHARD: Thank you.

CONAN: I'm not sure I want to work for you, but I appreciate your candor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I think that situation, Nancy Gibbs, that he describes is, well, I'm not sure it applies so much today - at least I hope not.

Ms. GIBBS: Well, there certainly was a time when it was perfectly common for employers to flatly, you know, admit to women that they were paying them less because they - the assumption that a woman who was working was just, you know, sort of earning pocket money. And now you have 40 percent of women as primary breadwinners in their homes, and particularly in the past year in this recession, more and more households are more and more dependent on the income that women are bringing in. And so for women to be underpaid for, you know, whatever their labor is, is not something just that punishes them. It punishes the entire family.

CONAN: Interesting, too, that within that family dynamic, huge percentages of women are described as either the account or the financial manager. They take care of the money, no matter who brings it in.

We're talking about the American workplace and the role of women there. We want to hear from you. Employees, employers, how has the growing number of women in the workplace changed the work environment? And employers, what have you done to accommodate working parents? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Look at the American workplace, and you'll see a mightily different gender makeup than perhaps your parents did. It's expected that by the end of this year, for the first time in history, the majority of workers in the U.S. will be women. And as the wage gap closes a little, according to a poll conducted by Time magazine, 89 percent of both men and women are comfortable with the notion of a family in which a woman earns more than a man.

We're talking with Nancy Gibbs today - she's editor-at-large for Time magazine - and with Gail Collins. Her most recent book was published this month, called "When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present."

How has the growing number of women in the workplace changed your work environment - and employers, what have you done to accommodate working parents? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's get George on the line, George calling us from Mason City in Iowa.

GEORGE (Caller): Hello. Actually, I am female, even though I do have a male first name.

CONAN: George can be applied to women, too, and certainly is in this case. Go ahead, please.

GEORGE: There you go. Actually, I wanted to just address the author of the Time article, which I read yesterday and set aside for a class that I'm leading a discussion in on generations. And I noticed with particular interest when the 45-and-under group is broken out from the larger just sort of women, and I'm curious whether the author has read "Generations" by Strauss and Howe and how that played into - whether it played into the questions they were asking.

CONAN: Nancy Gibbs? Hold on, we'll get your mic up.

Ms. GIBBS: Oh.

CONAN: Go ahead, Nancy.

Ms. GIBBS: I said, I know Neil Howe has a lot of very interesting ideas about how generations identify themselves, and it was one of the things that really struck me in our poll - was that whatever attitudes we were seeing across the board, we saw more intensely among younger people.

So for instance, if a majority of men and women are very comfortable with women being fully present in the workplace, people 18 to 29 are the most enthusiastic about that. If people feel that they're experiencing more frequent stress in their daily life, we found much higher stress levels among younger workers than among, say, people who were 55 and older.

So there were - there were almost, on some questions, more significant differences between younger people and older people than there were between men and women, which I think speaks to what Gail has so wonderfully laid out in her book, is that over this generation, so much has change so quickly that today's young men and women have very different assumptions and expectations than their parents did.

CONAN: And Gail Collins, that suggests it's going to accelerate.

Ms. COLLINS: Yeah. And it also suggests, I think, that some of the things that older people thought as defeats, you know, that if you're not - if you give up, say if you're a woman and you decide that you can and want to stay home for a while, there's - my generation tended to think of that as sort of giving it up for the girls and you're not really holding on to the sexual banner the way you should. And those things don't exist anymore for younger women. I mean, they just presume that they're going to work and that if they don't, it's just them. It's not some cosmic thing going on.

GEORGE: It's interesting that you mention that, because I do remember when I was in college having a college professor tell my generation - I graduated in '88 - that we were letting down the sisterhood, that we didn't know how far we had been brought, and we were squandering our opportunities. Mind you, this is at Yale.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GEORGE: But…

CONAN: Standing on the shoulder straps of giants?

Ms. GIBBS: Those Yale squanderers; we hate that.

GEORGE: Well, you know, here I am, a stay-at-home mom, and don't think it doesn't sometimes grate for me. But I guess what I worry about is that I may be raising my children more conservative. Strauss and Howe discuss sort of an 80-year cycle, and that we may be moving into a more conservative, narrower, gender-role era. And I'm…

CONAN: Does the data show that, Nancy Gibbs?

Ms. GIBBS: Well, you know, I think that maybe the shock of this year and the economy, whatever trend lines might have been in place, everything got blown up when the world as we knew it came to end this time a year ago, And so whatever - yes, you know, social attitudes and economic attitudes are so intertwined, but even if there were an inclination towards a more conservative view of gender roles - and our poll found, as I mentioned, you know, the persistent, very traditional ideas.

Like when we asked people what was most important for - of what they wanted for their daughters, large majorities ranked first that she have a happy marriage and children, far more than said either an interesting career or financial success. And again, this was both men and women.

And so while these - there are, you know, persistent - sort of traditional, conservative, however we want to frame them, attitudes, the reality of this economy is that putting food on the table and being able to provide for your family is going to be, you know, so front and center in the decisions people are making. I think it's - in some ways, having, you know, very old-fashioned attitudes about the division of labor is a luxury that very few families could afford, anyway.

CONAN: George, thanks very much.

GEORGE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Mike, Mike with us from Traverse City in Michigan.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, how are you doing today?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

MIKE: I'm wondering why we don't see more women in the skilled-trades area. We have a company and we have female managers, which seem to be more attentive to detail and actually do a better job, and I'd kind of like to see more of that in our field personnel. But when we apply, there's just no applicants.

CONAN: Gail Collins, there are some jobs that are - women do apply for in large numbers, and some they don't.

Ms. COLLINS: There are, but you know, when this - often I find that the kinds of jobs that women don't apply for are the kinds of jobs that have very long-standing, barnacle-like encrusted levels of history: things that are unionized, that people tend in families to do over and over again, that fathers do and then their sons do - really, really hard for women to break into. And that may not be in all parts of the country, but it really has been - there are very long, hard, painful stories about women trying to go into, say, construction trades and not being welcomed much. So although it is changing, it's been a really tough hoe for them.

CONAN: Mike, it sounds like you would welcome more women.

MIKE: We certainly would.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Tina, Tina with us from Savannah.

TINA (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

TINA: Just a quick observation, and I'll leave you guys to comment. I'm 37, have been in the human resources and staffing industry for about 16 years now. And interestingly, in my experience, I have found my male employers to be much more accommodating and tolerant than my female employers. And again, this just may be particular in my case, but those female employers had chosen career over family. And you know, there seemed to be some sense of resentment against my wanting to have it all. So I'll leave that to you guys to discuss.

CONAN: All right, Tina, thanks very much.

TINA: Thank you.

CONAN: And Gail - excuse me, Nancy, I don't think that's an uncommon perception.

Ms. GIBBS: Well, we asked people about that, and one of the interesting places where we did find a difference in the responses between men and women was when we asked: Are female bosses harder to work for? And only 29 percent of men said that they were. Forty-five percent of women thought that women were harder to work for.

CONAN: And she attributed that to some resentment of women who were not perhaps as career-motivated as they had been, the managers.

Ms. GIBBS: You know, I'd be reluctant to generalize and since, you know, over the course of your career, you know, any of us has such a narrow sample to draw conclusions from. But it was - you know, when we asked this across the board, that was one of the biggest differences.

One of the other biggest differences between men and women was we asked: Do you think men resent powerful women? And only 49 percent of men admitted to resenting powerful women. Sixty-nine percent of women think that men resent powerful women.

CONAN: Ah-ha, interesting. Here's an email from Reyna(ph). I don't really think the employer is at the heart of this issue. Parents think it's bad that more kids are being cared for by people other than mom and dad, yet they continue to live a lifestyle that requires two working parents to fund it. Americans' robust appetite for goods and services is driving this problem.

I've worked for 20-plus years for the same employer, and I'm out now because I chose to spend less, have less money but more freedom to spend with my family. I'm not interested anymore with being - keeping up with the Joneses or even keeping up with them, for that matter. And Gail Collins, this lifestyle issue that, well, people want to maintain the nice house and the two cars.

Ms. COLLINS: Yeah, but - and the lifestyle issue, I mean, the biggest cost, the huge, two big-ticket items in the lifestyle are a house and college education for the kids. And those are humongous, and you don't - it's very hard to do those.

You know, we had a story in the Times some time ago about Yale women - again, Yale women - saying they'd like to stay home with their kids. And one of the guys on the editorial board who was young, who was in his early 30s, wrote a thing for us saying, excuse me, young women, on behalf of the young men…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLLINS: …we haven't been polled on this, and I'm not sure that we could manage this. It's very, very hard to maintain a house that has sort of middle-class standards, as we think of them. And I'm not sure that it means that you're kind of wildly spending money on nights out at the opera, or whatever - just those basic things people have come to think of as critical to family life are very, very expensive.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jim. Jim with us from Spencer, Iowa.

JIM (Caller): Yeah. When I first started - started hiring women on my construction crew, we experienced something that the guys couldn't get away with - or the ambulances.

(Soundbite of traffic)

JIM: They insisted on a lot safer working conditions. And you know, if the guys were complaining about no hardhat or no railing or no guidelines, you know, then they would just be fired or told to get off the job. And I think even OSHA, I think, has come about as a result of certain members of the workforce who insisted that, you know, things just weren't safe anymore, or not safe enough.

CONAN: And that sounds like a good thing for everybody.

JIM: I - absolutely.

CONAN: And you have - hire women now in the construction trade?

JIM: I've been hiring women in my business for the last several years. I don't have any right now. You know, it just depends on, you know, how hard they want to pull because, you know, originally, the guys would help out when the fairer sex was struggling a little, and sometimes the women would actually refuse to do certain things that, you know, equal-pay individuals on the force didn't grumble about. So, you know, they got the benefit of the doubt there.

CONAN: You're talking about situations that require basically more strength?

JIM: More strength, sometimes longer hours. And the interesting - you know, those were the members that were insisting on demands for higher rates of pay a lot more often than the guys would. But I don't fault them for that.

CONAN: OK. All right, Jim. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go to another caller. This is Gary. Gary with us from Boston, Massachusetts.

GARY (Caller): Hi. I've been in (unintelligible) high tech, and one of my experiences was that so many women had heard people give lip service to these issues that they were kind of skeptical of me, especially since I was an older guy - that I was actually going to, you know, follow through with it. I was a new manager and one of my staff came back - I hadn't met her yet - from a six-month maternity leave with twins.

CONAN: Hmm.

GARY: And she had a 4-year-old. So I said look, you're a valuable part of this team. Everyone says you really do the job. But I realize you and your husband have new responsibilities at home. So if you need flex time or work-at-home, or there's an emergency at the (unintelligible), we'll find a way to work around it because we really want to have you here and wholehearted. And she gave me sort of a skeptical thank you, and I realized I had to do something to convince her I wasn't one of those jerks.

So I said something outrageous. I said, but after all, if you really want to be a professional, either you have to be a man or not have any kids. And she took that for beat and looked me in the eye and said, you mean the company would pay for a sex change operation for me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARY: So I stammered something about - don't you want to talk this over with your husband, after all? And she said, no, it's my body. And I realized, after having twins, it might have been a real consideration for her.

CONAN: And how has this worked out, Gary?

GARY: Well, it worked out well. Whenever she did need time off or when - she said - when she was going to have something done by a certain time, she did. So there was never any problem, and I knew there wouldn't be any problem. My manager, on the other hand, said, you've got to threaten your staff to make sure they're working to capacity. And I said, I never do that. They all want to do a good job. And it was a sort of like a theory X managing and the theory Y managing.

I knew these guys were professionals regardless of the agenda and I knew they were going to do a good job without my being anything but supportive.

CONAN: Gary, thanks very much.

GARY: OK.

CONAN: We're talking with Nancy Gibbs at Time magazine and Gail Collins, whose new book is called "When Everything Changed."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And at least according to your survey, Nancy Gibbs, managers like that are, well, not as common as they ought to be.

Ms. GIBBS: Well, certainly, I think in our dreams we would all have employers who were eager to be that accommodating. But it also is a reality that if you were in a profession that just requires workers to physically be present, whether it's on the shift at the hospital or behind the counter in a store, where flexibility isn't really an option - the job has to be done over a certain period of hours and working from home - or sort of making up your hours and promising, I will get my work done, isn't an option; that makes for a real challenge, especially for small business employers who, you know, who can't close their shop because, you know, a worker has a family crisis. And so I'm not suggesting that any of this is particularly easy, either for employers or for their workers, but certainly the sense that families have - and again, particularly younger families and particularly in this economy - that the tools are not in their hands to make this work.

No matter how hard they try, no matter how much effort they put in, they can't make all the pieces fit together, and that this is causing real stress on them. That is something that we heard over and over and over again.

CONAN: Well, let's get one last caller in. This is Lenore, Lenore with us from Lafayette in Colorado.

LENORE (Caller): Hi, yes. Well, briefly, my husband and I both are MIT graduates. We've both been in engineering for 20-plus years, and I can tell you that I've always been paid less than my male counterparts from the get-go -every different industry I've been in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LENORE: In fact, one company I worked for had a book where we could all go and - it was in the HR department; it was a small company - everybody could go and find out how much everybody was being paid. And it was a little bit of an eye-opener.

CONAN: Yeah. What did you do about it?

LENORE: You know, nothing really, in that particular case. My hours were flexible enough. I knew I couldn't get that much anywhere else. I was just starting a family. It was a good opportunity for me, and the money wasn't the issue. Money isn't always the issue, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Right. Right. Not always. But it…

LENORE: But, you know…

CONAN: …I could - it still grates; I can hear it.

LENORE: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LENORE: And after 20 - you know, after 20-plus years, my husband and I - my husband - you know, I was laid off three years ago and I've been a stay-at-home mom and started my own business - love it. I'm so glad I'm not working for anybody else anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LENORE: You know, at that point, my husband was making 30 percent more than I was.

CONAN: And graduated the same year.

LENORE: Well, close.

CONAN: Close enough. Close enough.

LENORE: Close enough that it was, you know, we kept track of it, and we're both amazed.

CONAN: Well, Lenore, good luck as self-employed.

LENORE: Oh, I'm loving it.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for phone call. And that wage gap that she describes does still exist, though it is closing somewhat.

Nancy Gibbs, thank you very much for your time today.

Ms. GIBBS: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Nancy Gibbs is editor-at-large at Time magazine. She's written more than a hundred cover stories, and joins us today from that magazine's studio in New York City. And our thanks as well to Gail Collins, who joined us from our bureau in New York. Her new book is "When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present." Good luck with the book.

Ms. COLLINS: Thank you.

CONAN: Coming up, Eartha Kitt's purr, Johnny Cash's smooth growl, Judy Garland's tender vibrato. NPR wants to know the 50 greatest voices. Stay with us; it's NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'When Everything Changed'

'When Everything Changed' book cover
When Everything Changed
By Gail Collins
Hardcover, 480 pages
Little, Brown and Company
List Price: $27.99

Chapter One

1. Repudiating Rosie

"Some of you DO wear a cautious face."

In January 1960, Mademoiselle welcomed in a new decade for America's young women by urging them to be ... less boring. "Some of you do wear a cautious face," the editors admitted. "But are you really — cautious, unimaginative, determined to play it safe at any price?" Mademoiselle certainly hoped not. But its readers had good reason to set their sights low. The world around them had been drumming one message into their heads since they were babies: women are meant to marry and let their husbands take care of all the matters relating to the outside world. They were not supposed to have adventures or compete with men for serious rewards. ("I think that when women are encouraged to be competitive too many of them become disagreeable," said Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose baby book had served as the bible for the postwar generation of mothers.) Newsweek, decrying a newly noticed phenomenon of dissatisfied housewives in 1960, identified the core of the issue: menstruation. "From the beginning of time, the female cycle has defined and confined woman's role," the newsmagazine wrote. "As Freud was credited with saying: 'Anatomy is destiny.'

Though no group of women has ever pushed aside these natural restrictions as far as the American wife, it seems that she still cannot accept them in good grace. Most girls grew up without ever seeing a woman doctor, lawyer, police officer, or bus driver. Jo Freeman, who went to Berkeley in the early '60s, realized only later that while she had spent four years "in one of the largest institutions of higher education in the world — and one with a progressive reputation," she had never once had a female professor. "I never even saw one. Worse yet, I didn't notice." If a young woman expressed interest in a career outside the traditional teacher/nurse/secretary, her mentors carefully shepherded her back to the proper path. As a teenager in Pittsburgh, Angela Nolfi told her guidance counselor that she wanted to be an interior decorator, but even that very feminine pursuit apparently struck her adviser as too high-risk or out of the ordinary. "He said, 'Why don't you be a home-economics teacher?' " she recalled. And once Mademoiselle had finished urging its readers to shoot for the sky, it celebrated the end of the school year with an article on careers that seemed to suggest most new college graduates would be assuming secretarial duties, and ended with tips on "pre-job hand-beautifying" for a new generation of typists.

Whenever things got interesting, women seemed to vanish from the scene. There was no such thing as a professional female athlete — even in schools, it was a given that sports were for boys. An official for the men-only Boston Marathon opined that it was "unhealthy for women to run long distances." When Mademoiselle selected seven "headstrong people who have made names for themselves lately" to comment on what the 1960s would bring, that magazine for young women managed to find only one headstrong woman to include in the mix — playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who did double duty as the panel's only minority.

"Women used to be the big stars, but these days it's men."

Nothing sent the message about women's limited options more forcefully than television, which had just finished conquering the nation with a speed that made Alexander the Great look like an underachiever. In 1950 only about 9 percent of American homes boasted a set, but by 1960 nearly 90 percent of families had a TV, and those who didn't were feeling very deprived indeed. Beverly Burton, a Wyoming farm wife, had been estranged throughout the 1950s from a mother who had once told her she was sorry Beverly had ever been born. When her mother decided to mend fences, she sent Burton a note saying, "I hope this will cover the past" — attached to a television set. And it did indeed become a turning point in the relationship.

The postwar generation that was entering adolescence in the 1960s had grown up watching Howdy Doody, the must-see TV for the first wave of baby boomers. Howdy was a raucous puppet show in which the human performers interspersed broad physical comedy with endless pitches for the sponsors' products. "But all the slapstick stopped when they brought out Princess Summerfall Winterspring," remembered Stephen Davis, a childhood fan whose father worked on the show. The princess, played by a teenage singer named Judy Tyler, was the only long-running female character in Howdy Doody's crowded cast. The role had been created when a producer realized "we could sell a lot of dresses if only we had a girl on the show," and the princess spent most of her time expressing concern about plot developments taking place while she was offstage. Adults approved. "The harshness and crudeness which so many parents objected to in Howdy Doody now appears to have largely been a case of too much masculinity," said Variety. But the stuff that made kids love the show — the broad comedy and bizarre plots — was all on the male side of the equation. Princess Summerfall Winterspring sang an occasional song — and watched.

The more popular and influential television became, the more efficiently women were swept off the screen. In the 1950s, when the medium was still feeling its way, there were a number of shows built around women — mainly low-budget comedies such as Our Miss Brooks, Private Secretary, and My Little Margie. None of the main characters were exactly role models — Miss Brooks was a teacher who spent most of her time mooning over a hunky biology instructor, and Margie lived off her rich father. Still, the shows were unquestionably about them. And the most popular program of all was "I Love Lucy," in which Lucille Ball was the focus of every plotline, ever striving to get out of her three-room apartment and into her husband Ricky's nightclub show.

But by 1960 television was big business, and if women were around at all, they were in the kitchen, where they decorously stirred a single pot on the stove while their husbands and children dominated the action. (In 1960 the nominees for the Emmy for best comedy series were The Bob Cummings Show, The Danny Thomas Show, The Jack Benny Show, The Red Skelton Show, The Phil Silvers Show, and Father Knows Best.) When a script did turn its attention to the wife, daughter, or mother, it was frequently to remind her of her place and the importance of letting boys win. On Father Knows Best, younger daughter Kathy was counseled by her dad on how to deliberately lose a ball game. Teenage daughter Betty found happiness when she agreed to stop competing with a male student for a junior executive job at the local department store and settled for the more gender-appropriate task of modeling bridal dresses.

In dramatic series, women stood on the sidelines, looking worried. When Betty Friedan asked why there couldn't be a female lead in Mr. Novak — which was, after all, a series about a high school teacher — she said the producer explained, "For drama, there has to be action, conflict. ... For a woman to make decisions, to triumph over anything, would be unpleasant, dominant, masculine." Later in the decade, the original Star Trek series would feature a story about a woman so desperate to become a starship captain — a post apparently restricted to men — that she arranged to have her brain transferred into Captain Kirk's body. The crew quickly noticed that the captain was manicuring his nails at the helm and having hysterics over the least little thing.

Cowboy action series were the best-loved TV entertainment in 1960. Eleven of the top twenty-five shows were Westerns, and they underlined the rule that women did not have adventures, except the ones that involved getting kidnapped or caught in a natural disaster. "Women used to be the big stars, but these days it's men," said Michael Landon, one of the leads in Bonanza, the long-running story of an all-male family living on a huge Nevada ranch after the Civil War. Perhaps to emphasize their heterosexuality, the Cartwright men had plenty of romances. But the scriptwriters killed their girlfriends off at an extraordinarily speedy clip. The family patriarch, Ben, had been widowed three times, and his three sons all repeatedly got married or engaged, only to quickly lose their mates to the grim reaper. A rather typical episode began with Joe (Landon) happily dancing with a new fiancee. Before the first commercial, the poor girl was murdered on her way home from the hoedown.

"All the men become lawyers and all the women work on committees."

TV created the impression that once married, a woman literally never left her house. Even if the viewers knew that this really wasn't true, many did accept the message that when matrimony began, working outside the home ended. In reality, however, by 1960 there were as many women working as there had been at the peak of World War II, and the vast majority of them were married. (Young single adult women were, as we'll see, as rare as female action heroes at this point in history.) More than 30 percent of American wives were holding down jobs, including almost 40 percent of wives with school-age children.

Yet to look at the way Americans portrayed themselves on television, in newspapers, and in magazines, you'd have thought that married women who worked were limited to a handful of elementary school teachers and the unlucky wives of sharecroppers and drunkards. Marlene Sanders, one of the very few women who managed to do on-the-air reporting for network television, left in 1960 to give birth to a son. "After about six weeks, I thought, 'I will go crazy,' " she recalled. She hired a housekeeper and offered a male college student free room and board in return for filling in when she, her husband, and the housekeeper were all unavailable. It seemed to work, but Sanders had no idea whether the arrangement was normal or bizarre. She knew no other working mothers, and there was, she said, "no public discussion of the child-care problems of working couples." One of the first articles she ever saw on the subject, she added, was one "about how I had this male babysitter."

If all the working women were invisible, it was in part because of the jobs most of them were doing. They weren't sitting next to Sanders in the network news bureaus. They were office workers — receptionists or bookkeepers, often part-time. They stood behind cash registers in stores, cleaned offices or homes. If they were professionals, they held — with relatively few exceptions — low-paying positions that had long been defined as particularly suited to women, such as teacher, nurse, or librarian. The nation's ability to direct most of its college-trained women into the single career of teaching was the foundation upon which the national public school system was built and a major reason American tax rates were kept low. The average salary of a female teacher was $4,689 at a time when the government was reporting the average starting salary for a male liberal-arts graduate fresh out of college as $5,400. (Women graduates' salaries were significantly lower, probably in part because so many of them were going into teaching.)

Another reason the nation ignored the fact that so many housewives had outside jobs was that working women tended not to be well-represented among upper-income families. The male politicians, business executives, editors, and scriptwriters who set the tone for public discussion usually felt that wives not working was simply better. After the war, Americans had a powerful and understandable desire to settle down and return to normal. Since they were doing so in an era of incredible economic growth, it was easy to decide that stay-at-home housewives were part of the package. Women could devote all their energies to taking care of their children and husbands (politicians, businessmen, and editors included). If some of them wanted a break from domestic routine, they could volunteer to work on the PTA or, if they were wealthy enough, the charity fashion show. ("It is a tradition in the Guggenheimer family that all the men become lawyers and all the women work on committees," said a story in the Times about some well-to-do New Yorkers.) Men were supposed to be the breadwinners. A woman who worked to help support her struggling — or striving — family might want to downplay the fact rather than make her husband look inadequate. As late as 1970, a survey of women under 45 who had been or were currently married found that 80 percent believed "it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family."

The limited options for women who did work, and the postwar propaganda about the glories of homemaking, convinced the young women who were graduating from high school and college in the early 1960s that once you married, the good life was the stay-at-home life. Prestige lay in having a husband who was successful enough to keep his wife out of the workplace. Esther Peterson, the top-ranking woman in the Kennedy administration, asked an auditorium full of working-class high school girls in Los Angeles how many expected to have a "home and kids and a family," and the room was full of waving hands. But when Peterson wanted to know how many expected to work, only one or two girls signified interest. She then asked how many of their mothers worked, and, she recalled later, "all those hands went up again." The girls were disturbed by the implicit message. "In those days nine out of ten girls would work outside the home at some point in their lives," Peterson said. "But each of the girls thought that she would be that tenth girl."

"I'd know we were getting the wrong kind of girl. She's not getting married."

Employers happily took advantage of the assumption that female college graduates would work for only a few years before retiring to domesticity. They offered up a raft of theoretically glamorous short-term jobs that were intended to end long before the young women would begin to care about things like health care or pensions or even salaries. The sociologist David Riesman noted that instead of contemplating careers in fields such as business or architecture, "even very gifted and creative young women are satisfied to assume that on graduation they will get underpaid ancillary positions, whether as a Time-Life researcher or United Nations guide or publisher's assistant or reader, where they are seldom likely to advance to real opportunity."

First and foremost among these mini-career paths was being a stewardess. Girls in the postwar era had grown up reading books such as Julie with Wings, in which beautiful and spunky young women beat out the massive competition to become flight attendants. Along with teenage fiction about Cherry Ames, the inexhaustible nurse, the stewardess novels were virtually the only girls' career books around — unless you counted the girl detectives, who didn't seem to get paid for their efforts. Winning your "wings," readers learned, might require leaving behind an unimaginative boyfriend. ("Tug, there's a whole world for me to discover before I marry and all its people for me to know. I must follow the silver path for a while. Alone.") There would be difficult passengers and — according to the novels — an extraordinary number of airborne criminals. But the rewards were great. Within a few chapters, the heroine of Silver Wings for Vicki had attracted two new boyfriends, met a movie star, and helped the police arrest a smuggler. In the real world, the job was a lot more mundane, but it was still virtually the only one a young woman could choose that offered the chance to travel. As a result, the airlines got more than a hundred applicants for every opening. Schools sprang up, offering special courses that would improve the odds of getting into a flight attendant training program. (The Grace Downs Air Career School breathlessly asked potential clients to envision themselves being able to "greet oncoming passengers at lunchtime in New York and say farewell before dinner in Minneapolis!")

Despite the fact that the American experience was built around women who ventured off to create homes in an unexplored continent, there had always been a presumption that a proper woman didn't move around too much, and there was certainly a conviction that sending a woman on a business trip raised far too many risks of impropriety.

Georgia Panter, a stewardess for United Airlines in 1960, noticed that except for the occasional family, her flights were populated only by men. One regular run, the "Executive Flight" from New York to Chicago, actually barred female passengers. The men got extra large steaks, drinks, and cigars — which the stewardesses were supposed to bend over and light.

Women had been eager participants in the early years of flying, when things were disorganized and open to all comers. But any hopes they had for gaining a foothold in commercial aviation were dashed when the Commerce Department, under pressure from underemployed male pilots, exiled women from the field by prohibiting them from flying planes carrying passengers in bad weather. Instead, they got the role of hostess. The airlines originally hired nurses to serve as flight attendants, but by the postwar era, trained health-care workers were long gone and the airlines were looking for attractive, unmarried young women whose main duty would be to serve drinks and meals.

Georgia Panter and her sister — who also became a United stewardess — grew up in Smith Center, Kansas, a Plains town so remote "we used to run outside if a car went by to see who was in it." When the Panter sisters joined United, they became celebrities back home, and the local paper ran a picture of them in their uniforms. They quickly learned the downsides of the job, from the very low salary to the indignity of constantly being weighed and measured by "counselors" watching to make sure they kept their slender figures. "We had inspections often," Georgia said wryly. "Everybody seemed to think they should inspect us. Every department." (Besides limits on weight and height, stewardesses were required, according to one promotion, to have hands that were "soft and white" — a hint as to how welcome African-American applicants were at the time.) But despite the "appearance police" and pay that was lower than she had received working as a clerk for the University of Denver, Panter loved having the chance to travel. She and her sister gradually accumulated enough seniority to allow them to fly around the world on their airline passes, and they found that single-women tourists were about as rare as female businesswomen on airplanes. "People were fascinated. They'd come up to us, talk to us, invite us to their homes. They thought it was so unusual."

The airlines tried to make sure their stewardesses didn't stay around long enough to become dissatisfied with their benefits or acquainted with their union. The average tenure when the Panter sisters arrived was about eighteen months, thanks to a rule requiring the women to quit if they got married. In an era that was breaking all records for early weddings, that was all it took to ensure very rapid turnover. If a stewardess was still on the job after three years, one United executive said in 1963, "I'd know we were getting the wrong kind of girl. She's not getting married." Supervisors combed through wedding announcements looking for evidence of rule breaking. They discovered one stewardess was secretly married while the young woman was working with Georgia Panter on a cross-country flight. When the plane was making its stop in Denver, a supervisor met the flight. "He pulled that poor woman off," Panter said, "and we never saw her again."

"Hell yes, we have a quota."

Women were vigorously discouraged from seeking jobs that men might have wanted. "Hell yes, we have a quota," said a medical school dean in 1961. "Yes, it's a small one. We do keep women out, when we can. We don't want them here — and they don't want them elsewhere, either, whether or not they'll admit it." Another spokesman for a medical school, putting a more benign spin on things, said, "Yes indeed, we do take women, and we do not want the one woman we take to be lonesome, so we take two per class." In 1960 women accounted for 6 percent of American doctors, 3 percent of lawyers, and less than 1 percent of engineers. Although more than half a million women worked for the federal government, they made up 1.4 percent of the civil-service workers in the top four pay grades. Those who did break into the male-dominated professions were channeled into low-pro?le specialties related to their sex. Journalists were shuttled off to the women's page, doctors to pediatric medicine, and lawyers to behind-the-scenes work such as real estate and insurance law.

Since it was perfectly legal to discriminate on the basis of sex, there was no real comeback when employers simply said that no women need apply. A would-be journalist named Madeleine Kunin, looking for her first reporting job, applied to the Providence Journal and was rebuffed by an editor, who said, "The last woman we hired got raped in the parking lot." She applied to the Washington Post and was told she was a finalist, then later was notified that "we decided to give the job to a man." After going to Columbia Journalism School for further training, she applied to the New York Times, hoping to become a copy-editor. "We don't have anything in the newsroom for you, but I could see if we could get you a waitressing job in the Times cafeteria," said the personnel director.

Sylvia Roberts graduated in the late 1950s from Tulane Law School, intent on having a legal career in her beloved home state of Louisiana. But the placement officer was opposed to women lawyers, Roberts recalled. Furthermore, "there weren't any firms in New Orleans that would allow a woman to apply." She eventually did find a job that the Louisiana legal community considered particularly suited to a woman — the clerk to the chief justice of the state supreme court. These days, we think of a law clerkship as a high-prestige post, but back then in Louisiana, people took the word "clerk" literally. "My judge felt all women lawyers should take shorthand and should type," Roberts recalled. She lasted a year and then embarked on another job search, which landed her a starting position with a small law firm — as a secretary.

The belief that marriage meant an end to women's work life provided an all-purpose justification for giving the good opportunities to young men. Joanne Rife, a college graduate in California who was interested in industrial psychology, had a job interview in which she was pitted against a man with an inferior college record. "They asked me very pointedly if I was going to get married ... and you know I probably waffled around a little," she recalled. In the end, the male student got the opening and Rife was offered a secretarial job. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the future Supreme Court justice, went to Harvard Law School, the dean held a dinner for the handful of women in the class. He jovially opened up the conversation by asking them "to explain what we were doing in law school taking a place that could be held by a man."

Once hired, women had virtually no hope of moving up. A report on women in management by Harvard Business Review in the 1960s said there were so few such women that "there is scarcely anything to study." The idea that men were supposed to be in charge went beyond conventional wisdom; it was regarded by many as scientific fact. A federally funded study of college students' career objectives concluded that the typical coed "most easily finds her satisfaction in fields where she supports and often underwrites the male, such as secretarial work or nursing, or in volunteer work which is not paid and is clearly valued by the sentimental side of community attitudes."

"My name wasn't even on it."

Not long ago Linda McDaniel, a Kansas housewife, came across the deed to the house she and her husband had purchased when they were married in the 1960s. "It was made out to 'John McDaniel and spouse.' My name wasn't even on it," she said.

Men, in their capacity as breadwinners, were presumed to be the money managers on the home front as well as in business, and women were cut out of almost everything having to do with finances. Credit cards were issued in the husband's name. Loans were granted based on the husband's wage-earning ability, even if the wife had a job, under the theory that no matter what the woman said she planned to do, she would soon become pregnant and quit working. A rule of thumb that banks used when analyzing a couple's ability to handle a mortgage or car loan was that the salary of the wife was irrelevant if she was 28 or under. Half of her income was taken into consideration if she was in her 30s. Her entire salary entered the calculations only if she had reached 40 or could prove she had been sterilized. Marjorie Wintjen, a 25-year-old Delaware woman, was told her husband's vasectomy had no effect on the matter "because you can still get pregnant."

Even when a woman was living on her own and supporting herself, she had trouble convincing the financial establishment that she could be relied upon to pay her bills. The New York Times was still reporting horror stories in 1972, such as that of a suburban mother who was unable to rent an apartment until she got the lease cosigned by her husband — a patient in a mental hospital. A divorced woman, well-to-do and over forty, had to get her father to cosign her application for a new co-op. Divorced women had a particular problem getting credit, in part because of a widely held belief that a woman who could not keep her marriage together might not keep her money under control, either. (Insurance companies held to the same line of reasoning when it came to writing policies for car owners, theorizing that a woman who broke the marital bonds would also break the speed limit.) Joyce Westrich, a program analyst, wanted to buy a house in New Jersey for herself and her two children after she and her husband legally separated. All the banks she approached turned her down, to Westrich's befuddlement, until her real estate broker "whispered ... in the manner of a character in a deodorant commercial, 'Maybe it's your marital situation.' " Although her about-to-be ex-husband's income was much lower than hers, once he agreed to cosign, Westrich had no further troubles.

"Men needed faster service than women."

The presumption that women needed men's protection in every aspect of life led to a kind of near-infantilization. Looking back on her life as a housewife in the 1960s, the writer Jane O'Reilly recalled that she had "never earned my own living, never taken a trip alone, never taken total responsibility for a single decision. The only time I tried to give a speech, I fainted. I had been divorced once, and lasted only four months before I remarried in a fit of terror. I had never gone to a party by myself, never gone to the movies by myself. I wanted to run away from home but I felt I had to ask permission."

When women ventured into the outside world, they often felt tentative, unsure of their welcome. And it was no wonder. The Executive Flight to Chicago was not the only service that barred them at the gate. The world was full of men's clubs, men's gyms, and men's lounges, where the business of business was conducted. Even places that were theoretically open to the public reserved the right to discriminate. The public golf course in Westport, Connecticut, would not allow women to play during prime weekend hours, claiming that men deserved the best spots because they had to work during the week. Heinemann's Restaurant in Milwaukee banned women from the lunch counter because "men needed faster service than women because they have important business to do." Many upscale bars refused to serve women, particularly if they were alone, under the theory that they must be prostitutes.

Early in the 1960s, a freelance writer from New York, traveling to Boston to interview a psychologist for a book she was working on, stopped by the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and ordered a drink at the bar. "We do not serve women," the bartender said, and whisked her off to a little lounge off the women's restroom, where he brought her the whiskey sour. It was a moment Betty Friedan recalled with humiliation decades later, long after she helped spark a movement that made sure nobody ever got consigned to that lounge again.

Excerpted from When Everything Changed by Gail Collins. Copyright 2009 by Gail Collins. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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