My 12-year-old granddaughter, who has declared her intention to be the first woman president, was shocked to learn that in 1940, a widow supporting two children earned half the salary of her male co-workers at a public relations firm. “That’s not fair,” she declared. Indeed, it is not, but it still happens today. This is what my granddaughters need to know.
My granddaughter and I were talking to a woman in her ninth decade of life who still teaches folk-dancing. The woman shared what happened to her family after her father died in 1946, leaving her 40-year-old mother with two children and her own mother to support. Luckily, her mother had a degree in journalism, which was unusual in those days. My granddaughter was surprised women who came of age in in the 1920s didn’t routinely go to college. The widowed mother got a job at a public relations agency. The men were paid $25,000/year, which was a good salary back then. Her mother was paid $12,500/year for the same work.
This young widow lived a long life, dying in 1996. But even in her old age she said she never understood the women’s liberation movement, despite being the only female executive in the agency and earning half as much as her male colleagues. The men were friends of hers but no one thought there was anything wrong this scenario. Similarly, my mother was told by her father when she graduated high school in 1941 that women didn’t need to go to college. She took a short secretarial course, worked for a few years, and married in 1944. While there were exceptions here and there, very few women held positions of power in government or companies back then.
I may share this story with my granddaughters when they are a bit older. When I was in college in the mid-sixties, an acquaintance became pregnant. Birth control pills were not easy to come by. In fact, the birth control pill was not approved by the FDA until 1960, and the Supreme Court gave married couples the right to use birth control in 1965. There weren’t many choices back then for a college sophomore who wanted to complete her education. She decided to go to New York for an abortion. She was lucky she could afford to have a safe abortion and thus the opportunity to finish her education and have a family when she was ready.
Here’s another story that would shock my granddaughters. I was teaching high school English in 1971 when I became pregnant with my first child. My husband was in his last year of medical school, so my income supported both of us. The rule back then was that pregnant teachers had to leave in their fifth month. Most of us simply lied about our due dates, but when I was entering my eighth month, I looked pretty pregnant and felt it was time to leave. I had accumulated enough sick and personal days to cover the last two months of my pregnancy. When I went to claim the money I had earned because I had not taken any time off during my tenure teaching, I was told pregnancy was not a disease and therefore I could not collect the benefit that was due to me. I had to cash in my teaching pension to survive until my husband could get a job. So much wrong with that picture.
These are a few facts that my granddaughters need to know:
- In 1932, the National Recovery Act forbid more than one family member from holding a government job. Because of this, in the throes of the Depression many women lost their jobs.
- Congress passed The Equal Pay Act in 1963, promising equitable wages for the same work, regardless of the race, color, religion, national origin or sex of the worker. Despite this, some 55 years later, we know wages are still not equitable,
- The Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal, happened in 1973. 45 years later, there is good reason to worry that a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body may be rescinded.
- It wasn’t until 1974 that housing discrimination on the basis of sex and credit discrimination against women were outlawed by Congress. Also in that year, the Supreme Court ruled it was illegal to force pregnant women to take maternity leave on the assumption they were incapable of working in their physical condition. The 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act banned employment discrimination against pregnant women Those rulings sure would have helped me in 1971.
- Up to 1975, states were permitted to exclude women from juries. It took a Supreme Court ruling that year to deny states the right to have all male juries.
- It wasn’t until 1980 that a woman, Paula Hawkins of Florida, was elected to the U.S. Senate without following her husband or father in the job.
- 1981 was a pretty good year for women. Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court overturned state laws designating a husband “head and master” with unilateral control of property owned jointly with his wife.
- By 1992 four women won Senate elections (compared with 96 men) and two dozen women were elected to first terms in the House (about 5.5%). We thought that was pretty good back then.
- Remember that Equal Pay Act of 1963? It took 46 years until Congress passed The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act in 2009 that allowed victims, usually women, of pay discrimination to file a complaint with the government against their employer within 180 days of their last paycheck.
- Last year, Congress included a record number of women, with 104 female House members and 21 female Senators. Still, considering women make up half the population, having 24% of the House and 21% of the Senate female means we still have a long way to go.
This is what I want my granddaughters to know about women’s rights. We had to fight hard to get them over the years since women were granted the right to vote in 1920. The things you take for granted today represent years of struggle and hard-earned victories in the 98 years since then. Be vigilant. You must continue to move forward, even when some in our country would like you to go back to a time when women had fewer rights and choices.