I was watching the HBO piece on Gloria Steinem today. It brought me to thinking about my own career. I’ve been corporate management for a long time. For years I was the only female presence at the conference table. I was asked to get coffee a lot!
I was 10 years old when the women’s movement was in full force. Being a New Yorker, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem always made the local news AND the national news. They were all over the NY Post, The NY Times, The Daily News. You couldn’t miss them.
Looking back almost forty years, I was confused by the feminist movement. I was told I could be anything I wanted. But in reality, society told me that my hopes and dreams should be focused on marriage and raising a family. And what about these people from N.O.W. and Ms. Magazine? Could they be any more angry? What’s the big deal?
I started working on Wall Street as a co op student in high school. I was a runner and a page on the exchange floor of a few brokerage firms. I met some very smart and sassy women. All of them secretaries that ran the show for those men in beautifully appointed offices. It was 1978 in NYC. The business landscape looked very much like the world portrayed in ‘Mad Men’. I was pretty and smart. My ass was pinched more than once. I opted to ‘let it go’. Lest someone pull back a nub! Surely it would have gotten me fired. My ass was never much of a team player.
I met a woman back then who very nicely explained to me that I needed to dress for success. She was really telling me that cleavage and short skirts win promotions. And that, they did! But the glass ceiling back then was ‘lead secretary’, ‘office manager’, etc. I continued to dress tastefully and rely on work performance. I wasn’t looking for a career here. I just had to pay for school. There was a lot of women back then struggling to keep their jobs, their families and their relationships together. There were a lot of men back then who were just trying to understand a changing world around them. I just needed a job to pay my bills and gain some experience. It wasn’t my fight.
Over the years, I saw examples of corporate women who worked night and day to attain and keep upper management positions. They sacrificed family and whatever personal goals they had. Their coworkers and employees (just as many were women) said horrible things about them behind their backs. But for whatever reason, they maintained their positions and worked twice as hard as their male counterparts. Those are the women who worked in a ‘mans world’ and paved the way for a generation of women who take equal rights for granted.
I still don’t think that equal rights for women was my fight. I was a surely a recipient of those that went before me. I’m grateful for that much. But the next generation of American working women- regardless of their profession, should recognize a few key facts that go unnoticed in our current society. As pointed out in this HBO documentary, women weren’t given the right to vote. They weren’t given anything. They had to fight for it. And boy did they fight for it! Look it up. It’s a great story. They didn’t call it suffrage for nothing!
There were also many women back in the day that were very threatened by the women’s movement. It wasn’t a popular cause. Back then women went to college to meet a man to take care of them. This was how it was done. It worked out OK, I’m thinking. If you wanted that kind of thing. But what if you didn’t? My dad was a fan of the women’s movement. Perhaps because he raised two girls? Or maybe he knew that finding a good husband was a crap shoot no matter what college you attended.
Men were just confused. Their world as they know it was crashing around them at home and in the work place. Women were burning bras and cutting their hair! Men were coming under fire for behavior that was perfectly acceptable yesterday! It was just a Women Gone Wild event as far as they were concerned! I remember that everyone was so angry!
There are so many social concepts that just didn’t happen back then that are taken for granted today. I don’t want to stir the abortion debate here. But you couldn’t get one of those very easily then. Sexual harassment surely still exists today. But there are laws that empower not only women to stand up- but everyone to stand up for themselves. Civil rights, women’s rights, gay, lesbian and trans gender rights all appear to be umbrella’d into a Human Rights Movement. This movement has started taking on a life of itself outside this country as people stand up for themselves across the globe.
With any successful social movement, time heals. But there is always such a long way to go. Applaud the social movements of the past for what they accomplished. Applaud the women who stood up for themselves so that their daughters and yours can be whatever they want to be.
And finally, when you hear about someone being the first woman ‘anything’ these days; remember that it is indeed a big deal!