The Working Women Who Came Before Us

On April 8, President Obama signed an executive order to address unequal pay for women among federal contractors. In his speech on the issue, he promised, “We are going to work to make sure that our daughters have the same chance to pursue their dreams as our sons.” It horrifies me that in an era of delivery drones, equal pay is at the forefront of the feminist movement. Sometimes I get a panicky feeling—is this it? Will it ever be better?

When I get discouraged that women are still fighting for something as basic as equal pay, I try to pause for a moment and appreciate how far women have come in the last few decades. My mom was just starting her career during the start of the women’s liberation movement. After graduate school, she was hired as the third female reporter at the Wall Street Journal. It was the fall of 1969, just before the Women’s Strike for Equality, where over 20,000 women marched down 5th Avenue on August 26, 1970 to demand equal work opportunities and political rights for women.

The day my mom started her job, the Wall Street Journal ran a front page article about a woman who was so big breasted that men followed her to the subway. “And this was a lighthearted piece!” my mom remembers with outrage. This was before women’s liberation was a mainstream thought. It was way before computers—they wrote their stories on typewriters and sent copies around in pneumatic tubes.

equalityIn an article my mom wrote in 1977, she describes how when the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966, integrating bars was a frontier for feminists. Betty Friedan recalled that she and other NOW board members would be refused service when they met at the Biltmore Men’s Bar. NOW lobbied for legislative reform, they picketed all-male establishments and boycotted products that were promoted using demeaning portrayals of women. Even by their 10th anniversary, in 1977, things had improved. The Biltmore, now serving women in their restaurant, donated a five-layer birthday cake for their anniversary celebration.

The idea that women were once not allowed in such an establishment is stunning to me. My mom has a story about this: Her boss invited her to accompany him to an event held at a club in Manhattan. They would go to accept an award on behalf of the newspaper. She agreed, but warned him, “If I have to enter through the back door, you’re in deep trouble.” They laughed it off in the moment, but, in truth, her boss wasn’t sure! Luckily for both of them, my mom was allowed in the front entrance. She only found out that her boss was uncertain because he admitted it to her later. This incident had inspired his family’s dinnertime conversation that night, since he had a daughter.

It took a lot to break down gender barriers and be the first women among all male colleagues. “A lot of women said that at the time, ‘I have to put on my armor.’ In that case, it was my suit and my little bow ties;” my mom described it as her “game face, or business face.” She was very aware of needing to fit into a male corporate culture, and bent over backwards to make it work. “I didn’t want to give them any reason not to hire another women.”

Discrimination against women still happens, of course, but I don’t have this same feeling of representing all women that my mom did. NOW still exists, but they’ve come a long way too: Today, they focus on issues like reproductive rights, racial justice and violence against women. There is still plenty to do before society is equal and we have the support for women and families need to truly create equal and fair work environment, and there is no doubt that some of the progress towards equality for women has stalled (after all, women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar that men earned in 2012). Still, it helps me gather my courage for the next battle when I take a moment to appreciate the women that came first.


The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Steph Stern works in energy and environmental policy in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about careers and life choices at Small Answers (or follow on Twitter: @smallanswers).



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