Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Over-the-hill Revolutionaries

I am no fan of "Madmen." Glamorizing the sexist attitudes of the fifties and sixties seems to me the last thing the world needs at this moment. I admit that I have seen only one episode, the first, and about twenty-three minutes of the second, but that was enough to turn me off from the series for good.

My favorite "good times" of the second half of the twentieth century involve the antidote to the culture of Madmen – the international effort that is still spreading known in those days as The Women's Movement.

Betty Friedan and Friends
If you are fifty-five or over and worked for a living during the 1960's, 70's, and 80's, in the US, Canada, or Western Europe, you participated in this revolution that profoundly and forever changed the entire world.

If you are younger than fifty-five and came of age or were born into a world where working women’s rights were protected, stick around find out a bit about how we got to where we are today.

Bella Abzug
There were, in those early days a few widespread influences: books like "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan and "The Female Eunuch," by Germaine Greer; "MS. Magazine"; the marvelous New York Congresswoman, Bella Abzug. The National Organization for Women emerged eventually. We did have a well-publicized march for equality – down Fifth Avenue. My father, the World War Two combat Marine, pushed my daughter in her stroller in that demonstration, while I carried a sign that said, "THREE GENERATIONS FOR EQUAL RIGHTS FOR WOMEN." But none of these publications, societies, or events can be credited with the Movement’s widespread success.

Rosie the Riveter
Of course, the demand for equal rights did not come out of nowhere. A wonderful example was set by the Civil Rights Movement. The employment of women in war-time manufacturing during the "Rosie the Riveter" era had changed women’s self-image. The demographics of the country – a growing economy and a lower birth rate pointing to a need for more entrants into the workforce also had an impact. All of that history and more. Yes. But.

Whatever the historical factors, I doubt the revolution would have gotten off the ground it were it not for thousands and thousands of ordinary women on the line who fought the battles on the job, who showed up every day and got the work done, and thought up imaginative ways to thwart the status quo when it stood in the way of progress.

I know a lot of stories from the pink collar wars. Here's one of my favorites. It is a perfect example of what made the Movement move:

In the state of Nevada in the 1970's, there was a thriving printing business. Big firms stamped out mail order catalogs, magazines, Sunday supplements for newspapers, all kinds of color work on shiny paper. The jobs were divided into heavy printing and light printing. Those who did heavy printing were all men and made near twice the hourly rate of those doing light printing, who were all women. The women wanted into the higher paying positions, but a state law stood in their way. Nevada’s books said that if the job required employees to lift more than twenty pounds, the work had to be done by men. Women protested, testifying that females in everyday life regularly lifted more than twenty pounds. Any mother of a toddler or housewife who did laundry and grocery shopping for a family of four could have told you that. Nevada women took their case right up to the State Supreme Court. But the justices held their ground and upheld Nevada's right to "protect" women in the printing industry from getting a sixty percent increase in their wages.

Not ready to be frustrated once and for all, the ladies looked for another way.

Printing was the second biggest industry in the state. The first biggest was gambling. And that's where our “light” printers found their answer. The big-time casinos employed hundreds of women who waited tables at the headliner dinner theaters. They preferred ladies with long legs and pretty faces. The statuesque, scantily clad members of the "weaker sex" hefted huge trays piled with dishes, glasses, cutlery.

Casino Waitress
The printing women did a little study. One Saturday evening, when the restaurants were packed, they got the waitresses to weigh their trays. About a third of them were over twenty pounds.

Nevada had two choices. Either force the casino owners to put men in the place of the waitresses in stiletto heels, or change the law and let women do jobs that required them to lift more than twenty pounds. The casino owners, with their enormous political clout, weighed in, as it were, on the side of the women printers. The law changed and so did the take home pay of hundreds of women workers.

It happened that way over and over, a little triumph here and rule changed there. Progress.

Things are not perfect yet. But they have gotten better. And will continue to do so. Because of the revolutionaries in pantyhose who made it work those decades ago.

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. This was of great interest to me, as my life was very different. If I can get up the courage to be up close and personal I'll think about doing a blog that shows a radically different route of a woman during the decades you mention. Women's lib and its warfares have different faces... tjs

  2. Another thing we used to say was "The personal is political," Thelma.

  3. Thelma , I sure hope you will write your view. I would love to read what you experienced.

  4. The work arena is certainly a different world now for women like my daughter who is in her 30's than it was when I was out there earning a living. Great information!!