When Everything Changed

By David Michael Newstead. 

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present chronicles fifty years of social progress for women in the United States, measured across economics, politics, and American culture and is reinforced with personal stories from our recent past. In fact, it’s the personal stories that help connect us to those events, which may seem like ancient history for some people but are within the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents. A few excerpts stood out to me in particular and I share those below to illustrate the stark differences between the world of 1960 and the world of today.

  • 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-profile 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.
  • 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 all the working women were invisible, it was in part because of the jobs most of them were doing. 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.
  • 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.”
  • 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.
  • Many upscale bars refused to serve women, particularly if they were alone, under the theory that they must be prostitutes.

Other interesting topics covered in the book include the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the Women’s Liberation movement, and the life of Jeannette Rankin. Likewise, the reader can observe changes overtime through the effects of Roe v. Wade, how divorce proceedings were conducted, and the growing education attainment as well as workforce participation by American women. Skip ahead to the present and women are 47 percent of the workforce, 55 percent of college students, and 15 percent of active-duty military personnel: all watershed developments from a historical standpoint. And while many of the excerpts above probably wouldn’t take place in 2017, it’s important not to downplay the challenges on the horizon. Today’s progress took decades. Confronting misogyny will take even longer. And the next fifty years of women’s history has yet to be written.

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