I am becoming an old woman. I know that because when I talk about events which occurred in my lifetime, younger people look at me with blank stares and remind me their parents weren’t even born when these things happened. I know I’m getting old because the glasses I wore in the seventh grade are back in style. I know I’ve become a crone because my life’s experiences are now considered “history.”
I realize that I had the same response when my parents talked about the “old days.” I understood the struggles they experienced in the World Wars and the Great Depression only through the stories they told me. My father, born in 1895, could tell me tales of playing baseball on one of many small town teams, standing in ration lines during wartime to buy cigarettes and bread, and learning to farm in a time when horses pulled the equipment. My mother talked about working as a maid in rich houses in Minneapolis, being hired in defense plants during World War II and then losing those well-paying jobs to go back to “women’s work” waiting tables in a restaurant.
I shouldn’t be surprised when young people have a limited understanding of the recent past. I am dismayed, however, that many seem to take for granted the changes that have taken place in the last 60 years. Maybe it is my fault and the fault of the rest of my generation for not telling our stories more effectively.
Recently, I had a conversation with a young woman who works in a middle management position in a large company. She was grumbling about having to deal with labor unions and felt that the company had to make unreasonable accommodations to meet union demands. In some ways, she is right. Unions may have lost sight of why they were created and the leaders may put their own self-interests ahead of the interests of the workers they represent. The importance of unions’ role in making working conditions more humane and equitable while paying workers a living wage was lost on this young woman. She did not seem to understand that without labor union efforts, as a woman, she would probably still be in the role of a secretary or low paying entry level job in that company. She would not have any fringe benefits or paid leave and would probably work more than 40 hours a week without overtime pay.
It also disturbs me to hear young professional women make disparaging comments about feminists and the women’s movement. It makes me just as upset to hear women who choose to stay home with their children blame the women’s movement for making them feel inadequate for their career choice. It was not feminists or the women’s movement who said homemaking and caring for children were without value. These roles have never been valued by men or women. Feminists did not coin the phrases, “the little woman,” or “housewife.” These terms were used by those who sought to keep women dependent and subservient. Feminists were the ones who tried to raise awareness of the economic value of the work done by women. It was feminists in the 1960’s who first put a dollar value on the work done by mothers and homemakers. It was activists in the women’s rights movement that advocated for women’s work to be compensated for at a rate equal to “men’s work.” Feminists did not advocate that women be seen as the same as men, but that their work should have equal value. Feminists maintained that women should be able to choose their work just as their brothers were given those choices. Feminism maintained that women should have a choice to work at what best suited their individual skills and ambitions whether that is in a corporate executive office or at home nurturing the next generation.
Courageous women of the women’s suffrage movement and the women’s rights movement were called all kinds of names, were jailed and had their lives threatened by those who feared change. Without their work and sacrifice, women today would not have the right to vote or own property or to make decisions about their own medical care without her husband’s or father’s permission. Unlike my experience as a young premed student a short 50 years ago, almost no one tells young women today that they are not smart enough or strong enough to become doctors, lawyers or business leaders just because they are female. Women and men both have the right to choose a career or to stay at home and care for their children or to find a way to do both.
Without the women’s movement, without the fight for labor rights, or without the civil rights movement, our lives would be stuck in the 19th century. It distresses me to hear young people dismiss rules about equal rights, sexual harassment, labor unions, the treatment of people with disabilities, and racial equality as “political correctness.” These issues are a matter of ethics and morality fought for by courageous men and women. Our country is better for them.
If we ignore the history of the last 60 years and take these gains for granted, we risk losing them as the pendulum swings back the other way. It’s up to us old people to remind the young of where we’ve been.
Copyright © 2016 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains