Several years ago my parents gave me a box of stuff from my childhood, including my baby book. I came across my birth announcement, clipped from the local newspaper in 1962. All the announcements that day read something like this:
Smith, John, Anytown, January 1, daughter
Notice anything unusual? I was stunned. Who carried that baby for 9 months, and went through hours of labor — John Smith? I don’t think so! When I had my children in the 1990s, I got credit for it.
“Everything changed” during my lifetime.
I’ve been struck by this thought ever since reading Gail Collins’ book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. The book description reads:
When Everything Changed begins in 1960, when most American women had to get their husbands’ permission to apply for a credit card. It ends in 2008 with Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential campaign. This was a time of cataclysmic change, when, after four hundred years, expectations about the lives of American women were smashed in just a generation.
Apparently in 1962, most American women also had to allow their husbands to take sole credit for producing offspring. Sheesh. But in describing women of my generation Collins wrote, “The first generation of American women who had not been told that their only place was in the home had come of age.” (p. 330) And she’s right. Growing up, there was never any question that I would get a university degree and have a career. Thanks to Title IX, girls enjoyed increasing opportunity in both academics and sports.
The entire world was changing all around me, but it’s difficult to see history happening when you live right in the midst of it. When I entered the work force in 1984, I dutifully followed the dress code bible, John T. Malloy’s Dress for Success. I owned a tailored gray suit (with shoulder pads of course), and blouses with bows at the neck. I never wore slacks to work; that is, until around 1990 when the first woman was appointed to head my department. The first time she wore a pantsuit to work, she sparked a revolution. All of the women felt a bit liberated, and the unwritten dress code relaxed. Today I can’t think of the last time I wore a skirt or dress to the office!
In fact, little things happen every day that remind me of how “everything changed.” Last week I took a short business trip to Washington, D.C. I traveled alone by train, and found myself sitting next to another professional woman. That’s commonplace today, but it would have been rare in the 1980s and unheard-of in the 1960s. The next day’s business meeting included just as many women as men. And the women weren’t serving coffee, or sitting silently; we were active participants in the discussion and decisions. We even had a business conversation in the ladies room, and laughed about how the balance of power is moving away from the men’s room. I took the opportunity to recommend Collins’ book to them (if you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to read my review of When Everything Changed).
Reflecting on the changes that have taken place in the last 50 years, I wonder what the future holds for my teenage daughters. When they are in their 40s, will they look back on the women of 2010 and think about how far they’ve come?
What has changed for women during your lifetime?