Is There Anything Women Can’t Do?

[In this excerpt from Chapter One, we talk about how World War II created the need for women to work and how the resulting Rosie the Riveter generation conveyed a subtle message to their daughters, the “First Woman To” Generation.]

Suddenly, in the crisis of World War II, old assumptions were forgotten. New questions were asked: Is there anything women can’t do? Can they make steel, guns, jeeps, trucks, tanks, artillery shells, bombs, airplanes, ships? Can they drive 10-ton trucks loaded with war supplies? Can they ferry new fighters and bombers? Can they tow aerial targets for gunnery practice?

This army of Rosies, forged in labor and service, played a critical role in the war effort, but their great gift to future generations was an entirely new paradigm for thinking about women’s working roles. The belief that “women can’t do men’s work” prevailed for two centuries of the Industrial Revolution. Rare bastions of male employment were opened to women after long debate about the physical and moral impact of work outside the home on “the weaker sex.” Always they could, and they did. Knowing the contribution women made during the war, Rosie generation mothers conveyed an implicit message to their daughters: “If you ever need to, you can do it.”

Rosie’s Daughters
In the domestic sphere, most women in Rosie’s generation raised their daughters [born between 1940 and 1945] with the same expectations of marriage, homemaking, and child rearing they’d had, but fresh memories of economic hardship and social disruption during the Depression and World War II made them wary of what the future would hold. Rosies encouraged their daughters to attend college and acquire employment skills. Their daughters obtained—though it was woven through marriage, childbearing, and divorce—much more education than women in Rosie’s generation had received.

In preparing their daughters for an uncertain future, women in Rosie’s generation passed along legacies of adaptability and self-assurance that have helped to make their daughters’ lives rich in economic and social contributions as well as self-discovery.

The “First Woman To” Generation
Looking back after several decades, we can better understand why Rosie’s Daughters, members of a small wartime generation, have played an outsize role throughout their adult lives. We designate Rosie’s Daughters as the “First Woman To” or FW2 Generation because they can claim more firsts in personal change, educational attainment, and career achievements than any previous generation of women of comparable size. (In sheer numbers, our younger sisters of the Baby Boom generation will always overshadow us.)

While the wind at our backs helped thrust us forward, every achievement from the 1960s onward was arduous and usually off the map of adult life drawn for us by our mothers. All our gains were the culmination of determined individual efforts. When acknowledging these efforts, newspapers in the 1970s used the acronym “FW2” as a tagline for women—most from our generation—who became the first to achieve prominence in a male-dominated field. Each FW2 story cheered us on then, as it does now.”

Once Upon a Time
[In Chapter Five, we analyze the work experiences of women born during WWII, a generation we have called the “First Woman To” Generation. These women were raised to be wives and mothers but ended up flinging wide the doors to employment for succeeding generations. They went well beyond the type, take temps, and teach occupations they were told were the only acceptable ones for a woman. In this section, Matilda talks about the subtle discriminatory attitudes toward women working that she experienced as she began to look for her first post-graduate job.]

In the spring of 1970, as I was finishing my doctorate at Northwestern University and looking for employment, my dissertation advisor said, “If you don’t get a job, you’ll still be a great hostess.” I laughed. I was married, had two small children, and liked to give dinner parties. However, that didn’t mean I’d be satisfied with anything less than a career that would allow me to use the knowledge I had worked hard to acquire.

But the story is incomplete if I leave it there. My advisor was Donald T. Campbell, a leading psychologist, a brilliant man who The New York Times, upon his death in 1996, called a “social scientist who left his mark on half a dozen disciplines and who helped revolutionize the fundamental principles of scientific inquiry.” Don hired me as his research assistant in 1966 when the ink was still wet on my M.A. degree, after I accompanied my husband from Stanford to Chicago for his first post-MBA job. Two years later, Don recommended my admission to the Ph.D. program with a National Institute of Mental Health fellowship. He was a caring man, and I feel honored to have studied with him. But let’s face it, Don would never have said to a male student: “If you don’t get a job, you’ll still be a great host.” He and most other people at that time thought the statement was not inappropriate when said to a female. Don, bless his memory, was grounded in the values and attitudes of his generation.

Even that is not the end of the story. A dozen years later, in an unforeseen twist of events for a man of his well-accustomed ways, he found himself divorced and remarried to a well-known anthropologist who couldn’t find employment at Northwestern University, where Don had worked most of his professional career. When she received a tenure offer at Lehigh University, Don gave up his position and moved with her to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, so she could pursue her career. By 1982, women were an important part of the workforce and their needs were becoming a factor in the life equation of married couples.

Many women have stories more dramatic than mine—stories of not being taken seriously, stories of discouragement, stories of being paid less because a woman “didn’t have to support a family” even when she did, stories of blatant discrimination, and stories of sexual harassment. But FW2-Generation women took it all in stride and continued to make employment inroads both in numbers and variety of occupations.

Yet these were not anticipated inroads. When I asked 100 FW2 women about their life goals when they left high school, 78 percent said, “marriage and children.” Another 10 percent recalled no expectation about their future. Only 12 percent had career goals, and these were primarily traditional aspirations of executive secretary, nurse, artist. One woman in this career group wanted to be a doctor but then married after two years of college and never pursued that goal. In actual fact, 98 percent of FW2 women I interviewed went to work, most for a large number of their adult years, many in jobs previously held only by men.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby?
[In other sections of Chapter Five, we talk about the experiences of the “First Woman To” Generation as they forged their way in the world of work, often in positions never held by a woman before. Even those in traditional female occupations had to find their way around sexual harassment and restrictions such as not being allowed to teach when pregnant. This excerpt discusses the continuing aspects of gender discrimination in the workplace.]

Impressive progress against gender discrimination has been made since the FW2 Generation began working. Women are pursuing their dreams of successful careers in all fields of endeavor. …

There was a more idealistic time when many of us thought it was as simple as 1-2-3: progress individually, help other women along, and wait until the generation of patronizing and often nasty male bosses departed from the scene. We believed that, once our generation of highly qualified women achieved some power, we would see the end of sex discrimination. We imagined other minor miracles in that future time of equal opportunity, such as plentiful and affordable childcare and husbands who were willing to shoulder a fair share of the household and family responsibilities so that we would have opportunities roughly equal to theirs to make contributions to the family and society in the same ways that they did. We were partly right.

There are still cultural barriers and much gender stereotyping to overcome. When legislation brought sex discrimination barriers down, sexual harassment went up. When women complained, men retaliated. A sampling of recent lawsuits shows there is still progress to be made. In 2001, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against Morgan Stanley on behalf of 100 women who received lower compensation than their male co-workers and were limited in their professional advancement. In 2004, Home Depot (Colorado) made a $5.5 million out-of-court settlement for a race, sex, and national origin harassment and retaliation lawsuit. In that same year, Smith Barney agreed to pay $54 million to settle a sex discrimination lawsuit. Currently, there is a class-action lawsuit covering 1.6 million women against Wal-Mart, the country’s largest non-governmental employer.

We’re not there yet. The frontiers of gender equality are moving beyond the region of protests, statutes, and lawsuits. Even before statutes and collective action gave women some legal and political leverage, we were engaged in “consciousness raising”—a term we used in women’s gatherings in the 1960s. Now, when we are well into the legal and social revolution that we sought, it seems to be time for consciousness-raising again. Gender conservatives who want to dial the clock back say that “a woman’s place is in the home.” That choice is up to each woman, we say. In a free country, no one else has the right to tell me where my “place” is. A second line of resistance is voiced by people who think they are being fair-minded: “Women think they can have it all, but no one can have it all.” That’s certainly true, and we’ll settle for the same amount of “all” that men have always enjoyed—an unchallenged right to work as well as a life partner and a family if desired.