BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh. Throughout much of the 19th century, most Americans believed women had to be protected from strenuous jobs and long hours.
RISA GOLUBOFF: And so there was a fear that, if you worked them too hard, they wouldn’t be able to propagate the race.
BRIAN: And when women did join the workforce in greater numbers, their wages lagged behind men. And their job choices were limited.
GAY SEMMEL: When you finished operator school, you got a pink certificate. And then you got a little charm bracelet with a telephone directory on the top.
BRIAN: Today, on BackStory, America’s changing attitudes about the work women can and ought to do. We’ll hear about how female employees took on Ma Bell in the 1970s and about the key role they played in the digital revolution.
MARGARET O’MARA: The term, “computer,” was used to refer to a person. And that person was a woman.
BRIAN: Women at work, today on BackStory. Stay with us.
PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American History Guys.
ED: Welcome to the show. I’m Ed Ayers.
PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.
BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh.
BETTY REID SOSKIN: –social system. But they literally turned the course of the war around right here.
BRIAN: What you’re hearing right now is one of tours that takes place every day at a former World War II shipyard in Richmond, California. It’s right across the bay from San Francisco. The site is run by the National Park Service. And the person giving the tour is a national park ranger.
BETTY REID SOSKIN: My name is Betty Reid Soskin, born Betty Charbonnet. Well, I’m the newest park ranger in the system, at 93.
BRIAN: The park Betty Soskin works at commemorates a moment in history. And as it turns out, it’s a particularly complicated one.
BETTY REID SOSKIN: Which is why our title became so long.
BRIAN: It’s called the Rosie the Riveter/World War II home front National Historical Park. And Betty’s a guide there because she lived through that history. We sent a reporter, Eli Wirtshafter, to spend an afternoon with Betty. And what she told him puts a bit of a different spin on the familiar Rosie the Riveter story. Here’s Eli.
ELI WIRTSHAFTER: Betty Reid Soskin had a job on the home front. But one of the first things you learn about her is that she doesn’t want to be called a Rosie.
BETTY REID SOSKIN: It’s simply not the history that I lived.
ELI WIRTSHAFTER: To understand why, you have to know a little bit about her family. They were Creole family from New Orleans. And they moved to Oakland, California in 1928. Now at the time, there weren’t a lot of other black families in the Bay Area.
BETTY REID SOSKIN: I came here as a six-year-old, had grown up attending integrated schools. There weren’t enough of us here to make any rules about.
ELI WIRTSHAFTER: And here’s where the myth of Rosie the Riveter– the idea that women left home to work just until their men came home from the war– starts to fall apart for Betty.
BETTY REID SOSKIN: Our mothers and aunts had always worked outside their homes, because it took two salaries to support black families. I graduated from high school with only two opportunities for employment open to me. I could have worked in agriculture, or I could have been a domestic servant.
ELI WIRTSHAFTER: But when the war came, different kinds of jobs were opening up. Betty found a desk job with the Air Force. She was light-skinned. And at the time, it simply didn’t occur to her to mention her race.
BETTY REID SOSKIN: I didn’t realize that the Air Force didn’t hire blacks, except in the canteens.
ELI WIRTSHAFTER: And one week into the job.
BETTY REID SOSKIN: The officer in charge of our section called the young woman whose desk abutted mine. I could see her face was red, and she was nodding. And when she came back, I said, what was that? And she said the lieutenant told me that you were colored. And he thought that we were getting so friendly that I ought to know.
And so I marched up to him and said, of course I am. Who told you anything other than that? And I picked up my things and walked out on the Air Force. And it was at that time, that was for resignation, I took the job in a black Union Hall, because that was at least a place that I knew where I was and who I was.
ELI WIRTSHAFTER: The Union represented shipbuilders. But if you were black, you could only join the auxiliary. And that’s where Betty worked.
BETTY REID SOSKIN: I filed cards, change of address cards, 3 x 5 file cards, to save the world for democracy.
ELI WIRTSHAFTER: Most of the shipbuilders were fresh from the Dust Bowl and the farms of the South. To get the workers he needed for his shipyards, Henry Kaiser had recruited black and white Southerners by the thousand.
BETTY REID SOSKIN: That period of World War II, when the Bay Area went through this period of the immediate, incoming, total system of segregation out of the South, whole, it was such a painful, disorganizing experience for me that I had left that history long ago. We tend to revisit that history through a more enlightened era. And so we read those pictures of masses of people having their pictures taken, all ages and all sizes and all colors, standing together on the Kaiser yards, and we read that as examples of brotherhood and fellowship.
But if you knew the sequence in which people were hired– it was first the men who were too old to fight. And then it was the boys who were too young to be drafted. And then it was single, white women, and then married white women, and in 1943, black men to do the heavy lifting for the Rosies that they had brought in. And it wasn’t until late in 1944 when black women began to be trained as welders. So that history gets revised without our intending it to.
I instantly recognized them as sites of racial segregation, because what gets remembered is determined by who’s in the room doing the remembering.
If we can go back to that era and see it as it was lived, not by the myths that we’ve made up about it, what we get is a baseline against to measure how far we’ve come. That’s not black history, that’s not Betty history, that’s something we all did.
BRIAN: That’s Betty Reid Soskin. Her story came to us from Eli Wirtshafter, a reporter in Berkeley, California.
ED: So here’s a surprising statistic from 1999. That’s the year that employment figures for American women peaked at 74%. Since then, the percentage of women in the workforce has fallen off, dropping from fourth highest in the world in 1999, to eleventh today. And looking farther backward in time, we learn from people like Betty Soskin that the story of women entering the workforce stretches back many generations, long before World War II and Rosie the Riveter.
PETER: All of which points to the fact that the history of women in the American workforce is hardly a straight line, but rather one that zigzags through time and is very much shaped by class and race. For the rest of the hour today, we’re going to explore some of those zigs and zags. In what ways are things better today for women than they were in the past? And in what ways have we fallen behind?
BRIAN: But before we do that, let’s take a few more minutes to consider the story we just heard. Peter? Ed? You know, maybe I’ve read too many 20th Century history textbooks. But in general, when we think about Rosie the Riveter, we think about that heroic moment when women broke out of the home and served their nation by doing industrial work, often literally on the wings of bombers that they were building. And Betty presents such a different story of the women who worked during World War II. And what really strikes me is she puts that story in the context of a very long history of women working outside the household. So Peter, I wish you would tell me a little bit more about that history of women working inside the household and how they came to work outside the household.
PETER: Well, women have been working for millennia, Brian. That’s the news here. We think of household or the home as a refuge for sentimental family life, for nurturing, and all those good things, but the household is the primary unit of production throughout American history. And its hierarchical. There are apprentices, and servants, and slaves, and family members all working under the leadership of the planter, farmer, patriarch. That’s the basic unit of production, and women are integral to that work in the household.
ED: And Peter, the 19th century is critical in this, as slavery turns into something else.
ED: This is a direct tie to Betty’s story. You’re exactly right about slave owners imagined portrayed their plantations as a big house with a big family. And they talk about “our people.” and that illusion is shattered, of course, when slavery ends and the African-American people who can leave that household, set out and try to create their own households.
PETER: Right. Right.
ED: But what happens is that system you’re talking about kind of breaks into pieces which lives on for generations, so that after slavery, white Southerners are saying, we’d love black women to come back into the household, a few at a time, to be our domestic servants, to do the washing and cleaning and taking care of children, at the same time that we very much want to segregate all relationships with black people we don’t know. So you have this kind of bifurcated history, I think, Betty’s family herself lives.
In that world, African-American people have to channel their ambition in two directions at once. Somehow, they have to take advantage of whatever employment opportunities they can have at the same time they save something for themselves and for their own families, to build their own households, doing exactly the same kind of work. And escape into California, as Betty’s story shows us, is a chance to maybe reboot, to reconfigure that calculus in some ways, that you can have your own household, but do other work outside your own household that’s not just replicating that work.
PETER: And Ed, I think that comes back to your excellent point about the transformation of the household from a site of work for others, whether it’s in the plantation or in the segregated South working for white families, to make a home of your own. It’s a new kind of house. It’s not a place where you work for others. Your home is a place where you work for the people you love.
ED: And it’s a kind of a foundation for doing other kind of work, perhaps. And I think that’s the wobble in the story, Brian, that we tell the story of Rosie the Riveter more simply than it, in fact, was. It’s like, oh, OK, now white women are escaping from the household, because, as we know, they often were deeply encouraged, even forced, to go back into it and leave that other field of work.
So throughout the 20th century, in many ways, the story has been connecting back to Peter’s story of the household as the fundamental building block of the economy, to a time in which so much of the work happens outside the household. Betty’s story, the story of World War II and Rosie the Riveter catches that story at a really awkward and revealing moment.
We need to take a quick break now, but stick around. When we get back, we’ll talk more about the history of women in the workforce. And we’ll hear why, for many young women in the 19th century, going to work was one of the most frightening things they could imagine.
PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
BRIAN: We’re back, with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. We’re talking today about the history of women in the American workplace. Before the break, we were discussing what working life would have to looked like for African-American women in the decades following the end of slavery. We’re going to go back a little bit further now and consider the workplace picture from another perspective, that of young white women.
PETER: In the first half of the 19th century, they too were leaving the home in what might strike you as surprising numbers. By 1850 some 20% of unmarried white women were working outside the home. And what many of them encountered all too often was the unwanted sexual attention of their employers. One of our producers, Nina Earnest, got to wondering about the options available to women in this situation. Here’s Nina to tell us what she discovered.
NINA EARNEST: The first thing I found when I started looking into this story is that the thing we would call sexual harassment was all over the place in the 19th century.
LEA VANDERVELDE: I think this might have been one of the greatest things that women feared.
NINA EARNEST: This is Lea VanderVelde. She’s a law professor at the University of Iowa who has written about sexual predation in this period.
LEA VANDERVELDE: And that’s one of the reasons that there were so many limitations on the jobs that women could even take. One of the ways to cut down on sexual harassment was simply not to permit women to go to work in certain places, keep them away from men.
NINA EARNEST: When economic necessity forced their families to send them out into the world as laundresses, domestic servants, and sometimes as factory workers, it was very clear who was responsible for keeping them safe, the women themselves, because people at the time believed that chaste women would not consent to sex before marriage, no matter the circumstances. Men were naturally lecherous, women were not.
LEA VANDERVELDE: If the man pursued, even with physical force, or even with the threat that you will be dismissed if you do not submit, the woman was simply instructed to refuse. Her ability to say no may not be listened to, it may not even have been heard, but that was the only thing she could do.
NINA EARNEST: Why? It’s like this. VanderVelde says the relationship between workers and their employers was that of master and servant. Early American law said that no one could interfere with that relationship. If another employer tried to entice a servant away with better pay or better working conditions, the master could sue that would-be employer. A working woman’s ability to work, in other words, was basically owned by her employer.
LEA VANDERVELDE: Anyone who interfered with the woman sexually has seduced her away, has interfered with the vitality with which she can provide her services to the master. Even a husband who proposes marriage to her could be sued by the master who she worked for.
NINA EARNEST: The master could sue under something called the tort of seduction. It could be invoked when a young working woman was coerced into sex, especially if she became pregnant. Raising the question, of course, what happens when it was the boss himself who was doing the coercion. In that case, says VanderVelde, there was only one other course of action.
LEA VANDERVELDE: The only way that she could get any protection at all was this long shot of having her father sue on her behalf.
NINA EARNEST: Consider the 1858 case of Dane v. Wyckoff in New York. Sally Dane was indentured at age 14 to a wealthy man named Wyckoff. In her first year on the job, she became pregnant with his child. She then returned to her father’s house to give birth.
LEA VANDERVELDE: She can no longer work to support the household economy. She’s become a burden on his household, so he has a right to recover for his loss of her services.
NINA EARNEST: Not only for the wages lost during her pregnancy, but also because her marriage prospects would be shot. In this case, the New York Courts eventually sided with her father. And in similar cases, other courts often did the same.
Over the next few decades, some of this began to change. A handful of states started allowing women to have rights over themselves and to sue for their own seduction. But that didn’t mean all women started benefiting from the protection of the law.
Even in those states where they could sue, seduction claims were viewed with a lot of suspicion. Was the woman telling the truth? Or was she simply trying to bring down an upstanding man? It didn’t help that Victorian attitudes about sex were gradually falling away. The more women were seen as sexual actors, the more they were expected to deal with negative sexual experiences as personal problems.
And that was the prevailing attitude, until the 1970s. It was then that women’s groups finally gave a name to this workplace behavior, sexual harassment. In 1979, a young lawyer named Catherine MacKinnon wrote a groundbreaking book, making the case of sexual harassment qualified as discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That argument was accepted by the courts and is the basis for sexual harassment law as it exists today. Finally, working women had an effective legal option to tackle a problem they’d been facing, well, since forever.
LEA VANDERVELDE: The change is revolutionary, really. We now have a cause of action. And I think that that means that women are freer to consent now, if they choose, because they also know that they can refuse, if they choose. And all of this goes to a greater degree of freedom for everybody.
NINA EARNEST: The battle for equality in the workplace is hardly over, but American women are now at least in a position where they can own their ability to work and the rights to their own sexuality.
PETER: That’s Nina Earnest. She’s one of our producers. Helping her tell that story was Lea VanderVelde, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law.
ED: Throughout American history, there have been many debates among women about the best way to protect women. The 1920s saw one particularly interesting example of this. It’s centered on what was commonly referred to as protective legislation, laws setting things like minimum wages and maximum working hours specifically for women.
The case in favor was that these laws help protect women from exploitative working conditions. But this was the very same time that many women were fighting for women’s equality in all walks of life, from voting to labor, and they opposed any laws that treated women and men differently.
BRIAN: In matters of legal history, we often turn to Risa Goluboff, here at the University of Virginia School of Law. We asked Risa to explain where these laws came from and why they were so controversial.
RISA GOLUBOFF: So the protective legislation begins in the late 19th century, with the rise of industrialization, and factory work, and long hours, and poor conditions. State legislatures respond to that by trying to regulate the wages, and hours, and conditions of work. So protective legislation, initially, didn’t have to mean only protective legislation for women.
BRIAN: It was regulation of the workplace.
RISA GOLUBOFF: Right. Exactly. Regulation of the workplace for the protection of the workers. And to some extent, people thought it was more important to regulate women and children, because they were physically different, they were weaker, they were not as capable of performing hard work.
BRIAN: And would most women at the time have agreed with that?
RISA GOLUBOFF: Yes, I think they would have. The assumption that men and women were physically different, biologically different, constitutionally different, was pervasive. And most people would have agreed with that. Absolutely. But one of the reasons that protective legislation becomes gendered and becomes so much more affiliated with women than being for everyone is the state of Constitutional Law in the late 19th and especially the early 20th century.
BRIAN: And what was that state?
RISA GOLUBOFF: So once states start regulating the conditions of labor– and the federal government too, start regulating the conditions of labor– the courts begin to worry about people’s rights to contract, their liberty of contract. And the courts say, wait a second. People have a right to contract as they please. If they want to work 12 hours a day, if they want to work for low wages–
BRIAN: For $0.12 an hour.
RISA GOLUBOFF: –for $0.12 an hour, that’s their prerogative. That’s their constitutional right. But that constitutional right is limited to people who were thought to be capable of contracting on their own behalves.
BRIAN: So we’re not talking about physically capable now, we’re talking about intellectually and mentally capable.
RISA GOLUBOFF: Exactly. The thinking was that women required more paternalistic intervention. And part of the reason that they required that paternalistic intervention was precisely because they were physically different. They were more susceptible to coercion. They were more susceptible to bad conditions, and illness, and especially their reproductive capacity. So they were at heart, even women who were factory workers, were at heart mothers and potential mothers. And so there was a fear that, if you worked them too hard, they wouldn’t be able to propagate the race.
BRIAN: By the time of the New Deal in the 1930s, this notion of protecting workers is extended to all employees. After all, this is when we get the minimum wage, for instance.
RISA GOLUBOFF: That’s exactly right.
BRIAN: What kind of new protective legislation emerges, if any, after World War II?
RISA GOLUBOFF: So one big question is whether you would call the protective legislation that emerges after World War II “protective,” because a lot of it is really aimed at excluding women from jobs that they held during the war. So women go into work during the war in huge numbers, as men are away at the war. And war industry is in service jobs that they hadn’t had before. And after the war, some of them retreat to the home. Some of them are pushed into the home by spouses and other things. And some are pushed into the home by laws.
So for example, bartending. A lot of women go into bartending. And after the war, states passed laws to restrict women and exclude them from bartending.
BRIAN: So women had been bartending.
RISA GOLUBOFF: They had been during World War II.
BRIAN: So this is clearly opening up jobs.
RISA GOLUBOFF: Yes. Clearly opening up jobs for men, in order to keep women out. But the justification for that exclusion is it’s dangerous to be a woman bartender.
BRIAN: So those were, kind of, wink, wink, nod, nod, protections.
RISA GOLUBOFF: Yes. I think that’s right.
BRIAN: When does this whole regime of protecting women begin to unravel? I’m assuming we don’t have laws today that limit the number of hours that women can work, or the kinds of occupations they can go into.
RISA GOLUBOFF: We don’t have those kinds of laws, for the most part. And they start to crumble in the 1960s.
BRIAN: Why is that?
RISA GOLUBOFF: So the real watershed is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in the workplace.
BRIAN: Was there any pushback? Were there women who felt that some genuine protections for women were in order, and that these protective laws should stay in place?
RISA GOLUBOFF: Absolutely. There were different kinds of pushback. So some of the pushback was from people who thought that women really belonged in the home. And so they weren’t that excited about protecting women or giving women equal rights, because they thought women and men were going to become too similar and too equal, and that there was value to women and men playing different roles in society. So Phyllis Schlafly was the main proponent of the idea, the conservative idea, that women’s place was in the home. And there was a real embrace of that among social conservatives in the 1970s, the 1980s.
The other kind of pushback in the 1960s was about the real differences between men and women. And worry that, if we start to break down protective laws, if we start to break down discriminatory legislation, we would begin to treat men and women too similarly, and that that would actually harm women. And we’ve seen that in recent years, that there have been examples of those kinds of effects.
BRIAN: Pregnancy. Pregnancy strikes me as an instance. Tell us about the case or the legislation on pregnancy.
RISA GOLUBOFF: Pregnancy is very complicated. On the one hand, women want to be treated the same as men. A lot of feminists want women to be treated the same as men. And yet, pregnancy is a real physiological difference between men and women.
Now, a lot of the historical protective legislation has gone beyond the physically determined limitations of women, to base it on stereotypes. So you can’t work after your fifth month of pregnancy, no matter what your job, and no matter what your physical condition. Those laws are gone, but it’s still the case that there are various kinds of discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.
So there’s a case at the Supreme Court right now in which a woman UPS driver asked for an accommodation for her pregnancy. And she was denied that. So she couldn’t do the job of lifting heavy boxes. She was told not to lift more than 20 pounds. The job required lifting up to 70 pounds. But she could do the job of a driver, which is what she asked for. UPS gives accommodations for all kinds of people who can’t do one job, but can do another.
BRIAN: They hurt their back, for instance.
RISA GOLUBOFF: Particularly, they hurt their backs, yes. Exactly. Or they had a drunk driving accident, and they’re not allowed to drive anymore. And they do something else.
And they would not give accommodations for pregnancy. And so she was put on unpaid leave. She lost in both lower courts at a very early stage in the process. And the court has recently heard the arguments in the case, but we don’t know what will happen.
BRIAN: So do you think that this is an instance of the elimination of protective legislation gone too far?
RISA GOLUBOFF: Do I think?
RISA GOLUBOFF: I think it’s complicated. [LAUGHS]
BRIAN: Oh, don’t turn law professor on me. What do you think?
RISA GOLUBOFF: I think it’s gone too far. I think it’s gone too far. I do think that, for a long time, the real worry was the amplification of differences. On the other hand, I don’t think we should pretend that women and men are the same, because often, when we pretend that women and men are the same, we hold women to male standards. And there are parallels to the disability rights movement that say, in order to have equality, you must have accommodation. And I think that is in order, but I think it’s always tricky to figure out what’s truly protective and what’s liberating.
BRIAN: Thanks, so much, for joining us on BackStory today.
RISA GOLUBOFF: Thank you, for having me.
BRIAN: Risa Goluboff is a legal historian at the University of Virginia School of Law.
ED: So Brian, that’s some complicated stuff, it seems to me.
BRIAN: Welcome to the 20th century, Ed.
ED: Yeah, OK. Yeah. And I know things move faster in the 20th century, supposedly, though.
ED: But on the other hand, the law seems to be moving kind of slowly in some ways.
ED: So what’s the larger legal context, Peter, in which people are trying to find their way through this kind of rapidly changing landscape?
PETER: Well, Ed, the law is deeply conservative, as you suggest. The common law is based on precedent. And in the common law, Anglo-American tradition, property is based on family. I think that’s the key thing. We had a revolution in which we overthrew the great protector, the King, because presumably, white household heads could protect themselves, and they could mobilize, and they could win a war. But when we abandon the idea of protection on that global level, it accentuates the need, the natural need, for protection on the local, familial level.
ED: So let me get this right. The guys could protect the women, as long as they were in the household.
PETER: That’s right. But then the question is when girls, factory girls and women, leave the home, mostly for economic necessity, well, how does the patriarch father protect? I mean, in effect, it’s an admission of his failure that the women aren’t in his household anymore.
BRIAN: Yeah, Ed. I’m thinking of the Lowell Mills, these textile mills in New England where these young girls are now working in a factory setting. Who is going to watch out for them in ways that, ostensibly, the father did in the household, when women were working just in the household?
ED: You know, ironically, Brian, that would be easier, because they’re all together in big dormitories. You could take care of them.
ED: The process that Peter’s talking about takes place all across the country, all across the 19th century. And it could be something as seemingly non-revolutionary as a young woman going off to become school teacher. Now see, she goes off to the normal school, and then she’s on her own at age 20 somewhere in a school out in the middle of nowhere or in a big city–
BRIAN: Where here students are older than her, sometimes. [LAUGHS]
ED: Exactly. Exactly. And so, and every young woman who goes to town or to the city by herself– you know, the literature of the time is just filled with this deep anxiety about the–
ED: So I don’t think that our guest was denigrating a protective legislation, but we need to remember just how necessary it was when you don’t actually have the father or the husband there. The exploitative nature of women’s work throughout history has been enormous. And so I think that we look on it now, we’re struck by its opposite discriminatory quality.
But I think, if you went back and asked people at the time, they’d say, look. We’re just trying to extend some of the same kind of protection, literally, that a good father should. And as good fathers, we’re not really doing it now, because we’ve got our daughters out there working in factories.
PETER: And I think that’s the business about law being conservative, Ed. The repressed returns, you might say that notion of patriarchal authority, of monarchical authority even, of hierarchy, how are you going to be protected, if you don’t have somebody looking out for you?
ED: And what, I guess Brian, it seems to me the big change was it went from being a male family member, to some kind of local law, to federal law. And now we’re trying to figure out if that makes sense. Is it too sweeping?
BRIAN: And the other big change is notions about what families are. Should there be a hierarchy within the family? And I’m guessing, Ed, that that was pretty commonly accepted to be the case in the 19th century.
ED: Yeah. I didn’t seem obvious to people.
BRIAN: Yes. And across the 20th century, that very notion of what relations in the family itself should be really up for grabs.
PETER: Well, yeah.
BRIAN: And I think that might be the most disruptive force here.
ED: You know, for some reason, what leapt to mind was the fact that both Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin do “respect,” which is give it to me when I come home, you know? I’m out working hard. I’m bringing home the money. But what I want is a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T when I get home.
[MUSIC PLAYING – ARETHA FRANKLIN, “RESPECT”]
BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re considering the long and complicated history of women in the American workforce.
BRIAN: On Mother’s Day in 1970, female African-American telephone operators in New York City suddenly walked off the job and went on strike. It was the busiest phone day of the year, and it made quite an impression on young feminist activist, Gay Semmel.
Fresh out of college, Gay decided to apply for a job as an operator at New York Telephone. She hoped to help fellow operators unionize under the Communication Workers of America.
Switchboard operators had some of the most stressful jobs of anyone in the telephone company at the time. Their hours weren’t standardized. They sat at huge boards plugging cables into holes for hours.
And while they were doing that, managers stalked behind them, recommending them for not working fast enough, or not sitting up straight enough. Managers could listen in on operators at any time, and discipline operators for not following their scripts. The company had a very specific idea about who was supposed to do these jobs. And Gay didn’t fit that bill.
GAY SEMMEL: When I applied for the job, I did not tell them I’d gone to college. If I had done that, I never would have gotten the job. And I was one of, in my building, in terms of cord board operators, there was only three white women. Everyone else was black.
BRIAN: And how many is “everyone else?”
GAY SEMMEL: Hundreds.
GAY SEMMEL: Hundreds.
BRIAN: So this is a colossal board, three white women, the hundreds of African-American women. No men? No men at all?
GAY SEMMEL: No men. No men.
BRIAN: Why did just women do this job?
GAY SEMMEL: Ah. That is a very important question. At that time, every single job was designated by gender and race. So all telephone operators were women. All technicians were male. Black men got hired to work on the frame. White men got hired to work as installers and switch people.
BRIAN: What about the actual working conditions having to do with gender and sexual discrimination? What kinds of barriers did women face when they went in to work each day?
GAY SEMMEL: All right. So when you were interviewed for the job, they literally asked the women, certainly the operators, what your menstrual cycle was. And I was sort of shocked by that. And I said, why would you want to know that?
And they said, well, you know, the phone service is an essential service. And we have to have a reliable workforce. And so we want to make sure that, if people are out because they have menstrual cramps, as in their cycle. That was like so shocking to me, that they would keep a record of what your menstrual cycle was, so that you couldn’t pretend that you had menstrual cramps on a different day.
BRIAN: Given that, Gay, one wonders why they hired women at all.
GAY SEMMEL: Probably because women were paid a lot less than the men.
BRIAN: I think that might be the reason.
GAY SEMMEL: And they couldn’t get men to have worked for that kind pay. The other thing that they did when they hired you, if you had children, you had to tell them who would take care of your children if they got sick, in other words, that you wouldn’t stay home to take care of kids if you got sick. And then you had to have a backup, who would take care of your children if they were sick and the caregiver was sick.
BRIAN: That’s incredible. So that was part of, simply, the routine interview, is providing all that information.
GAY SEMMEL: Exactly. Exactly. They treated the women like they were children. There were these ridiculous posters everywhere about being on time, with little cartoon characters. You went to operator school, before you became an operator.
BRIAN: Operator school, tell me about that.
GAY SEMMEL: You went to operator school for two weeks, because you had to learn all– and I had to learn how to use the cord boards. And you had to learn the little scripts of what you would say. And when you finished operator school, you got a pink certificate. And then you got a little charm bracelet with a telephone directory on the charm. It was ridiculous.
BRIAN: Something tells me you were not charmed.
GAY SEMMEL: I wasn’t charmed. No, I wasn’t charmed.
BRIAN: We both speculated that the company hired women precisely because they could pay them less.
GAY SEMMEL: Absolutely.
BRIAN: And you were actually involved in a landmark case that challenged both pay and discrimination against women. There was a very famous settlement, $38 million.
GAY SEMMEL: Right.
BRIAN: And AT&T agreed to end discrimination in salaries. Did you realize any immediate benefits from that?
GAY SEMMEL: No. I didn’t. I only stayed there two years. And right after the consent decree, which was the resolution of that lawsuit, the phone company created a whole new series of ways to make it very difficult for women, in particular, to get into these technician jobs.
So when you applied for a job, or more likely you applied for a transfer– you were an operator and you wanted to become a installation person, or a switch person, and you applied– well, other people were applying as well. And so there were these adders that gave men a boost. So the adders were, previous experience, things like technical knowledge.
So it was very hard for women to compete, because they came from operator jobs. They didn’t have prior experience. They didn’t have this technical knowledge, et cetera. So it took a long time for all of this to change. It did not happen overnight.
BRIAN: After she left the phone company, Gay Semmel became a union-side labor lawyer. We spoke to her on the first day of the retirement, after working for the Communication Workers of America for almost 30 years.
ED: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking today about the history of women in the American workforce. This past week, Newsweek ran a cover story about women in America’s tech industry. And it got pundits talking.
MALE SPEAKER: The article focuses on a sexist culture in the tech industry.
FEMALE SPEAKER: There are people that are losing jobs, getting death threats and threatened and docked on a regular basis because of sexism in tech.
FEMALE SPEAKER: It’s sort of the system doesn’t seem to be set up to allow women to prove their worth.
ED: That’s MSNBC and CBS News. There and elsewhere, the conversation quickly got derailed by the magazine’s cover image. A lot of commentators accused it of perpetuating the same sexism it was attempting to highlight.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Look at this. The title, “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women,” appears beside an image of a woman having her skirt lifted by the arrow of a computer mouse.
FEMALE SPEAKER: It’s supposed to illustrate the barriers that women face–
ED: Critics say that images like that are the reason women aren’t attracted to computer science in the first place. It’s left companies across the tech industry asking themselves, how do we get women into computing? But when BackStory producer, Andrew Parsons, looked into the history of women in that field, he came away with a different question. How do you get women back into computing? Here’s Andrew with the story.
ANDREW PARSONS: In 1945, a military-run lab at the University of Pennsylvania created one of the first electronic computers to calculate missile trajectories. The job of programming calculations into this machine went to some of the best computing minds in the industry, the ones previously doing the computing.
MARGARET O’MARA: The term, “computer” was first applied to refer to a person. And that person was a woman.
ANDREW PARSONS: This is Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington. She says, for decades before electronic computers, women were human computers, the ones actually doing the math. When electronic computers were invented, the job of programming these machines went to women.
MARGARET O’MARA: Early on, the idea of programming a computer, actually making be the software work, was considered to be kind of a glorified telephone operator or glorified secretary, that all you had to do was plug the wires in the right plug, and then that would make it work, that the real artistry was in designing the hardware of the computer, and that was what the men on the teams did.
ANDREW PARSONS: But these women were more than just secretaries. Most had advanced degrees in mathematics. They were computing complex equations and feeding them into the machines.
All the more, these computers were a massive, wall-sized behemoth. They were finicky and broke down a lot. Computer science historian, Nathan Ensmenger, says the women programming the first computers in the ’40s had to creatively troubleshoot the machines.
NATHAN ENSMENGER: It very quickly became apparent that programming the computer was as hard, if not harder, than building it. And so these women very quickly assumed a much more prominent role in making these computers work.
ANDREW PARSONS: By the late ’60s and early ’70s, Ensmenger says computer programming was seen as a growth industry for women. In 1967, the magazine, Cosmopolitan, known for puff pieces and sex advice columns, ran an article entitled, “Computer Girls.”
JANE ADDAMS: I don’t know of any other field outside of teaching where there’s as much opportunity for women.
ANDREW PARSONS: This is Jane Addams, quoted in the article. She was the Director of Education of the Association for Computing Machinery.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Soon, mothers will be telling their daughters, study your arithmetic, so you can become a computer girl.
ANDREW PARSONS: The Cosmo article quotes the now legendary computer scientist, Dr. Grace Hopper, as saying, “Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are naturals at computer programming.”
Ensmenger says it might be easy to brush this article off as a puff piece, if not for the actual numbers. He says at least 30% of programmers through the 1970s were women.
NATHAN ENSMENGER: 30% is quite high, at least when we look at comparable professions, like engineering, or accounting, or architecture. That number is quite high.
ANDREW PARSONS: As the 1970s progressed, Margaret O’Mara says computer programming was seen as something that was compatible with mothers who wanted to make their own schedules. They could work from home. It was family-friendly.
MARGARET O’MARA: I found these stories of these companies that are trying this out, and doing it as a way to keep their programming workforce more diverse. And that’s the great irony is that that somehow, very quickly, goes away.
ANDREW PARSONS: Today, our images of computer programmers are very male. Take the HBO sitcom, Silicon Valley, about a group of guys starting a software company and living together in a college-style group house. In one episode, one of the coders brings his girlfriend into the house for a few days, and it throws everything off.
-Tara, this is the fellas– Jared, Dinesh, Erlich and Richard.
-Well, it’s great to finally meet you guys.
-It’s weird having a girl in the house. It’s a very strange energy.
[END AUDIO PLAYBACK]
ANDREW PARSONS: So what happened? How did an industry where programming was all women become one that many say is hostile towards women? Well, first off, in the 1960s, it was clear that programming software was going to be the future of computing. MIT and Stanford founded, now legendary, computer science programs. O’Mara says the distinctively male programmer we see in the media today has its roots in the labs of those universities, in environments that are not welcoming to women.
MARGARET O’MARA: They are pulling all-nighters. They are not showering. They are sitting in front of computer terminals. It’s like a frat house, without the beer. You know, that’s kind of where the legend begins.
ANDREW PARSONS: By the 1980s, the legends were guys like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. The image of the weird, brilliant computer hacker captured the media’s attention.
Now, to be fair, there are many factors that pushed women out of programming in the ’80s. Coding jobs were becoming better paid, attracting more men. Male dominated corporations were also starting to take over.
But that legend mattered. It was showing up in story lines for major movies. And Ensmenger says it started to shape industry notions of who should be a programmer.
NATHAN ENSMENGER: Corporations begin to believe that, in order to be a good programmer, you must also be obsessive and anti-social. They hire programmers who are like that. And before you know it, you have a programming group full of anti-social, obsessive, largely men.
ANDREW PARSONS: Ensmenger says this boy’s club environment crept into standard industry practice too. For example, all programmers know something called a reference image.
NATHAN ENSMENGER: If you want to display your latest graphical filter or your image processing technique, you’ll use a reference image to show how your technique differs for others.
ANDREW PARSONS: Since the 1970s, most programmers have used the same image, that of a Playboy playmate. Don’t forget this was a time when the industry was actually welcoming to women. But that image emerged from, you guessed it, a university lab. And it stuck.
NATHAN ENSMENGER: And it’s been published in hundreds of academic papers. But the fact that computer scientists don’t see it problematic, that this highly sexualized image used in their discipline, I think, is a reflection of the larger culture.
MARGARET O’MARA: Culture really matters. Culture matters in the beginning, middle and end of the story. And when we talk to women who have been really successful programmers, have been very successful technical women, a lot of them will say, well, the way that I did it is I had to get a thick skin. I had to not worry about the fact that I was the special unicorn, I was the only woman in the room.
EILEEN HAGAN: As a software developer, there were many, many days when I would walk into every meeting I was in, I was the only female.
ANDREW PARSONS: This is Eileen Hagan, a vice president at the tech company, Intuit. She was at IBM in the mid ’80s, and says that culture expressed itself in little ways, no handshakes for her at meetings, asking her to go get coffee.
EILEEN HAGAN: I got chastised once for wearing pants to work, instead of a dress or a skirt. You had to work a little harder to gain the respect of your peers. I think it’s just really that simple.
ANDREW PARSONS: The perception of computer programming as a boy’s club has had a big impact. O’Mara says the percentage of women enrolled in computer science programs peaked in the early 1980s, and it continues to decline today.
MARGARET O’MARA: Google just , for example, released its diversity numbers, in terms of gender diversity and racial diversity earlier this year. And at Google, the technical workforce is 17% female, 17%.
ANDREW PARSONS: There’s no silver bullet to solve the tech industry’s diversity problem. Some say it starts with encouraging girls to get into math and science in lower grades. Some say it’s about actively recruiting women into Silicon Valley jobs. And others say it’s about changing the industry culture, so when women arrive in tech, they stay. But Ensmenger says, perhaps, there’s another solution to consider.
NATHAN ENSMENGER: I think it’s telling the history correctly, that the stories we tell about the history of computing are largely mythologies, not real history.
ED: That story was brought to us by Andrew Parsons, one of the producers on our show. To read more about this history, check out Nathan Ensmenger’s book, The Computer Boys Take Over, and Margaret O’Mara’s, Cities of Knowledge, Cold War Science and the Next Silicon Valley.
That’s going to do it for us today, but we’ll be waiting for you online. Drop in at backstoryradio.org and let us know what you thought about today’s show. And while you’re there, check out our blog post about super mom comic book heroes and how they struggle to balance motherhood and saving the world in the 1960s and ’70s.
Also, let us know what you’d like to hear on future shows. We’re working on episodes about the history of the middle class, as well as the way history was depicted in last year’s popular media. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
[MUSIC PLAYING – DOLLY PARTON, “NINE TO FIVE”]
PETER: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, and Robert Armengol. Our digital producer is Emily Gadek. And Jamal Millner is our engineer.
We had help from [? Foley Elhi. ?] BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham. Special thanks this week to Alice Kessler-Harris and Nina Feldman.
ED: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities and the environment, and by History Channel, history made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of History Emeritus at UVA, and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
ED: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.