(WOMENSENEWS)–In 1960, when our story begins, although computers were still pretty much the stuff of science fiction, almost all the other things that make modern life feel modern–jet travel, television, nuclear terror–had arrived. But when it came to women, the age-old convictions were still intact.
Everything from America’s legal system to its television programs reinforced the perception that women were, in almost every way, the weaker sex. They were not meant to compete with men, to act independently of men, to earn their own bread or to have adventures on their own.
While circumstances varied by state, many American women lived under laws that gave their husbands control of not only their property, but also their earnings. They could not go into business without their husbands’ permission or get credit without male cosigners.
Women were barred from serving on juries in some states. The rest made it either very difficult for women to serve or very easy for them to avoid serving. (No one questioned why a movie about a troubled jury was called "Twelve Angry Men.") Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren was advised, in a memo from his clerk, that permitting women to serve "may encourage lax performance of their domestic duties."
Women Routinely Paid Less
At work, employers routinely paid women less than men for doing the same jobs. The National Office Managers Association found that a third of the companies it surveyed had dual salaries as a matter of policy. Many employers cited the extremely convenient assumption that working women were either single and living with their parents or married and bringing in extra "pin money" to supplement their husbands’ earnings.
Maria K., a single mother working in upstate New York, remembered objecting to the fact that men doing the same things she did "made twice as much," and being told in response that "they had families to support."
Medical and law schools banned female students or limited their numbers to a handful per class. There was, for all practical purposes, a national consensus that women could not be airplane pilots, firefighters, television news anchors, carpenters, movie directors or CEOs.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. The cherished convictions about women and what they could do were smashed in the lifetime of many of the women living today. It happened so fast that the revolution seemed to be over before either side could really find its way to the barricades. And although the transformation was imperfect and incomplete, it was still astonishing.
A generation that was born into a world where women were decreed to have too many household chores to permit them to serve on juries, and where a spokesman for NASA would say that any "talk of an American spacewoman makes me sick to my stomach," would come of age in a society where female astronauts and judges were routine.
Parents who hoped for a child to carry on the family business or for another doctor in the family or for a kid to play ball with in the backyard at night, no longer drooped with disappointment when the new baby turned out to be a girl.
It was the liberation that countless generations of American women had been waiting for, whether they knew it or not. And it happened in our time.
Gail Collins is a New York Times op-ed columnist and bestselling author. She was the editorial page editor for the paper from 2001 to 2007, the first woman to have that position.
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