December 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 8
In August 1950 I began working with a group of business and professional executives to establish a nonprofit organization in New York that would place college women in jobs and steer them along their career paths. We called ourselves the Alumnae Advisory Center. Discrimination against women, and against older women in particular, was perfectly legal; early civil rights legislation outlawed bias related only to race, religion, and national origin.
World War II had ended five years earlier. Women, who had been holding men’s jobs—riveting, drafting, engineering, piloting—were given pink slips, while men returned to their old jobs, which had been held for them as required by law.
Half the members of our board of directors advocated not opening our office until we had a roster of applicants; the other half insisted that we first collect a file of jobs. We opened on August 14 with neither. That morning The New York Times carried a short article announcing our new service. By the time I got to work, a twenty-foot-long line of women stood waiting.
The Korean War had broken out, and overnight America’s job shortage became an applicant shortage. We made our first placement a week after we opened: a research assistant for the Legal Aid Society.
Among our first clients was a June graduate. When I had finished interviewing her, she said, “My roommate is with me and wants to see you, but she didn’t wear a hat.” I assured her that that was all right. The roommate came in, sat down, and with an impish glance upward said, “Recognize the hat?” She had borrowed her friend’s. Hats and gloves were required for job hunting then.
Our new graduates had held few jobs if any. Their application forms were blank. Their goal tended to be to work for only a few years, to support themselves until they found a husband or to help a husband through graduate school. Once their spouses were launched, these women planned to settle down to married life. When we pointed out to them that they would probably want to go back to work in ten or fifteen years and would be wise to lay the groundwork now, our advice met deaf ears. Once they found jobs, single young women often quit to go abroad for the summer, expecting to find work again quickly when they got back.
Married women with children were restless and wanted to find jobs that would take them out of the house—part-time. Money was not the object (although they could always use the money, as the saying went). They wanted to “fulfill” themselves. But part-time jobs were scarce because employers wanted their employees there ; clients who phoned in the afternoon wanted to speak to the person they had seen that morning.
Job hunters who couldn’t be editors and writers—the ever-sought goal—wanted to be management trainees, but then were dashed to learn that management involved data, finances, and sales. There were good job prospects in banking, investments, and insurance, but our clients shunned these fields because they thought them “unfeminine.” Many applicants told us they wanted to work with people because they “liked people.” We placed some at IBM as systems service representatives, essentially a customerservice job.
In those years women faced probing personal questions. If they were single, they would be asked what their plans were regarding marriage. If they were married, they would be asked their plans for having children. And clients were often evasive. One woman volunteered to me that she didn’t plan to have children for three years. She was pregnant at that moment.
As the 1960s dawned, job hunters still wanted to write, but the great interest now was in the humanities, and applicants talked of community action, the culturally deprived, and the disadvantaged—new terms in our vocabulary.
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act barred discrimination against women in employment. At last. To comply with the law, employers now not only accepted women but even recruited them for jobs they had previously been denied. Suddenly we had openings for a motorcycle production manager, a construction auditor, and a copywriter with five years’ paper-mill experience. But surprisingly, the new law brought difficulties for us in making placements. Until now we had had little trouble getting and filling openings for women as executive trainees in masculine fields like retailing and marketing; we had even placed an engineer. But now employers said, in effect, “All right, we’ll hire women, but they have to have M.B.A.s,” and it became harder to place beginners.
New graduates coming to us for their first jobs now filled their forms with summer jobs and internships. More than half would take jobs that had not existed when they were born. And their aims were the reverse of the earlier beginners; they wanted a career, not a job job, as they put it. They wanted to start at once and defer marriage and children. They told us that they would work after they had children, and they wanted to plan for that now. One person even told me that she was going to have a baby in six months and wanted a job that she could return to after the baby was born. (I wanted to ask her why she was having a baby.)
In the 1970s the new computer age demanded that even corporate executives type. Now we had openings in data processing, and women stopped being afraid to admit they could handle numbers and machines.
The postwar babies who had caused an expansion in school systems and a plethora of jobs for educators were grown now and seeking jobs of their own, just when delayed marriages and increased family planning meant there were fewer children to be educated. There was a glut of teachers, social workers, and librarians. Typically, jobs in the professions called for a graduate degree; beginners who wanted to get started at once had to drive taxis and wait on tables.
One of our tasks was helping people change fields. A client who was telling employers that she had worked for a theatrical agency—and was getting the phone slammed in her ear—changed her opening line to “I interviewed men and women of all ages for an office that placed actors in every sort of role.” She immediately got a job in personnel.
More and more women began returning to work after their children had grown. It was not a matter of boredom; it was a necessity. Rising expenses brought the two-income family into being. And suddenly employers wanted women more than ever. They asked for those who had been around long enough to know what they wanted and who would stay. Uncomfortable questions about marital and family plans didn’t come up; they were against the law.
Then came the rush to the bandwagon. Everybody wanted to do what we had been doing for twenty years—helping women develop careers. Colleges introduced job-related studies to address the new fervor for careers and to answer freshmen’s questions about the relevance of certain majors. Economics majors would study accounting; psychology majors would study marketing; some took double majors. Fathers cross-examined admissions officers about the chances of their daughters getting jobs after graduation.
New organizations sprang up to help with jobs, career planning, executive placement; others provided support programs such as assertiveness training and time planning. Our own work was affected in an unexpected way. Clients wanted us to interpret the advice that these new agencies had given them. And well they might. One woman, told that she was qualified to be a CEO, asked me sardonically, “Do you know of any openings for CEOs?”
The 1980s found college seniors planning their careers to make money rather than pursue their interests, a trend that produced a surplus of doctors and lawyers. Women started entering college at any age, and there were fewer returners because so many women were already at work.
Employers, realizing that providing services for women would be to their advantage, allowed time off for pregnancies, gave family leave, and set up daycare centers. They created part-time jobs—and interesting ones—some of which could be done at home on computers.
A bank asked us to find a replacement for someone in its mergers-and-acquisitions department. The job entailed interviewing the financial officers of companies considering a merger. I talked to the woman who was leaving and asked her, as diplomatically as possible, if it wasn’t hard for a woman to worm out the information she needed from male executives.
“No,” she said. “Actually, it was easy. I could see them say to themselves, ‘She won’t understand what I have to say,’ and then relax and divulge more than they would to men.”
I retired before the nineties dawned, but of course I was curious about what lay ahead. Then one day I was invited to give a talk at a Bryn Mawr alumnae club. I wondered what I could say that would interest them. Suddenly I realized the historical significance of the panorama I had been witnessing over the years as the raw recruits of the women’s movement filed past my desk.
I had my speech.