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Working women? Nothing new

By Laura Botting, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

Whether in a turn-of-the-century office, a 1920s sweatshop, a World War II weapons factory, a Silicon VAlley computer-chip manufacturer, or over a kitchen counter, 20th-century women always worked.

Women in the work force are a force to be reckoned with.

Today's working women are single, married, divorced, and single parents. They are moms and heads of households. They own corporations, head corporations, and are seated in the U.S. Senate.

``You've come a long way, baby,'' the old Virginia Slims commercials said.

But it wasn't always that way. In the first half of the century, the general consensus held that ``a woman's place was in the home.'' The ideal was that women married, had children, and stayed home to run the household. Only the men held office, ran the corporations and headed the households.

However, women always were part of the work force, said Marsha Smith, professor of sociology at Augustana College in Rock Island. Poor immigrants in the early part of the 20th century got jobs, whether they were male or female.

Later, more women found employment when men lost work as blue-collar jobs were scaled back.

``There have always been women working,'' Ms. Smith said. ``We just haven't really talked about those women.''

She sees the increase in the numbers of working women as a long-term trend. Ever since World War II, when women took jobs while men were at war, more women with children have been entering the work force.

At first, many women became teachers and nurses or sought service-industry jobs because such positions were easier to get, Ms. Smith said. But as far back as the late 1940s, women have been upwardly mobile in the work force.

Ms. Smith said the ``baby-boomers'' from the 1950s and 1960s were the first generation of women encouraged to get a good education. During that same era, the women's movement and the accessiblity of birth control changed the way women were viewed.

Both the country's changing economic structure and the restructuring of families have made it more acceptable for women to work, Ms. Smith said. ``We don't spend so many years at home having children.''

To suggest women should stay home today is off base, according to Kathleen Trujillo, associate professor of psychology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. ``That's a way of the past. I don't think very many women believe that that's where their place is.''

A recent U.S. Census Bureau report showed women at the helm in three out of every 10 American households. The report also revealed that women own 15.9 percent of the businesses in America and share ownership of an additional 18.7 percent with men. Women run one-third of the private business sector.

Ms. Trujillo, who teaches a course on ``Women and Aging,'' recalled a time, not too long ago, when staying home was a status symbol. ``If a husband could say, `My wife doesn't have to work,' then he was successful,'' she said. ``He was living the American Dream.''

Every once in a while, Ms. Trujillo said, she runs across another article that says, ``You don't have to go to work ... you can stay home.'' The articles compare the cost of going to work versus staying home, and outline ``hidden'' expenses associated with working women, such as dry cleaning, day care, and going out to lunch.

``I kind of laugh,'' she said. ``I do all of those things that they suggest. ... I bring my lunch to work. I still don't save any money.''

Women stay at home for different reasons, including raising children; but the numbers show more and more stay-at-home moms are returning to work.

The census bureau reports more than half of all mothers with infants return to the labor force after giving birth. In 1995, 55 percent of women ages 15-44 were back on the job within a year of giving birth.

Why are they going back? Ms. Trujillo said uncertainty over today's economic structure is a factor.

``I think our generation is the first to look at our parents and say, `I'm not necessarily going to be better off,'|'' she said. ``It's a reality.

``Things that people used to dream about, we see as need,'' she said. ``We still want the `American Dream.' It's just not as easily attainable.''

Ms. Trujillo defined two groups of women -- those at home who want to be working, and those that want to work and are working.

``My world is women who work,'' she said. ``It's a boost in self-esteem when women who want to work are out there working.''

Still, she said, women are over-represented in lower-paying jobs. ``It's nice to encourage young girls to get a higher education so they can go to college and get higher paying jobs if they want to.''

She said women used to equate men with financial security. Ms. Trujillo said she believes in marriage but doesn't think women should feel that men are their only means of support.

Historically, women in ``bad'' marriages wouldn't leave for fear they couldn't make it on their own, she said. ``That barrier is no longer there. Now women are the ones who are asking for divorce more often.''

The number of married couples with children is declining. In 1970, married couples with children made up 40 percent of American households. Twenty-five years later, in 1995, that number had dropped to 25 percent, according to the census bureau.

Single-mom households were at 12.2 million in 1995 compared to 5.6 million in 1970, according to the same report.

During the last half of the century, married women who work have been responsible for increasing the median income of their dual-income households by 150 percent.

``I wonder if work is helping or hurting them?'' Ms. Trujillo said. ``Are they suffering by being in the workplace, with their split demands?''

A brief history of the century for America's working women:

Sandra Day O'Connor

Sally Ride

Janet Reno

-- 1909 -- Shirtwaist makers in New York conduct the first significant strike of working women to protest low wages and long working hours.

-- 1917 -- Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana, is the first woman elected to Congress.

-- 1920 -- The 19th Amendment is ratified on Aug. 26, giving women the legal right to vote.

-- 1933 -- Frances Perkins becomes the first woman to hold a cabinet post, as secretary of labor.

-- 1935 -- The National Council of Negro Women is founded with Mary McLeod Bethune as president.

-- 1963 -- The Equal Pay Act is passed.

-- 1968 -- Women liberationists picket the Miss America beauty pageant in Atlantic City. (They do not burn bras.)

-- 1970 -- Women's Equity Action League officer Dr. Bernice Sandier files the first formal charges of sex discrimination. Women professors file charges against more than 300 colleges by the end of 1971.

-- 1972 -- The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is overwhelmingly approved by Congress and submitted to the states for ratification. However, the amendment ultimately will fail to gain ratification in the required 38 states.

-- 1972 -- Title IX of the education amendments of 1972 is passed, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex.

-- 1974 -- Ella Grasso is elected governor of Connecticut -- the first woman governor elected in her own right.

-- 1978 -- Col. Margaret A. Brewer is nominated as the first female general of the Marine Corps. Sea duty is opened to Navy women.

-- 1980 -- U.S. military service academies graduate their first female students.

-- 1981 -- Sandra Day O'Connor is appointed the first woman U.S. Supreme Court justice.

-- 1983 -- Sally Ride becomes the first woman from the United States to travel to space.

-- 1990 -- Elizabeth M. Watson becomes the first woman to lead the police force of one of the country's 20 largest cities -- Houston.

-- 1991 -- Gertrude Belle Elion is the first woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. She won a Nobel Prize in 1988 for pioneering DNA research.

-- 1993 -- Janet Reno becomes the first woman attorney general of the United States.

-- 1995 -- Eileen Collins is the first woman to pilot a U.S. spaceship.

-- 1997 -- Madeleine Albright is appointed the first woman U.S. Secretary of State.

Source: ``Women's Experiences: A Psychological Perspective,'' by Frances Elaine Donelson

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.