NOTE: Phyllis Schlafly, the arch-foe of women's rights, died this week. She and others tried to stop women escaping the subjugation of countless millennia. This is a story of that Great Escape. I wrote it two years ago and reprint it now to mark the passing of that warped woman and all others who stood in our way. No one can stop us. We are and ever shall be free and equal.
It's a beautiful June day in 1957 and I'm in the elegant office of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times. I turned twenty-one just a couple of days ago, and I'm in New York City as a winner of Mademoiselle magazine's Guest Editor competition for college seniors. I am now interviewing the most powerful man in America, the man who largely decides what we know and how we think.
"Where are your women reporters?" I ask him.
The poor man has none. A few women writing "women's" stuff but no women reporters. He walks me all over the Times building to show off the Women's Pages (recipes, gardening, fashion, society news and weddings). He points out the small empty office of a woman on the editorial board. Perhaps as a distraction he even takes me three floors below the main building into the cavernous basement where the presses clamor and groan. No women reporters anywhere.
"I can't hire a woman reporter," he explains, "because I'd have to send you to cover a dock strike where it might get violent. Or what if you find a body on a sidewalk? You'd have to go into the pockets for the wallet and ID."
It was 1957. Dead bodies and possible violence were absolute barriers against the presence of women in journalism. Women were the weaker sex and must be cosseted and protected. Except when giving birth or bandaging the dreadfully wounded just behind the front lines of war. How odd that women were strong enough for these painful and bloody tasks but nothing else. Of course the Sulzberger-style reasons for barring women were nonsense. With few exceptions, however, they had kept us from the world of action beyond doing laundry since time immemorial.
Besides being weak and tender, we women were also deemed nitwits. There was many a laugh on the radio or in the cartoons about women drivers, women who couldn't manage money, women and their silly hats. But we were deemed smart enough to teach children - the most important of all jobs except parenting - or be secretaries to very important men. Or save the desperately ill. Nursing, teaching, secretarial. Those were our allotted career paths. And naturally these "women's jobs" paid the lowest wages, and men told the underpaid women what to do.
None of this was supposed to bother us because women shouldn't have careers or even jobs outside the home. We were supposed to marry. Married women didn't work. Single women over twenty-five were "old-maids" and ridiculed as such. All of society, and especially my mother, recited this litany over and over.
"Take typing," my father had said when I entered high school in 1949. "You'll never be a writer. You’ll be a secretary. Writing is a man's job. And it's a man's world." But I didn't take typing because I didn't want to be tempted to give up and take a secretarial job. I was going to find work as a writer and neither my father in 1949 nor a fatherly Sulzberger in 1957 was going to stop me.
To a great extent, however, my father was right. Returning from New York in 1957 to Los Angeles, I began beating against the brick wall. "You are exactly what we want for this job," said the head of the news department of KTLA-TV, "but we don't hire women. That's the policy." There it was. Right out in the open. It was true in many lines of work besides journalism - law, medicine, dentistry, trucking, pharmacy, construction, college teaching, chemistry, finance, management, public office. Every door shut. No women! Half of the population was openly and legally discriminating against the other half. Half the population was depriving the other half of money, stature, dignity. As we had been for most of history, women were deemed less than fully human.
It wasn't just the jobs. I finally got a part-time journalism job on a little weekly paper for a while before marrying. But I kept bruising my shoulders knocking down other walls. As late as the mid-1970’s women were denied the very basics of life in America. As an appointee in Gov. Jerry Brown's first administration, I was one of the first four women ever to hold a non-clerical job in all of California state government. But in due course, my husband said, "Quit the job." Wives obeyed. I had sworn obedience. And then eight weeks after I obeyed, he left.
There I was, out of work, out of money, on my own with six kids, the youngest an epileptic. I had to rush that little boy to the ER frequently, but the insurance industry didn't want to give me car insurance. The policy had been in my husband's name, then the standard practice. Although I had been driving for twenty-five years and never had a ticket or an accident, I was effectively barred from rushing a convulsing child to the hospital because I didn't exist in their company records.
Nor could I get credit. My husband often hadn't collected payment for his consulting work, so my paychecks from the state of California had gone to pay off the resulting credit card debt and all the other bills. But my pay stubs and cancelled checks for all those bills meant nothing. The credit record was in the man's name, as was standard practice then. Reality didn't count, just one's gender.
All this wasn't just my personal misfortune. These hardships fell like an axe on many thousands of women in 1975 when California became the first state to adopt no-fault divorce. The moment no-fault divorce was enacted in California, half the marriages in my county went to the divorce courts. In the next county the rate was 75%. The vast majority of the filings were by men, newly relieved by the law of any obligations except inadequate child support. Women in their 40s and 50s and even older were left destitute. Beyond employment age or with no employment record or training, no longer covered by a husband's health insurance or car insurance, and denied credit, tens of thousands of women were thrown into destitution. The destitution then began killing them.
By 1977 the print media reported that the rate of hospitalization for serious illness was soaring among divorced mothers. And so was the death rate. All of this was attributed to rising stress and diminished resources. Sadly, this story had no bounce. I read it but apparently no one else did. Certainly no one came riding to our aid.
Two of my friends died during this period. One was the mother of four children. As a nurse she had supported her husband while he went to med school and got established as a doctor. Once established, he unestablished her as his wife the minute no-fault kicked in. Then he wore her down with an unending battle over every bit of money and every possession. She got pneumonia, and this former nurse, recently the wife of a doctor, died of lack of medical care. Why hadn't she found a job? There was no licensed child care in those days, and no hospitals wanted to employ a woman as burdened as she. Her name was Misty and she was only thirty-nine.
Jackie died on a Monday morning in the office where she worked for a pittance as a secretary. Her heart just gave out. At age thirty-five. She had literally worried herself to death about money and how to meet expenses for her fifteen-year-old son. She asked me to help her get an extension on some medical bill for him. She stood there in tears, twisting her hands together. The bill was $286. I told her I would just give her the money to pay it. I actually couldn't afford to but - oh God - I'm glad I gave her that money. Within a week she was dead.
Equality wasn't about being a big shot. It was about survival. Supposedly we women were too weak to lift a wallet from a dead man's pocket, but it was okay for us to be strong-armed by male-dominated divorce courts into the hard knocks of penury and then early death. Under the new divorce laws the judges had the discretion to give minimal child support, deny spousal support, and order the family home sold immediately so the husband could get his share even though the wife and kids were then out on the streets.
Obviously there would have to be changes on the bench and in the laws. So I went to law school even though I was the single parent of six children. My epileptic son went to a new co-op pre-school right on the campus.Thus I could readily be called out of exams and classes when he was convulsing. It happened a lot, being called out of class for him. But I didn't mind. Not at all. I also had to work while in law school. And yet somehow I graduated with honors.
Ironically, by the time I graduated from law school, male lawyers were already making a big difference for women in the divorce courts. Not all men are bad guys by any means. Plus Gov. Jerry Brown had appointed a woman as Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. Things were getting better. So I wasn't needed in the divorce courts. Instead I chose to teach law and run a law clinic for indigent clients. I gave up higher pay in order to be home by 4 p.m. for my kids. We had to live frugally, but we managed.
We survived those dark days, my kids and I, while we women worked to change the anti-women laws and practices and “raise consciousness”. As part of that effort I a wrote book called “Women of the West” under my married name of Dorothy Gray, the first book about the serious contribution and admirable courage of women on the Western frontier. It is still in print all these decades later, still a testimony to those 19th century women who rose to great challenges and found freedom, setting an example for women in those 20th century decades of change and for the future.
Amazingly the dark ages for women had begun to end in my own lifetime. I saw the beginning of the end. For the very first time in the history of western civilization, women were being recognized legally and in many other ways as fully human and fully equal.
Of course we are not really over the bridge entirely. But we are on the way and we will get there. Because we are not only changing society but we ourselves have changed. When I entered politics in the late 1960s and did door-to-door work, many women said at the door, "I always vote the way my husband tells me to." Today that’s laughable.
So there, Arthur Hays Sulzberger! You had it all wrong, Mr. Powerful Man of Journalism. In fact, you missed the beginning of the biggest news story of perhaps all time. When that very young woman asked you that question in June 1957 she was announcing a revolution, the greatest revolution in human history. And you missed the story!