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The Gender Gap

Roy Christman is a retired political science professor and has a farm in Pennsylvania.

Progress can be measured by looking at the past. We can look back at the the status of women in the Fifties and pat ourselves on the back for the progress we've made. We've come so far. We could also focus on the present with the "me too" movement, our misogynistic president, and the rollback of abortion rights. We have so far to go.

Let's look back. My classmates and I will be celebrating our 60th high school reunion next year. That's Palmerton High, Class of '60. Go Bombers! [Note to FBI–the Palmerton High teams were the "Blue Bombers." Don't ask.]

The girls in our class had few options after graduation. They could be nurses, teachers, secretaries, and, of course, housewives. They could go to college, and many of them did, but they did not aspire to be doctors, lawyers, or engineers. Girls didn't do that then.

It was theoretically possible for women to be doctors and lawyers, of course, but professional schools usually had quotas for women. The firm that hired Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, initially assumed she was applying for a secretarial position.

Although women received the right to vote in 1920, just 22 years before I was born, that right did not immediately translate into political power. In 1960 Margaret Chase Smith was the lone female serving in the U.S. Senate. All fifty governors were men. Neither of the major parties had ever nominated a woman for president or vice president.

Stewardesses were fired if they married, were too old, or gained too much weight. One airline ran an Executive Special in which only men were allowed to fly, although their cigars were lit and their drinks were served by slim "stews." National Airlines ran an ad campaign in which cute stewardesses looked into the camera and said, "Hi, I'm Linda. Fly me." Continental ads featured stewardesses saying, "We really move our tails for you."





In the Fifties and Sixties the Civil Rights movement was dominated by men. The space program was dominated by men. Sports were dominated by men.

Major changes started in the Sixties and accelerated in the Seventies. In 1963 Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique wrote about "the problem that has no name." College educated women stayed at home, kept the house clean, cooked the dinner, and nevertheless felt dissatisfied, often popping "nerve pills" and wondering why they weren't as happy as June Cleaver. They began to question their assigned roles and their dead-end lives.

New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote about the shift in gender relations in a book aptly titled When Everything Changed. Women battled discrimination on college campuses, in boardrooms, in the military, in sports, in government agencies, and in daily life. Schools were mandated to spend equal money on boys' and girls' sports. Ronald Reagan appointed the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. Geraldine Ferraro was a candidate for Vice President in 1984.

Some changes had great symbolic significance. Ms. became the preferred title for women, not Miss (single) or Mrs. (married). "Roe v. Wade" legalized abortion. Women soon outnumbered men in college classrooms. Women voters outnumbered men beginning in 1980.

On the other hand.... There's always an "on the other hand." If you think women are now equal to men in political or economic power, you are probably not female. Supreme Court: three of nine. U.S. Senate: 25 of 100. U.S. House102 of 425 (23.4%). Governors: 9 of 50.

We could also look at Fortune 500 boardrooms, or spousal abuse, or income levels, or sexual harassment, etc., etc. Nonetheless, the progress in my lifetime is nothing short of astounding. Let's keep it going.

~ Roy Christman































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