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A World Our Mothers Only Dreamed Of

For those of us of a certain age, who remember when women were new to the workforce and barely tolerated, Mad Men wasn’t just a television show. We had lived it: all the smothering sexism, condescension, and adultery. Any one of us could have been mousy Peggy Olson, hot Joan Holloway, or put-upon Betty Draper.
What would be actionable as sexual harassment today was just another day at the office then — not the least bit noteworthy, even to those of us on the receiving end, and something we knew we had to endure in silence in order to survive. Whatever the offense, the men would get off scot-free and the women would be punished.
All of this comes to mind in part because of Donald Trump’s abhorrent behavior toward women — past, present, and presumably future. It comes to mind, too, because Hillary Clinton is being pilloried by Mr. Trump for her husband’s behavior, a breathtaking double-whammy that he disguises by calling her an “enabler.” It comes to mind because of the new documentary Weiner, which follows the onetime congressman and failed New York City mayoral candidate as his sexual peculiarities delighted the tabloids and humiliated his wife.

Donald Trump at a rally in Greenville, South Carolina. Image by Jamelle Bouie/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

And it comes to mind because of a young woman I recently met who is the construction foreman at a high rise going up at my corner. While hers is commonly thought of as a blue collar job, it turns out not to be that simple. She, for instance, has advanced degrees in both engineering and art history and most recently worked at the Metropolitan Museum in a curatorial position. “How do they treat you,’’ I asked her, with no need to categorize who I was inquiring about. “Horribly,’’ she said, “but I can take it. And imagine how much worse it would be if I wasn’t the boss?” Well, being the boss is an improvement, but is it improvement enough?

Salaries, we know, are a sorry marker, with women earning 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. In the industry I know best — journalism — The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times were named in recently released studies on pay disparities involving both women and minorities. In the case of the Times, women earn 7% less than men (or 83 cents on the dollar) and are under-represented in jobs that offer higher wages and more prestige. This may be the legacy of past bias, but it will depress pensions and Social Security for decades into the future.
Looking back to my first job out of college, from 1969 to 1974, as a researcher for Sports Illustrated magazine, part of the Time Inc. portfolio, the corporate culture was both unfair and ugly. Male researchers were quickly promoted to reporter while female researchers either left or stayed in that position for life.
We weren’t disgruntled or angry, just grateful to be part of a world our mothers only dreamed of. I can still recall the heady feeling of whooshing through Central Park in a taxi, on the way to work. I had money for the fare, paid rent on a dreadful fourth-floor walk-up apartment, and wasn’t a teacher or a nurse, honorable jobs then held overwhelmingly by women.

Image by Agneta Von Aisaider/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

Only much later did I wonder about the design of office parties, known as “pourings’’ because they were amply lubricated by alcohol, another ubiquitous part of Mad Men. The wives of male editors — and there was only one woman at that level — were not welcome, which seems in hindsight a deliberate way to encourage married men in their 50s to prey on single women in their 20s. The suburbanites among them made prior arrangements to stay in the city. On the loose, they wound up going home with researchers young enough to be their daughters.

Were we complicit? Of course. Did we know any better? No. Today’s 20-somethings might call that rape. Rape was reserved for strangers; we knew nothing of affirmative consent. And often we complied because it was easier, and less time-consuming, than saying “no.’’ None of this is OK. But it is how it was.
Does the young woman foreman at the high-rise building make a fair wage? I haven’t a clue. Does she overhear sexist murmurings when her back is turned? Probably. Does she fire back in kind? Rarely. She would rather shame her hostile employees with homemade cookies. If that doesn’t work, she has the power to hire and fire.
The cookies recall the much-ridiculed remark of Hilary Clinton, when she objected to the standard role of a First Lady, which was being a hostess and quiet helpmate at the White House. She would not simply stay home and bake cookies, she said. She was an accomplished Yale-educated lawyer, just like her husband. For the construction foreman, no irony was intended when she talked of plying her employees with goodies. She was as proud of her culinary talents as all of her others. She not only had a job that few women before her had done but lived in a world where a woman was running for the highest office in the land.
In that way, things have indeed changed, not enough but a little. The political-correctness that Donald Trump loathes makes it harder to say or do certain things, out loud or in public, which is progress however meager. But the misogyny persists, if in less visible forms, perhaps more insidious and surely easier to deny.

“Oh, THAT doesn’t happen anymore.”

Yeah, but it does.

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