EXCERPT: 'When Everything Changed,' by Gail Collins

Yet to look at the way Americans portrayed themselves on television, in newspapers and magazines, you'd have thought that married women who worked were limited to a handful of elementary school teachers and the unlucky wives of sharecroppers and drunkards. Marlene Sanders, one of the very few women who managed to do on-the-air reporting for network television, left in 1960 to give birth to a son. "After about six weeks I thought: 'I will go crazy'" she recalled. She hired a housekeeper and offered a male college student free room and board in return for filling in when she, her husband, and the housekeeper were all unavailable. It seemed to work, but Sanders had no idea whether the arrangement was normal or bizarre. She knew no other working mothers and there was, she said, "no public discussion of the child-care problems of working couples." One of the first articles she ever saw on the subject, she added, was one "about how I had this male babysitter."

If all the working women were invisible it was in part because of the jobs most of them were doing. They weren't sitting next to Sanders in the network news bureaus. They were office workers – receptionists or bookkeepers, often part-time. They stood behind cash registers in stores, cleaned offices or homes. If they were professionals, they were – with relatively few exceptions -- in low-paying occupations that had long been defined as particularly suited to women, like teacher, nurse or librarian. The nation's ability to direct most of its college-trained women into the single career of teaching was the foundation upon which the national public school system was built and American tax rates were kept low. The average salary of a female teacher was $4,689 at a time when the government was reporting the average starting salary for a male liberal arts graduate fresh out of college was $5,400. (Women graduates' salaries were significantly lower, probably in part because so many of them were going into teaching.)

Another reason the nation ignored the fact that so many housewives had outside jobs was that working women tended not to be well-represented among upper income families. The politicians, business executives, editors and scriptwriters who set the tone for the public discussion usually felt that not working was simply better. After the war, Americans had a powerful and understandable desire to settle down and return to normal. Since they were doing so in an era of incredible economic growth, it was easy to decide that stay-at-home housewives were part of the package. Women could devote all their energies to taking care of their children and husbands (politicians, businessmen, and editors included). If some of them wanted a break from domestic routine, they could volunteer to work on the PTA or, if they were wealthy enough, the charity fashion show. ("It is a tradition in the Guggenheimer family that all the men become lawyers and all the women work on committees," said a story in the Times about some well-to-do New Yorkers.) Men were supposed to be the breadwinners. A woman who worked to help support her struggling – or striving – family might want to downplay the fact rather than making her husband look inadequate. As late as 1970, a survey of women under 45 who were or had been married found that 80 percent believed "it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family."

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