EXCERPT: 'When Everything Changed,' by Gail Collins

The limited options for women who did work, and the post-war propaganda about the glories of homemaking convinced the young women who were graduating from high school and college in the early 1960's that once you married, the good life was the stay-at-home life. Prestige lay in having a husband who was successful enough to keep his wife out of the workplace. Esther Peterson, the top-ranking woman in the Kennedy administration, asked an auditorium full of working-class high school girls in Los Angeles how many expected to have a "home and kids and a family" and the room was full of waving hands. But when Peterson wanted to know how many expected to work, only one or two girls signified interest. She then asked how many of their mothers worked and, she recalled later "all those hands went up again." The girls were disturbed by the implicit message. "In those days nine out of ten girls would work outside the home at some point in their lives," Peterson said. "But each of the girls thought that she would be that tenth girl."

"I'd know we were getting the wrong kind of girl. She's not getting married."

Employers happily took advantage of the assumption that female college graduates would work for only a few years before retiring to domesticity. They offered up a raft of theoretically glamorous short-term jobs that were intended to end long before the young women would begin to care about things like health care or pensions or even salaries. Sociologist David Riesman noted that instead of contemplating careers in fields like business or architecture "even very gifted and creative young women are satisfied to assume that on graduation they will get underpaid ancillary positions, whether as a Time-Life researcher or United Nation's guide or publisher's assistant or reader, where they are seldom likely to advance to real opportunity."

First and foremost among these mini-career paths was being a stewardess. Girls in the postwar era had grown up reading books like "Julie With Wings," in which beautiful and spunky young women beat out the massive competition to become flight attendants. Along with teenage fiction about Cherry Ames the inexhaustible nurse, the stewardess novels were virtually the only girls' career books around -- unless you counted the girl detectives, who didn't seem to get paid for their efforts. Winning your "wings," readers learned, might require leaving behind an unimaginative boyfriend. ("Tug, there's a whole world for me to discover before I marry and all its people for me to know. I must follow the silver path for a while. Alone.") There would be difficult passengers and – according to the novels -- an extraordinary number of airborne criminals. But the rewards were great. Within a few chapters, the heroine of "Silver Wings for Vicki" had attracted two new boyfriends, met a movie star, and helped the police arrest a smuggler. In the real world, the job was a lot more mundane, but it was still virtually the only one a young woman could choose that offered the chance to travel. As a result the airlines got more than 100 applicants for every opening. Schools sprung up offering special courses that would improve the odds of getting into a flight attendant training program. (The Grace Downs Air Career School breathlessly asked potential clients to envision themselves being able to "greet oncoming passengers at lunch time in New York and say farewell before dinner in Minneapolis!").

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