EXCERPT: 'When Everything Changed,' by Gail Collins

Sylvia Roberts graduated in the late 1950's from Tulane Law School, intent on having a legal career in her beloved home state of Louisiana. But the placement officer was opposed to women lawyers, Roberts recalled. Furthermore, "there weren't any firms in New Orleans that would allow a woman to apply." She eventually did find a job that the Louisiana legal community considered particularly suited to a woman – the clerk to the chief justice of the state supreme court. These days, we think of a law clerkship as a high prestige post, but back then in Louisiana, they took the word "clerk" literally. "My judge felt all women lawyers should take shorthand and should type," Roberts recalled. She lasted a year, and then embarked on another job search, which landed her a starting position with a small law firm – as a secretary.

The belief that marriage meant an end to women 's work life provided an all-purpose justification for giving all the good opportunities to young men. Joanna Rife, a college graduate in California who was interested in industrial psychology, had a job interview in which she was pitted against a man with an inferior college record. "They asked me very pointedly if I was going to get married … and you know I probably waffled around a little," she recalled. In the end, the male student got the opening and Rife was offered a secretarial job. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the future Supreme Court justice, went to Harvard Law School, the dean held a dinner for the handful of women in the class. He jovially opened up the conversation by asking them "to explain what we were doing in law school taking a place that could be held by a man."

Once hired, women had virtually no hope of moving very far up. A report on women in management by Harvard Business Review in the 1960s said there were so few of them "there is scarcely anything to study." The idea that men were supposed to be in charge went beyond conventional wisdom; it was regarded by many as scientific fact. A federally funded study of college students' career objectives concluded that the typical coed "most easily finds her satisfaction in fields where she supports and often underwrites the male, such as secretarial work or nursing, or in volunteer work which is not paid and is clearly valued by the sentimental side of community attitudes."

"My name wasn't even on it"

Not long ago Linda McDaniel, a Kansas housewife, came across the deed to the house she and her husband had purchased when they were married in the 1960's. "It was made out to 'John McDaniel and spouse.' My name wasn't even on it," she said.

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