Two generations reflect on women's roles in home, at work

  • Published
  • By Angie Johnson
My grandmother was born in 1924 and she turned 85 last year. She's a strong, outspoken woman who was raised in a small mid-western town. Grandma was the oldest of four and was expected to help with farm chores as well as raising her younger siblings. She married an equally independent man and helped him run his own business for many years, serving as secretary, accountant, human resources manager, marketer, scheduler and all-around get-it-done-er, while raising four children of her own. I tell you this not because my grandmother was so much different from yours, but to give you some perspective.

You see, Grandma has seen women's roles change a lot since 1924. When I asked her what women's accomplishments had impacted in her life, she hesitated at first. My grandmother is pretty conservative and she knows I'm not, so she didn't want to disappoint me with her answer. But when I assured her I really just wanted her opinion she told me something that surprised me. She said she thought women should have gone back home after World War II instead of staying in the workforce. In her opinion, the problem with families today is that more mothers aren't home with their children.

Wow. I obviously don't agree because I'm working full-time while my two-year-old is in daycare. But I can't fault her for her opinion. Don't get me wrong. I took the opportunity to point out she was actually pretty progressive for her time since she was a working mother even though she worked mostly out of her house, and she and my grandfather were entrepreneurs before it was in vogue. She countered with the fact the first working mothers were those who helped out on the farm like her own mother. Touché.
Even though Grandma and I disagree about the importance of women's achievements during the past 85 years, it doesn't change the fact there are many to site.

I beam with pride when I read this list of accomplishments by wise and brave women of the past and present. I can't help but wonder why I feel like I'm doing more than my male counterparts at work, and at home, and not getting the money or appreciation for that effort.

Women's pay has lagged behind men's since women first entered the workforce in large numbers during World War II. We can blame that on a number of things like more women working part-time jobs or women choosing professions that offer lower wages. It could be when women take time off to have children, the gap in their work history equates to lower earning potential.

We can debate these possible culprits all day long, but according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2007 women were paid 77 cents for every dollar men were paid. Economist Evelyn Murphy, president of The WAGE Project, estimated the wage gap costs the average full-time U.S. woman worker between $700,000 and $2 million during the course of her work life. That's a big chunk of change. Then again, if you agree with my grandmother this issue wouldn't bother you a bit. You would look at it as motivation for more women to stay home where they belong.

Regardless of your opinion, something recently appeared in the news regarding women's pay disparity that may interest you. In January, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. This act allows a woman - or anyone, for that matter - who believes they have received unequal pay under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the ability to file suit against their employer if it has been more than 180 days since the supposed unequal pay.

The reason Lilly Ledbetter campaigned for this act was because she filed suit against her employer, Goodyear, in 1998 claiming that for the 19 years she was working as the only female supervisor at the Alabama tire plant she was being paid less than her male counterparts. She was awarded $3 million by a jury. However, Goodyear appealed to the Supreme Court who ruled in May 2008 that Ms. Ledbetter had waited too long to file her case. The court told her she should have complained within 180 days of the unequal payment. Ms. Ledbetter disagreed with this result because she said she only learned of the discriminating pay discrepancy near her retirement date because of Goodyear's rule against discussing pay with coworkers. Congress and the White House agreed with and passed the Fair Pay Act.

Should women work outside the home? Should they be paid equally? In 2009, there still seems to be disagreement. I wonder how things will change in the future. And I wonder how my now two-year-old daughter will answer the questions posed to her by her grandchildren when she's 85.

(Editor's note: this is part one in a two part Women's History Month series by Angie Johnson.)