I began my working career, aged 18, in the lowly position of File Clerk. Since desktop computers were not yet a glimmer in the eye of Bill Gates and every record was typed on an electric typewriter or laboriously entered by hand in a thick ledger before being arranged into orderly files, the mortgage company for which I worked had a spacious room entirely devoted to the files it kept on its customers. It was there I toiled, clambering up ladders or squatting and kneeling to pull out requested files or placing them back into their slots when completed.
The attitudes of the company were more antique than their filing system now sounds. In 1973, at the height of the feminist movement, this company required that its female employees—only the women, not the men–wear uniforms. Women, it was patiently explained, could not be trusted to dress professionally. And so we were coerced into uniforms made of nubby, heavy woven polyester, ugly as sin and hot as Hades. Horrifically uncomfortable, too, as the fabric scratched and scraped at one’s skin like an army of straight pins. Rendered in colors selected by the Executive Secretary to flatter her olive skin and (dyed) coal black hair, the uniforms were hideously unbecoming to most of the female employees. Accessorizing with so much as a scarf was forbidden; even the style and color of footwear we were permitted to wear was specified.
Providing our clothing, though, was also the excuse used by this company to pay its women employees less than the men. After all, they reasoned, we had no work-related clothing expenses; why, then, would we need as much compensation as the male employees?
It’s difficult for me now, as a 21st century woman, to remember that I once lived under such strictures. Yes, I chafed at them—but there was virtually nothing I could do about it, not if I wanted to keep my job. So I put up and shut up, until I found another job.
It would be more than a decade after my sojourn at the mortgage company before the organization was sued over their uniform policy (and lost, primarily due to the pay discrimination factor). As an 18-year-old, though, supporting myself on a meager income and living in a semi-slum, I dared not buck the system, no matter how wrong I felt—knew–it to be.
But I was recently forced to recall my feelings of bitterness and injustice—recall them vividly and painfully–when an acquaintance complained of the “attitudes” of African Americans fighting against police brutality and racial inequity. “It’s not like when I was a kid; they can be anything these days—doctors, lawyers,” my acquaintance grumbled. “They need to stop bitching. They should be grateful.”
Grateful…. I was forcefully reminded of my 18-year-old self in similar circumstances. Remembered being told, recalled even telling myself, “You have a job. Your generation can work outside the home. Your clothing is provided. So what if you’ll never make as much money as the male employees? So what if the only promotion you can expect is to another clerical position? So what if a male employee can put his hand up your skirt, and there isn’t a damned thing you can do about it? Quit your whining and bitching. You don’t know how good you’ve got it. Show some gratitude.”
But like typewriters to keyboards, paper files to a cloud drive, attitudes evolve—must evolve—and change. And they do so only when forced: by pressure, by recognition, by lawsuits, by revelation, by coming out of the darkness into the piercing daylight of truth.
For until all of us are free, none of us will ever truly be free.