Nostalgia and the Bad Old Days

Maya’s Granny posted last week about the TV show Mad Men, and some of her experiences as a woman in a man’s world during that time.

As much as we tend to think that “the 60’s changed everything,” some of the attitudes toward women so well illustrated by the writers of Mad Men persisted well into the 80’s. In my mind, it was Anita Hill’s testimony at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in the early 1990’s that really crystallized what so many women faced on a daily basis, and what the consequences too often were for speaking up about it. That was the point where it seemed that businesses started taking discrimination and sexual harassment seriously.

It’s amazing now to look back at some of the attitudes and behaviors that we used to be told were “just the way things are.” We were supposed to suck it up and “go along to get along,” and for the most part, une femme did too.

At one of my first radio station jobs, the General Manager used to come in every morning and greet me with, “Hello, Miss Boobsley, and how are the both of you today?” while looking at my chest. Back then, you were expected to be a good sport about this kind of thing, or risk being branded a bitch. But at some point, it just bothered me so much that I walked into his office one day and said, “I know you don’t mean any harm by it and to you it’s all in good fun, but when you address me that way I find it very demeaning.” To his credit, he got it right away and stopped, and didn’t get pissy or let it negatively affect our working relationship (which otherwise was a good one).

When I worked for a TV Ad Sales rep firm in New York in 1981-82, in my position as Assistant to the Group Sales Manager, I was responsible to oversee the work of the six Sales Assistants to the Account Executives who reported to my boss. Five were women, one was a man (all were in their early 20’s, just out of college). Of the six, the guy was lowest performer, always late getting his orders processed, having more errors in his work than the others, spending lots of time with his feet up on his desk talking to friends on the phone, and generally being a jerk. One day, my boss’ boss says to me, “It’s a shame we can only pay P—- as much as we pay the girls; he’ll have a family to support someday!”

I’ve had my appearance critiqued in business meetings by male co-workers and supervisors (“you’ve lost weight/you’ve gained weight/that shirt makes your boobs look bigger/you should show more cleavage/wear shorter skirts/wear more makeup”), I’ve been hit on by married supervisors and told that it’s OK to pay women less because they just quit when they get married and start having babies anyway.

Nowadays some people laugh off sexual harassment training and lambast “political correctness run amok.” But those of us who lived through and worked during those times know just how bad things could get, and women were at the mercy of their (almost always male) bosses. Not that all bosses or men in the workplace were abusive or disrespectful, but there were few consequences if any if they were, and a kind of “boys will be boys” mentality was common. Une femme wouldn’t return to those times for all of the champagne in France.

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  1. What???? This is unbelievable!

    I think women in their 20s need to read all this so they know how hard-won things have been, before throwing them all to the wind.

    Un-be-lie-va-ble, she says shaking her head and bewildered. Thanks for writing.

  2. I remember an older “gentleman” everyone thought was such a wit in the office I worked in in the early 70s. My co-worker in the next office was a mom of two school-age kids, a lovely Asian woman, and she was even less endowed than I was. So Mr. Barr, for a laugh, would walk past, slow down, and then say, as if we hadn’t heard it before, “Melons, hmmm, no. Grapefruits? hmm, no. — then through apples, plum, and then finally, “Fried eggs, sunny side up? — yes, I’ll take an order, thanks!
    And Diane would laugh along with the rest of the office, ’cause that’s just what was expected. He was only kidding, after all — to protest would only mean she couldn’t take a joke.
    That’s the most egregious example I can think of, but routinely, male supervisors would ask us to go ahead on the elevator so they could look up our skirts.
    Thank God those humourless feminists (I’m being sarcastic, of course) kept at it so that our young women now think that the battle is over. Of course it isn’t, but they have a lovely illusion to hang out in!

  3. My mother was a hairdresser. She worked during the 60s, the 70s and the early 80s. She told me that her salary was much lower than what her male coworkers got, as it was expected that she was but an additional revenue to the family, not the bread-winner. At that time, she was not married, but that did not matter. A 40-something friend of mine told me his mother had him young, but that she was married to a slightly older man, at that time. When she would take the bus with her baby, she would get insulted, as she appeared to be an unmmaried mother (a fille-mère, as they were called here).

  4. i remember working in a law office where after a year or so of being told i was the best worker in the office, i asked for a raise and was told that wasn’t possible, as it would raise my salary above “joe’s”. joe would someday finish law school and have a family, so he would need more money. i got only about 1/2 the amount i wanted. (i did get a new job after that) this is in addition to all the other sexist crap i had to put up with over the years.

    but i am proud of being one of those humourless feminists and sometimes took things into my own hands. i have used a watergun on construction workers who regularly cat-called and made comments; and once, a man crossing a street just called to me, “hey chesty!” and i pointed at him and screamed, “that man is a PIG! a pig!” and he ran away.

    we may have come a long way, babies, but i feel we’re stepping backwards too.

  5. “Street harassment”?

    Dejapseu: I am not sure whether I should be proud or ashamed to say this but India has a fully-fledged term for this phenomenon. It is called “eve-teasing”!

    The term covers a range of bad behaviours aimed at women including whistling and catcalls by road-side Romeos, to full-scale mauling in jam-packed public transport.

    Sometimes I am glad I grew up in a small town where I did not have to suffer all this ‘sophistication’ of big towns in India. By the time I _did_ move to big cities, I had my own money and taxis here I come!

    A weapon I have used often is turning around and asking the man if he fell off a tree because that is the only way he did not see his mother’s body. You will be amazed at how many men take umbrage if you bring their mothers into the picture! Sorry, I have done it and it works.

  6. One thing about having been a Montessori teacher, once I had my degree and was out of working my way through college, there were no men around to harass me. Not that plenty of other men didn’t try to put me in my place in other situations, but at least work was woman and child friendly.

  7. Back then most women of color didn’t even work in offices and always considered over-sexed and unattractive, so no, that’s not a time I’d like to return to!

    C’était un triste état de choses et de beaucoup d’entre nous il est encore!