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Women and Power

To accuse someone of not being a “real man” or “real woman” is a potent social weapon in preserving the status quo. During each war, women discover that they can do “masculine” jobs and wield power without losing their femininity, and after each war, they are sent back home (though there are always some who won’t go: wars have changed women’s status more than any suffrage movement) by men who return with standards unchanged.

Even those who keep their jobs are often apologetic about it, insisting that they just work so the family can have a few more luxuries; an easy way to avoid disapproval that might come from admitting they liked the independence, and even the power. In the women’s-rights movement, one of the few instances of taking this emotional blackmail head-on came from a distinguished Negro freedwoman named Sojourner Truth. “Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over puddles, or gives me the best place,” she said, letting a male critic have it between the eyes, “and ain’t I a woman? I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns—and ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most of ’em sold into slavery, and I cried out with my mother’s grief—and ain’t I a woman?”

That was more than 100 years ago, and now, women are defensive about commanding office staffs, much less ploughing.

In fact, they don’t like to admit the barrier between men’s jobs (those with power) and women’s jobs (those without). It’s sort of embarrassing, and may lead to such dread accusations as being a feminist. (An associate producer of a television talk show, who has now seen five not-very-well-qualified men promoted to be her producers, one by one, while her capabilities are ignored, complained to a station executive. “He thought I was getting ‘women’s rightsy,’” she said sorrowfully. “Couldn’t he at least say human rightsy?”) But in New York, where hierarchies are probably more modern and flexible than the rest of the country, the barrier still exists. It seems impossible to find a profit-making organization of any size that doesn’t discourage women, subtly or not so subtly, from aspiring to positions of any power.

In banks, female “senior tellers” and male “vice-presidents” often do exactly the same job, but salaries and promotional possibilities are as different as the titles. At Time Inc., men write, edit and get promoted; women research and then research some more. Television has women with “associate” and “assistant” in their titles, but almost none (outside public service and kiddie programs) are allowed to be full-fledged writers, producers, and directors. The New York Times employs more women than Negroes (“Only because,” said one disgruntled newswoman, “we have a Women’s Page and no Negro Page”), but they are no where to be seen in Editorial Board lunches or the decision-making process. Women are illustrators but rarely art directors. J. Walter Thompson and other big advertising agencies don’t encourage women account executives “because the client might not like it”; the advertising successes of Mary Wells and June Trahey not withstanding.

Politics is probably the worst of all. Even Robert Kennedy couldn’t help Ronnie Eldridge, an eminently capable young politician who was then a District Leader, into the job of New York County Leader once occupied by Carmine de Sapio. Kennedy thought she could handle it well, but the Reform Democrats hesitated, largely because they didn’t want a woman.

Sometimes, women do well outside an organization, or by starting their own business, but in general, they just aren’t considered eligible for power. Caroline Bird, who has done the best book on this barrier, Born Female: The High Cost of Keeping Women Down, comes to the conclusion that powerful women—like Mary Wells or Judge Constance Baker Motley; or even Geraldine Stutz of Bendel’s or Mildred Custin of Bonwit’s, though fashion merchandising is traditionally a field more open to women—have gained their positions because of loopholes and idiosyncrasies in the system, not because of any liberated attitude in the system itself.

In 1944 when he wrote The American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal added a parallel between women and Negroes. Both groups, he noted, had been slowed down by the same crippling stereotypes: smaller brains, childlike nature, limited ambition, limited skills, roles as sex-objects-only, and so forth. Neither group liked the comparison very much, but now that Negroes are throwing off these stereotypes so insidious that they themselves had sometimes believed them, women are beginning to think twice about the similarities, in kind if not degree.

Of course, the big difference is mobility; even in work, women have more leeway, and socially, their mobility is almost limitless. Sponge-like, they acquire the status (even, temporarily, some of the power) of the man they’re with; so much so that it’s part of every girl’s experience to be treated as two entirely different people just because she’s changed escorts.


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