Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Work and Gender

bringing_home_the_bacon“Dad brings home the bacon and mom fries it up.”

That pretty much summarized how work and gender functioned in my family growing up in Youngstown. It was typical of many, though not true of all, and it became less the case over the years as many families felt it increasingly necessary to have both adults in wage-earning jobs.

Many of the blue-collar jobs of that time were thought to be too strenuous and dangerous for women, although then as now, one of the principle dangers was the men themselves as there was almost no protection against sexual harassment. Yet as time went by courageous or simply financially motivated women broke through in many of these male preserves.

My wife talks of employment options for women being fairly limited in terms of what was talked about in schools: secretaries, sales clerks, nurses, teachers, telephone operators being some of the leading ones. Men went to work in the mills, in machine shops, and if more educated, in management and more technical jobs. But for many families, when children came along, mom stayed home either by mutual choice, or sometimes, the husband’s choice. There was the expectation, sometimes resented, in many households that when the man came home, dinner would be on the table.

Work around the house tended to be divided up by gender, at least at our house. The guys primarily did the outside jobs — yard care, painting and maintenance, work on the cars, and some of the inside tasks like plumbing and carpentry. Most of the indoor work — cooking, cleaning, laundry was women’s work. Laundry was a job. My mom used to wash the clothes with a ringer washer by laundry tubs where they were rinsed and wrung out. I’ve heard of several women whose arms got mangled in those wringers. Then the clothes were hung on lines–we had them in our basement for cooler weather.

I think as kids we were fortunate to have a parent at home. It was a gift to be able to talk with mom about a bad day at school, or being made fun of, and then have someone get after you to do your homework! Only in later years did it begin to occur to us that it didn’t have to be mom. My dad worked hard, and he was decent with the people who worked with him, but he never was all that good in making any more than we needed to get by. Somehow, I suspect that mom would have been shrewder and better at this if she had the chance.

Some say World War II was the watershed opening the doors of women into the workforce. Both of our moms worked during the war–my mom as a telephone operator, and my wife’s mom as an aircraft inspector (she was still single at the time). But neither continued to work when family came along and my recollection was that most moms in the neighborhood were at home–if they weren’t volunteering at the school PTA.

Is it better today? In some ways certainly as many positions, even in the military have opened to women and progress has been made toward equal pay. There are still gaps, and the truth is that women still seem to bear the brunt of child-rearing responsibilities. Part of it is that I think we still, to some degree, question the manhood of men who aren’t “bringing home the bacon” and many employers still don’t give men who want to spend time caring for their kids much help with this.

I haven’t even talked about single parents. That’s not my experience but I can only imagine the challenges of being sole provider AND caring for one’s children. I’m amazed at those who do it so well.

One thing I know is that most people, men and women, worked hard in working class Youngstown. They bought houses, raised kids, and in some ways, built a city. We might see gender roles differently today and open opportunities for work for women and parenting for men that once weren’t considered. But nothing can take away from what our parents’ generation did.

What did you see in your experiences growing up of work and gender? 

7 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Work and Gender

  1. My mom was one of those single parents. My dad died at 42 when she was 38 with a 5 year old (me) and a 9 year old, my brother. She decided that rather than raising us while working as a clerk or waitress she would go to college and become a teacher. My grandmother would watch us or my mom would take me to class with her. She was a non-traditional student before there was such a term!

  2. one more story…when she was teaching the administration decided to give the male teachers a raise but not the women…because after all they were just doing it for “pin money” or something to do. My mom marched into the superintendent’s office and let him know that the women weren’t there just for the fun of it and the raise should be for everyone…she won the day and the ladies all got raises too…that’s the kind of woman my mom was! (she was also a crane operator at a steel mill during the war)

  3. My family had the traditional working Dad and stay at home Mom. My Dad worked two jobs so that my Mom could be at home. She worked at teaching us to be good people and kept our house happy and clean and our home cooked meals delicious. We had such fun with her–lunches at Woolworths and movies downtown and much more. Dad joined us for weekend fun times like Idora Park visits.
    I had a very happy Y-town childhood 🙂 I have tried to give my kids a happy childhood too and share their happy adult years.

  4. 1 Peter 3 1 Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 5 For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, 6 like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.
    7 Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.
    Titus 2 1 But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine. 2 Older men are to be temperate, dignified, sensible, sound in faith, in love, in perseverance.
    3 Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, 4 so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, 5 to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.

    Even though these scriptures are still true – they are rejected as being culturally irrelevant today even by many Christians – and the word of God is also being dishonored, as promised by Titus, since many Christian husbands and wives, disobey it.

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