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?