Thinking about “woman’s work” on Labor Day

These days when people plan activities for Labor Day they have nothing to do with a nod to those people who have work-a-day jobs, and who could use at least one day of appreciation, and a day away from work.

That’s typical, and contrary to the day’s raison d’être.  If you look at the website of the U.S. Dept of Labor, the commemoration of a “workingmen’s holiday” dates to 1882 and the actions of the Central Labor Union in New York.  By 1894 most of the United States had agreed to take the first Monday in September to celebrate working people.  But how often are they on our minds on that Labor Day?

If few of us think about America’s workers during Labor Day – and if TV programming on that day reflects our prevailing psyche, we don’t – then probably even fewer people think about women in the work force or what “women’s work” means today.

I remember the most pointed and indelible symbol I’ve seen of the struggle for gender equity in the work force.  When I was a temp with a huge American bank in the 1990s, I stepped into a file room where someone had posted a laminated photocopy of a section of newspaper want ads circa 1970s; it read “Woman’s Work.”  I’m in favor of women’s equity, and when I saw that my jaw dropped.  But I couldn’t gawk.  I had to get back to work for my boss.  A woman.

Depending on what part of the 1970s that section of the newspaper hailed from, about two generations have passed.  That means four decades.  America’s working women have gone from the affirmation of Betty Friedan’s seminal book “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963, and wondering why domestic work left them unsatisfied and on to asking many questions about what and who defines women’s work and women themselves, to Prof. Anne-Marie Slaughter at Princeton University.  She “came clean” in The Atlantic Monthly about why, in her esteemed and sage opinion, the heart rending compromises and absences from family mean that the vast majority of women cannot “have it all.”

Our most popular images and notions of American culture come from mass entertainment: movies, TV, music and more, no matter the platform.  When you consider the portrayals of working women in movies, Norma Rae, 1979, 9-to-5 1980, Working Girl, 1988, North Country, 2005, about a crisis of sexual harrassment that dated back to a 1984 lawsuit.

As the Virginia Slims box read circa 1970 women have “come a long way, baby” from the notions of woman’s work.  There are still many chronic, persistent quandaries that hinder progress, such as divisions over personalities and politics.  Still you cannot deny or ignore the progress, only its pace, velocity or ferocity.

Aside from the occasional feature or issue-oriented story on evening news programs, the only program that concentrates on and advocates for gender equity in life and work may be “To the Contrary,” a 30-minute weekly talk program that airs Sunday mornings on the Public Broadcasting Service.

Americans are talking about women in the workplace, but when they seem to be only women.  And the men who still set company culture and make the policies can make women and feminist men feel like Chicken Little.

Of course with gains, a prickly question arises.  Women must answer them for themselves: what does it mean to be a working woman, and what kind do you want to be?  Never mind what Whitney Houston sang about being every woman in 1993.  No one professional woman can stand in for any of her sisters.


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