Some of the best people that I know are men, so it’s disheartening to read that there’s a wage gap between the sexes. It’s been fifty years since President John F. Kennedy signed legislation that guaranteed equal pay for men and women, for equal work at the same establishment. That hasn’t happened. However, it did create opportunities for women in non-traditional jobs.
By the 1970’s women began to make demands in grass-roots efforts, especially in the media. And they transformed the workplace and the country. I know, because I’m the by-product of that movement.
I grew up listening Gloria Steinem, one of the leaders of The Women’s Rights Movement. “Women don’t need a reform,” she said. “We need a revolution! No one hands you equality. We took the vote!”
And like so many other girls, her words empowered me. I knew then, that if I was ever given an opportunity to live life different from my mother, a domestic and my grandmother a seamstress, then I would have to seek out a new road. I applied for a job as a Boston firefighter; but that wasn’t to be.
By the 1980’s a new technology came to Boston, cable television. With it came the pre-wiring contract and two vying companies, Warner Cable and Cablevision submitted proposals. As the two vied for the city’s huge cabling contract, people began to realize that hundreds of jobs would be handed out and politics became a power tool.
In our gender oriented city, it was assumed that most of the jobs would go to the men. But the times had changed and women, who had been active in earlier Movements, again united and demanded public hearings. There was a transparency to the politicking and women got a bigger slice of the lucrative pie.
The awarded cable contract included guaranteed training and employment for women, in non-traditional jobs. Finally those dusty ERA laws were going to be pulled out and put to the test. But first they needed to find women, presumably young women, to accept the jobs.
Gender, is such an integral part of our lives that it’s not even seen as a problem. It begins in the maternity wards, where little color-coded bracelets separate the babies– a little blue one for boys and a little pink one for girls. And these children grow up and stay true to the duties attributed to those colored little bands.
The young men poured out for a limited number of jobs, and a limited number of women came out for a lot of jobs. Neither group seemed to see themselves doing unusual work, they were just happy to hear about better wages.
I was working in an office when I heard about the job. I received a phone call from a group of women, who said that they had retrieved my name from the City of Boston’s rejected firefighter applications. I was told that this wasn’t a come and see, or a possibility, that if I could pass the cable course, I would be guaranteed the job and a good hourly wage. I agreed and entered Boston’s first cable class, offered by Henkel’s & McCoy.
I climbed telephone poles on a pole farm with men. I trained using gaffs, linesmen belts with D-Rings and tossed softballs from atop a 60ft pole. I graduated in the spring, and was one of two women to get through the class. I started work almost immediately, climbing the telephone poles in Boston’s neighborhoods.
It was rather stealth, and even now I can’t remember the name of any of the women. I remember being contacted once when I began the course, to ask if I was being trained exactly as the men. “Yes, I was.” And I saw them again, when I graduated from cable training. They pumped my hand, prouder than I was of myself!
In some ways, I’ve benefited the most from Women’s Rights Movement, but the truth is I’ve never received equal pay. And I knew it going in. It was explained in an off-handed way, that there were seniority issues and the men who worked alongside me would have a problem if they knew I was being paid the same. Or some other obscure reason for not paying me equal pay, as the guys. But I was paid well, as I advanced from a grunt- cable puller to a cable installer to a cable technician within months. Yes, months, because it was true, women could do the job and could do it exceedingly well. I was living proof. I knew that if I continued to do my job, I would be noticed and get raises and bonuses. So for my part, I kept my job and my integrity.
Which brings me to President Obama’s meeting last Tuesday, when he met with a group of women to commemorate Equal Pay Day and to urge Congress to pass more legislation to close the gender pay gap. He signed two executive orders; one would prevent federal contractors from punishing workers who discuss their salaries. It was nothing more than a photo op; a continuation from 2009’s Lilly Ledbetter Act, an anemic show of support; however well meaning, that does very little.
Women’s Equality is still being treated as a reform movement. It’s slow and weak, and at times seems not to be moving at all. I guess Ms. Steinem was right when she said we needed a revolution, we still do.
More to come…