Mother and I had a long talk about “the old days” the other day, and I can’t get it out of my head. She was telling me about her days as a young married working girl at the Boston Store on the square in Fayetteville. The year was 1955; Daddy was in his last semester at the University and would soon be a civil engineer.
Mother was selling shoes, back in the days of dressing up to go shopping and full customer service. She was also early pregnant with me.
Mother and Daddy lived in Terry Village, which, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, was “a post-temporary World War II housing unit on the UA campus,” named after Seymour Terry and his service in the Pacific. By the mid-1950s, it served as married student housing.
Mother said she would catch a ride up the hill with a group that worked uptown, and they’d start their day with coffee or breakfast at The Red Cross drugstore next door to the Boston Store. She enjoyed the entire process, she says. At 19, she was a tiny little thing – Daddy could encircle her waist with his hands – but she was big on selling, a gregarious, popular employee who could put up with the most difficult customers.
Her boss, whom she really liked, treated her well and liked her too, she remembers fondly. So I was surprised when she told me she hated to tell him she was pregnant and that his reaction was, “Oh, Willy (his nickname for her, short for Willette), not you!”
I naively asked her, “Why, because you were so young?”
She said no, that it was because she’d have to quit as soon as she started showing – women weren’t allowed to work in maternity clothes. The store did have a shower for her, and one of her favorite gifts was from one of the window dressers, who gave her a personal gift, a shell-pink purse to match the shoes Mother had bought.
The purse was a splurge Mother couldn’t afford, but the stylish single older woman wanted her to have it. That’s pretty forward-thinking for 1955.
My immediate reaction to Mother’s experience was, “Ye gods, how far we’ve come!” But after I kept thinking about it, I remembered something from my own experience in 1978, when we really hadn’t come that far.
I was a married college student working at M.M. Cohn, though by this time I’d transferred to the University Mall store, which was never as friendly as the McCain version. When I found out I was pregnant, no one said anything other than the women in my department (lingerie) being giddily happy.
After the spring semester was over, I asked for more hours, since I’d be having a baby in the fall and wouldn’t be going to school. We certainly needed the money. But soon my hours started getting cut instead. And cut. And cut. Down to four a week.
I was having to pay the store to keep my health insurance at times, because my pay wouldn’t cover my portion of the premiums. I asked my supervisor what was wrong and for more hours. He said I’d done nothing wrong but suggested I look elsewhere for a job.
“Right!” I said angrily. “Who’s going to hire a pregnant lady?” That’s when I realized the store was trying to force me out. Seems they didn’t like pregnant employees either, even married ones.
I had to keep my health insurance, so I kept working what little they’d let me and tried supplementing my income by working as a Kelly Girl. I did get a gig at UAMS working for a lovely British man named Robert Oldham, who said he’d love to hire me permanently as an assistant, if I weren’t pregnant. He did manage to land my then-husband a job, though, which came with benefits and worked with his college schedule.
But my pregnancy was a pre-existing condition.
I don’t remember how I came up with the notion of contacting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in New Orleans, but I did, and they contacted the upper management at M.M. Cohn.
One day when I reported for my meager hours, two very big whigs came flying into lingerie and whisked me to a back room. They sat me down in a folding chair – it was like a scene from a movie, in the semi-dark with naked mannequins and boxes around us – and asked, “What are your demands?”
“What??” I was puzzled.
“We heard from EEOC. What are your demands?”
I told them I just wanted to work my previous 30 hours a week or so until time to go on maternity leave so I could keep my health insurance.
They stared at me like I’d grown another head. “That’s all? That’s all you want?”
“Well, a stool might be nice so I could sit behind the counter sometimes. My feet get sore from standing.”
The suits said of course that could be arranged. I learned later that the store had been sanctioned before by the EEOC, for racial discrimination and would have done much more to make me happy. People told me I was crazy not to have demanded back pay and a settlement. Oh, well. They got me a stool and I worked my old schedule until nine days before my scheduled C-section, when I decided to get a few days rest.
During my six weeks of unpaid maternity leave, I mailed in my insurance premiums. As the six weeks was coming to an end, I told my husband and my bosses that I wouldn’t be going back to work. No way was I leaving this love of my life for any job.
We were can’t-afford-a-takeout-pizza poor, much less go see a movie or do anything else, but we survived. It was an easy choice with a harder follow-through.
Women still have to make that choice everyday. The USA is way behind the curve on maternity leave, and women need to be ever-vigilant about our rights in general. That sadly is still our reality and it’s been pretty scary lately, with certain elements trying to take rights away.
Please don’t take things for granted, girls. We’ve still got lots of roaring to do.
And I’ve got a couple more posts to come on experiences with sexism in the good old days.