In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th Century America

By Alice Kessler-Harris | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
What Discriminates?

For his book on electrical workers, the historian Ronald Schatz interviewed a number of women who had sacrificed lucrative jobs after World War II. When he asked one of them how she felt about giving up her job, she offered an acerbic reply: “How're you going to feel? You gotta give him a chance, right? The fellow that you took his job and [he] went to the service to protect you and your country, the least you can do is give him back his job or there's going to be a war.” Other women concurred with the tenor of that comment: “There are some jobs—I don't care how good you are!—you can't begin to have the muscle that a man has, ” a militant woman organizer for the United Electrical Workers argued.“We felt that there were certain jobs that couldn't be done by women because of the nature of the work, ” said another. 1

We catch our breaths as we read these words. Gender differences seem so palpable, so transparent to these women, clearly an acceptable rationale for distributing jobs and the benefits attached to them, and the source of appropriate politics and behavior. The lens of a particular kind of womanhood shapes the way they conceive their obligations as workers, trade unionists, family members, and citizens. Yet their perception of gender seems awkwardly dated: they are on the cusp of an enormous transformation that will sharply differentiate their attitudes toward earning wages from those of their daughters and sons. Less than twenty-five years later, congressional representatives, learned witnesses, and ordinary housewives would testify to the penalties paid by women because all of society had “clung to the comfortable belief that a woman's exclusive and rightful place is in the home.” 2

African-American contemporaries of these electrical workers would not have mirrored that commitment to gender differences with regard to race; they would certainly have denied the relevance of racial distinctions in

-203-

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In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th Century America
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 3
  • Chapter 1 - The Responsibilities of Life 19
  • Chapter 2 - Maintaining Self-Respect 64
  • Chapter 3 - Questions of Equity 117
  • Chapter 4 - A Principle of Law but Not of Justice 170
  • Chapter 5 - What Discriminates? 203
  • Chapter 6 - What's Fair? 239
  • Epilogue 290
  • Notes 297
  • Index 365
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