Wins and Losses THE 1980s AND 1990s
T he economic forces driving the feminization of the labor force created ever more job opportunities for women as the end of the century approached, but women reached executive positions -- when they reached them -- largely because political forces extracted affirmative action policies from government and corporations. Affirmative action created opportunities for educated women like Marcelite Harris, the first African American woman to rise to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Air Force, to reach positions and status closed to their mothers.1 Although these women benefited from affirmative action, they also proved their merits on the job, as had the defense workers of World War II. Nevertheless, neither affirmative action nor the overall growth of the service sector protected women against the boom and bust cycle of the eighties. The gap between the rich and the poor widened during the last decades of the century, and working women, from food service workers to teachers, saw their real earnings decline while the most fortunate women strode up the income ladder.
Although women made great educational strides during the 1980s, not even college training insulated them from the employment crisis of the late 19 80s and early 1990s. Those women who graduated without a specific, marketable skill found themselves especially vulnerable. The employment difficulties of Mae Belk's granddaughter and Lee Belk's daughter Holly illustrate this problem. After receiving her B.A. degree from Syracuse University in May of 1991, Holly left for Boston to look for work. "Yes," she remembered, "I was happy to be graduating, but I didn't know what to do next. I didn't have a job and I was scared."2 And rightly so, as it turned out: after weeks of searching she accepted a job clerking in a retail shop, but her employer laid her off two months later because of declining sales. Part-time, then full-time employment at an insurance agency soon followed; however, corporate