Women in the Workplace: Just How Far Have We Come?

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A woman running for president. A woman heading the Federal Reserve. Three women sitting on the Supreme Court. Women CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies. These are not positions that women held (or even thought possible) back in 1961, the year that Loesser and Burrows’ How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying took Broadway by storm.

Lady Justice
Left to right: Current female Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan

The world of women in the corporate workplace and in our American culture was decidedly different then than it is in 2016, and those differences are deftly captured in the characters of this satirical musical. The three main female figures – Rosemary, Smitty and Hedy – each represent a different kind of “working woman.” To paraphrase the old Virginia Slims cigarette ads, “We’ve come a long way, baby.” Or have we?

The answer is both yes and no. The timeline of selected  milestones for women in the United States shows that much of our progress is relatively recent and often slow moving. Consider that our country was effectively established in 1776, but women in the U.S. only received the vote in 1920. It took 144 years (!) for women to have the right to participate in our electoral process as equals to men.

If that is surprising, consider these five things women couldn’t do as recently as 1961:

  • Get a credit card. A bank could refuse to issue a credit card to an unmarried woman. If the woman was married, the bank could insist that her husband cosign her application.
  • Serve on a jury. At the time women were considered too fragile to handle the graphic details of crime and too sympathetic in nature to be objective. In fact, in 1961 the Supreme Court unanimously upheld a Florida ruling exempting women from serving on juries. It took until 1973 for women to be able to serve on juries in all 50 states.
  • Get the birth control pill. Though it was approved for use as a contraceptive in 1960, the pill was still illegal in some states and restricted to married women in others. It took several more years before the pill was approved for all women in all states regardless of their marital status.
  • Attend an Ivy League university. Yale and Princeton didn’t accept women until 1969. Harvard didn’t accept women until 1977. Columbia didn’t admit women until 1981. Women’s Ivy League options were limited to all-women’s colleges such as Radcliffe and Barnard (albeit excellent schools) until late in the 20th century.
  • Expect and experience equality in the workplace. The landmark 1963 Kennedy Commission on the Status of Women revealed that women earned 59 cents for every dollar men earned and were routinely passed over for advancement. (In case you think that things have evened up, current research shows that women today still only earn 78 cents for every dollar men earn in comparable positions.) And Title VII of the Civil Rights Act which prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender as well as race wasn’t passed until 1964.
First Wave Feminists
Left to right: Gloria Steinem, Rep. Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan at the National Women’s Political Caucus news conference in July 1971

All of this is to say that the characters in How to Succeed in Business… are reflections of a time and place that was on the verge of radical change. The 20th century women’s movement, which gathered real momentum in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to the work of such First Wave feminists as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, changed opportunities and expectations for women, as well as helped women to see themselves very differently than they had before. Here’s how Friedan described a woman’s dilemma at the time: “A woman today has been made to feel freakish and alone and guilty if, simply, she wants to be more than her husband’s wife.”

When looking at Loesser and Burrow’s musical, It’s important to acknowledge that first and foremost, the musical is a satire. Its inspiration is a satirical “self-help” book of the same title that was intended to poke fun at both the hypocrisies of office politics and of self-help books in general. J.Pierrepont Finch and his brotherhood of men are funny precisely because they are recognizable, if exaggerated, types – the clever conniver, the clueless boss, the brown-nosing yes man. But the underlying assumption about all of the men in this workplace is that they belong there. The women of this world are types too – the spinster, the sweetheart, the gold digger. But the underlying cultural assumption at the time this musical was first produced was that women mainly belonged in the kitchen, not in the corporate board room.

When we look at How to Succeed in Business … through today’s lens, we look at it with very different assumptions about women’s place in business and society at large. No longer do the Smittys, Rosemarys and Hedys of the world have to limit their dreams to children, a house with a white picket fence and a husband who earns (and controls) all the money, the opportunities and the accolades. The glass ceiling that kept women in the steno pool has fractured and women have risen far beyond what Smitty, Rosemary and Hedy could have ever imagined.

By GRETCHEN DOUMA, Contributing Writer
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying Photo by Mark Kitaoka
Photo of Supreme Court Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg, Kagan courtesy The New York Times (Credit: Steve Petteway, Supreme Court, via Associated Press)
Photo of Steinem, Chisholm, Friedan courtesy The Washington Post (Credit: Charles Gorry/AP)

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