The Ascent of Womankind
Remember When column
In observing with satisfaction the Ascent of Womankind in my lifetime, I think I should enlarge upon that theme. It was centuries in the making, but I think women’s lot is improving. Some of them are finally getting their due!
In all ages a few have risen to the top, Esther and Cleopatra for example, and there were some notable Queens in Europe more recently. But it is only in the last century that any real progress began for women. Even the USA, the “land of opportunity,” passed the 19th Amendment only a century ago! Finally their voices would be heard in the land of the free . . .
About the only professional jobs open to women before WWII were as nurses, public school teachers, or secretaries. Of course the uneducated ones who needed to work could clerk in stores, wait tables in restaurants or work in the textile mills of the South, but always for substandard pay.
When the whole country mobilized to fight and win WWII, women were not only allowed to join our armed forces, but they also entered the factories to provide skilled labor for the war effort. Even so, they were not yet put into positions of any great authority.
The women who joined up to fly were put in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). They ferried every kind of Air Corps airplane solo all around the country, even four-engine bombers. They were frightfully underpaid; they even had to foot the bills for the funerals of those who died in line of duty!
After the war, these women returned to their homes to raise their families, while the returning GIs took their former jobs. The reigning credo then was still that “a woman’s place is in the home.”
I think that WWII was a turning point in the fortunes of our ladies, for they had proven themselves more than capable in the new career fields in which they were working. Soon we had a few school principals, department heads, even medical doctors!
Secretaries then became “Administrative Assistants” to their male bosses. Since they were running the place while the boss played golf or went to meetings, they gradually began to be moved up into lower management positions. Even so, there was a perceived “glass ceiling” which kept them from advancing “too far” in the businesses.
There were a few women working as professionals in the Air Force office to which I was assigned, but most of the civilian women were either clerk typists or secretaries. When I got out to go to college on the Korean GI Bill, there was one woman student of engineering. NASA Langley Research Center had several women engineers when I retired some thirty years later.
During the last thirty years I have seen women break through that ceiling and advance into real executive positions. I have also seen women entrepreneurs make fortunes in business. Right now, the Secretary of the Air Force is another woman, Heather Wilson, who will be leaving soon to head up the University of Texas at El Paso. The CEOs of two major Defense contractors are women.
Closer to home, we have been selecting ladies for good positions in our schools and government. Anna Conner did a program for the Polk County Historical Association which she called “First Ladies of Polk County” in which she invited four of them to speak to us: Opal Sauve, County Commissioner; Judy Arledge, Clerk of Superior Court; Doris Scoggins, Register of Deeds; and Susan Smith Leonard McHugh, Superintendent of Polk County Schools, at that time . . . Not to mention the new CEO of our Hospital, Michelle Fortune!