Issue 1.4 – Nonfiction

Let us pausefor a moment and pray. (19)

 

From the mid-1950s through the late 1960s, my mother worked for a Chicago-area publisher as an editor of Young-Adult Christian fiction, and as a managing editor of two trade periodicals.

When I was a young child, she would often read to me from the fiction galleys she brought home to work on. These readings were more instructional than entertaining for me as she’d edit the text as she went along. With her ubiquitous blue pencil in hand, she’d start reading and stop in mid-sentence to make emphatic proofreading marks and scribble notes in the margins. Continuing, she’d come to a passage she’d reread, then suggest a rewording, asking for my opinion. I’d always agree with her rewrite that sounded better to me. I made more of a contribution to the dialogue of children who were supposed to be not much older than me. Mom would read a few lines of conversation, sigh audibly, put down the manuscript and look over at me. “This doesn’t sound natural,” she’d say. “Is this how your friends would say this?” I’d shake my head no, and translate the meaning into my own childish speech. She’d nod emphatically, scratch out the text, and do a rewrite in the margin she’d encircle with a bubble. Reading on, she’d sometimes point out examples of smooth phrasing and good word choices, and then stop again at a clumsy phrase she’d have to rework. With all the pauses and rewriting, I’m sure I lost track of the story, but I learned a lot about the craft of writing from these sessions.

In my mother’s office, at one point, a younger man named John was hired to be her assistant to help with her heavy workload. Since John didn’t have much experience, my mother had to teach him his job. She said she didn’t mind as he was nice and willing to learn.

When I started fifth grade, I transferred to a grammar school near my mother’s place of business and rode back and forth with her to work. I had to walk several blocks to my school and then walk back in the afternoon to wait for her in the reception area. 

One day, as I sat waiting, she came charging out, obviously agitated, her face flushed in anger.  

“What’s wrong?” I said, alarmed.

“I’ll tell you on the way home,” she said through clenched teeth as she grabbed my arm, directing me toward the front door.

After we were both settled in the car, she blew out a breath of air and drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. Looking over at me before starting the engine, she said, “You know John, my assistant.” 

“Sure,” I answered. “What about him?”

“I found out today he’s making more than I am. I’m his boss. I’m training him. And I’m paid less. Besides being his superior, I have a degree in journalism and three years’ experience that he doesn’t have.”

My mouth fell open. “Are you sure? That’s crazy!“ I protested.

She started up the car and revved the engine before putting the car in gear. “Oh, I’m sure. John told me himself. Of course, I made a beeline to Van Kampen’s office to demand an explanation. He told me they have to pay him and all the men more than the women because they’re married with families. I told him, ‘I’m married with a family, too.’ He said that’s different because I have a husband to support me. Can you believe that?” She shook her head as she turned a corner. “I’ve always known that men earn more than women doing the same job, but this is the first time I’ve heard of a man earning more than his female boss.”

We spent the rest of the ride home complaining about the unfairness, although she didn’t have many options: she couldn’t afford to quit her job, and she didn’t think she could convince the owner to give her a raise. The subject was brought up often after that, especially when John didn’t perform up to her high standards.

That was my first exposure to women receiving unequal pay and treatment in the workplace, but it wouldn’t be my last.  

After graduating from college, I was uncertain about how to pursue a career when an acquaintance told me her company downtown was looking for a receptionist. That seemed to be an ideal solution for me for the short-term. The job was at the headquarters of W.H. Miner, a manufacturer of railcar components, and took up an entire floor of the famous Rookery building on south LaSalle Street. The renowned atrium, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, boasted intricate iron-work bracing that held up a high glass ceiling.

(I soon discovered that it wasn’t the only glass ceiling in the building.)

When the female office manager interviewed me for the receptionist job, I was shocked when she asked me if I was dating someone special, or had any plans to marry. When I answered in the negative, she smiled and said she’d like me to start the following Monday.  

I took the job and soon realized that all the bosses and the sales people were married men, and all the secretaries, assistants and clerks were unmarried women. That was not coincidental. It had been the company policy for 70 years to hire only women who were single, instituted by the founder, William H. Miner, who believed that married women should stay at home and take care of children and be financially supported by their husbands. Even older women, beyond child-bearing years, were not allowed to work at the company if they were married.

In addition, women employees were never to be considered for executive-level or sales positions. I believe I made the minimum wage at that time, which, actually, was understandable considering that I didn’t have much to do. My main function was to greet visitors, announce their presence through an intercom on my desk, and escort them to the appropriate office. I asked the secretaries to give me some of their typing and proofreading jobs so I could stay occupied, which they were happy to do.

Everything at W.H. Miner was antiquated, starting with the faded decor and the dress code that was outdated for the late 1960s: Men were required to wear conservative suits and ties and keep their jackets on outside their own offices. (One of the elderly vice-presidents, who had been there since the year one, wore sleeve guards on his shirts and used an ear trumpet for a hearing aid.) Women had to wear high heels and dresses; nothing sleeveless, and no skirts above the knee, or outfits that were immodest in any way. The switchboard I was trained on to be lunch relief, had cords you had to pull out and plug in to connect callers. I had only seen those in early movies.

I didn’t stay long at W.H. Miner.

Following that job, I worked in fields where I did not encounter gender bias in policies or salary. Working for the government, where paygrades are applied equally, I advanced quickly to become a supervisor. As an interior designer in shops and in furniture stores, most of the employees were women; and I worked on straight commission which is non-discriminatory. 

On average, there still remains a 20% pay gap between men and women for the same jobs, in addition to other discriminatory practices. As women, we haven’t moved beyond the complaints about some male bosses that inspired the lyrics of the old Dolly Parton song, Nine to Five:

 

“They just use your mind

And they never give you credit

It’s enough to drive you crazy

If you let it.

 

9 to 5, for service and devotion

You would think that I

Would deserve a fat promotion. . . ”

 

 

 

Cheryl PeytonCheryl was born and raised in Chicago. As a young child, she was introduced to the principles of good writing by her mother, a book editor and writer, who read to her from manuscripts, discussing with her subjects like character development, dialogue, and story arcs.
As an adult, Cheryl worked in widely diverse fields as an interior designer, a social worker, and a paralegal, getting to know people from all walks of life.
As a writer of mysteries, she has drawn from this breadth of experiences to create many unique characters and intricate plots.
Cheryl and her husband Jim retired to Loudon, Tennessee in 2003.

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