I’m not sure how it came up over dinner, but when I was a very young kid, my father grumbled about a woman that he worked with at the local steel plant, claiming that she had taken her job from another man.
My father’s arms were waving, his voice had gotten louder, and a little vein running across his forehead popped out. I couldn’t have been older than seven or eight and remember being confused by the whole conversation.
He didn’t protest Mrs. Smucker, my grandmotherly second-grade teacher, or the lady who worked at the local grocery store, why be upset about some woman working at the mill? I’m sure I chalked it up to confusing adults, talking about stuff that went over my head. The way he talked, the woman had gone up to the man with a bandana across her face and robbed the man at gun point, like the bank robbers in the old cowboy movies I loved to watch on TV.
I remember walking away from the dinner table trying to figure out how that could happen. Did she reach into the guy’s pocket and take the money out of his wallet? She was stealing, right? That’s what he said. My mom and dad had told me that stealing was bad. In my little kid mind, she was the closest thing to the devil.
And then life stepped in. A few weeks later, I went with my mom one evening to pick-up my father from his work. A few minutes after we arrived, he came walking out of the plant with a slew of other workers. He was happy to see us. When he got in the car, I saw two women come out at the same time.
One woman got into a car with two other workers and the second woman smiled at a man waiting for her and got into his car. I remember being confused. They didn’t look like the devil. They didn’t look like someone who would intentionally try to hurt someone else. In fact, they looked normal. They wore work pants and jackets, but they could’ve been the mom of one of my friends from school or the neighbor lady up the road. They could have been grimy from working in their garden or cleaning their house.
They looked like anyone.
Fast forward to today
Times were definitely different. I remember asking my father years later about the story. He didn’t remember it, but he did say that if we were talking about the same two women, he had no gripes with them, they did their job the right way.
We’ve come a long way as a society. Women make up 47 percent of the total U.S. labor force and the U.S. Department of Labor projects that number to continue to increase over the next ten years. Likewise, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that women full-time workers had median weekly earnings of $706, compared to men’s median weekly earnings of $860, earning about 82% of the earnings of their male counterparts.
Since women first started moving in greater numbers out of the home to the workforce there have been efforts to establish gender equality and fight gender stereotypes. This includes seeking to establish educational and professional opportunities for women that are equal to those for men.
Feminism today for many has become a dirty word, but I wonder why. I’ve come to embrace it naturally. I have a daughter. I want her to have every opportunity at her disposal. Why wouldn’t I want that? We all have women in some shape or form somewhere in our lives. Why wouldn’t anyone want the best for them?
Oh, look at the strong, little prince
When I think about equal opportunity, I think of my father’s story, but I think of another one with me in the father role. When we brought home our second child from the hospital, a son, I thought I was an old pro. My wife had given birth to our daughter home a few years earlier, we thought we were ready for anything. However, I soon learned I wasn’t ready for something unexpected: well-wishers’ comments.
First, I got the unwanted comment that by having one of each, a boy and a girl, we had the million-dollar family. What exactly did that mean? I remember asking that if we had two sons or two daughters, would that have cheapened our family in some way? To my way of thinking, I had a million-dollar family, not because a chromosomal luck of the draw, but because God blessed me with two healthy children. (Later, it would grow to three.)
No, I found the way people reacted to our news of a son even more troubling. We got the normal congratulations, but the comments and messages were different from what we had heard the first time around at our daughter’s birth.
“Congratulations on your young prince. Oh, he’s going to be a bruiser, just look at him. He’s going to do great things, he’s going to be a giant.” (Um, I’m 5’6’’ on a good day, 5’7” if I fudge it, my wife is about the same height. Let’s be honest, my son lost in the genes battle right out of the gate.)
When our daughter was born, we got nice comments too, but it was about how beautiful she looked, how petite she was (she was actually bigger than him), and how wonderful she looked in pink.
Most of the people meant well. I don’t blame them, but I found the stereotypes disappointing and . . . well, sad.
The sky is the limit
I’m not really sure where it came from, but since my daughter was a young girl, I’ve given her mini-pep talks on how she can do anything she puts her mind to achieving. When she had an elementary school teacher, who worried more about maintaining control of the class than challenging the students academically, I challenged my daughter to push herself and take charge of her situation. When my daughter started to look for colleges, she could have gone anywhere, but I challenged her to find a place that cared about her dreams as much as she did.
I’ve told her that her dreams will take hard work and sweat and long nights and she may have to fight for every inch, but she could do anything. Yes, I know our bodies are different, we bring different strengths and weaknesses to every task we approach. I get all that, but here’s the thing, if you work hard and do a good job, the pay should be equal. It’s simple as that.
People like to point right away to women in the military. I’m no expert, I don’t have all the answers, but I know this much: I’ve met many men with whom I would gladly share a foxhole—men who when the crap gets real I would want in my corner, who’ve got your back; men who stand for something and are willing to defend their principles. You know what though, I’ve met my fair share of women who fit that bill too.
In the end, we all have our opinions, but I come back to what I know best: two of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life are my wife and my daughter. They’ve got brains and brawn and extraordinary gifts that make my head spin. I would hate for them to be limited in any way in achieving their dreams simply because some man somewhere made an arbitrary decision against them or worse paid them 75 percent of what a man in the same situation would make.
To me, it’s simple arithmetic. It’s simple fairness. It doesn’t matter your skin color, your ethic background, your gender, your religion, it’s a simple question, what’s fair is fair.
And I’ll ask what I couldn’t ask my father all those years ago, because I was too young: “Why not a woman?”