A Debt of Gratitude to Gloria Steinem, and others

Watching “Makers: Women who Make America” turned a floodlight on in corners of my memory and history that I’ve not examined in years. It made it shamefully apparent to me that the advantages I enjoyed in my career were made possible by the painful birth of a women’s movement, facing near impermeable impasses in society and the workplace. I was shielded, or perhaps just oblivious of these changes, during my comfortable middle-class childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, emerging from adolescence just in time to taste the benefits.

I realize now, with not a little guilt, how much I benefited from a revolution fought before I was adult that I took no part in crafting. Entering the professional world after college in the mid-1980s, I had expectations that a college graduate couldn’t have had, even ten years before.  

My first job was as a copy editor at a New York City publishing firm. My manager, a senior editor, was a terrific role model who encouraged me. I was promoted after ten months there. Gender didn’t seem to enter into the equation in any great part; if one was a good editor, one’s work was appreciated, and promotions were common.

I left the publishing world when I was head-hunted away for a technical writing position at New York’s top “white-shoe” investment banking firm. As there were not many technical writers in the job market at the time, I landed the job and a healthy salary increase, and began the traditional ascent in the corporate world. I was hired when I was 25, and by the time I was 33, I was a vice president.

After my first year as a writer, I was dispatched downtown to their Wall Street offices to manage a group in the securities operations area; a daunting task at the time. It was a male-dominated workplace, and I was viewed with suspicion, both as a woman in management and a college graduate. I am sure a lot of office time went into speculating whom I was sleeping with, to be promoted into management so quickly, but I hadn’t time to worry about that. I was working 16 hours a day, trying to carry on a relationship, and enjoy a healthy social life.

Those were heady days. It was the late 1980s and early 1990s, and life was good for someone working on Wall Street. We left work after 8 pm in limousines, and went out for drinks. There were annual bonuses and profit sharing and generous benefits. There were subtle shades of discrimination, to be sure, against women; there were less than five women in management in my area. But we worked very hard, put in long hours, and hard work was recognized and rewarded, regardless of gender. I was lucky enough to work for fair-minded, smart people who thought in terms of contribution, and not gender.

And even so: how much I took for granted! Just ten years earlier, the firm would not have placed me in a securities operations area as a woman, much less as a manager. They would not have given me the chance to work as hard as I did; it would not have been expected, and probably discouraged. I would have been too busy looking for a husband to work as hard as I did, earning a rapid series of promotions and rewards. 

I didn’t often stop in those times, or after, to reflect on the drastic social changes that were fought for at tremendous cost that had made these choices and rewards possible. I never said “thank you” to an older woman who was a part of the movement, or recognized their efforts in writing.

I’m ashamed of that now, and I recognize a huge debt that I owe to the movement that Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and so many other waged just a few decades before. That debt is not only about the ease with which I navigated professional ladders, but also in the reproductive choices I had. My peers and I lived comfortably with an array of choices of birth control, and in a society where abortion was legal for as long as we could remember.

To all those named and nameless women who helped clear the path, and who made it possible for me to enjoy a workplace where discrimination, if not absent, was recognized and muted, I owe a tremendous debt. Perhaps the best way to repay that is to pay it forward; to help increase awareness amongst those in the generations that followed mine just how hard-won the rights we take for granted were.