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When a woman's job didn't depend upon her ability


© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 26, 2001

Imagine that you were applying for your first full-time job. You are well-qualified for the position, but after your interview, you are told you won't be hired because you are too marriageable. Imagine also that there are no sex discrimination laws and no ACLU to help you.

I was 18, and I remember the interview well. It was 1931. I was applying for a job as a stenographer in an expanding and promising young tool company in my Wisconsin hometown.

I had been unable to finish college for financial reasons, and I was living at home. I had gone to and graduated from a nearby business college. I was confident and full of expectations when I left home that morning for my scheduled interview. I had excellent references from employers who had hired me for part-time jobs, and I was well-recommended by my business school.

I spent quite a bit of time getting ready for that interview. Perhaps too much, my mother lamented later.

I had just finished making the suit that I wore, and I was very proud of it. It was brown wool; the skirt was ankle length, the jacket fingertip-length. The broadcloth blouse I chose was smartly tailored with a tiny toast-colored edging around the collar and cuffs.

To complete the outfit, I wore brown alligator shoes and matching bag and a scarf that I casually draped over my shoulders. To give myself a look of maturity, I swept up my hair into a neatly braided bun at the nape of my neck and wore a small brimmed felt hat with a slight tilt, held in place with a gold-tipped hat pin.

At the interview, I came across as reserved and capable. I had successfully passed the typing tests, and I had all the requirements for the position. Now all I had to do was get through the final hourlong interview with the the company officer.

After the interview, he complimented me on my qualifications. Then he turned and announced, "I can't hire you. You are too marriageable."

I was shocked. "I don't even have a steady boyfriend," I stammered. "What makes you think I am so marriageable?"

It was company policy, he explained, to release women employees when they married, and it would be imprudent to hire and train someone who was clearly destined to leave the company in a short time.

"The company wants at least five years of service from its women employees," he added flatly.

I looked at him with contempt and asked, "Should I have come in here in one of my grandmother's old housedresses?"

He looked at me somewhat taken aback, then sneered. "I thought you had a streak of independence in you, and our company doesn't tolerate insubordination, either."

I gathered my things and turned to him and answered with equal scorn: "Someday, you are going to have to eat those words." And then, indignantly, I walked out.

To my despair, I soon learned that many firms had the same biases toward hiring women. Even getting -- and keeping -- a job as a schoolteacher was difficult for women back then. Our personal lives were always under close scrutiny. Even a breath of scandal could result in dismissal.

Unfortunately, it took a war to change these discriminatory policies against women employees. Men were needed to fight, and women were needed to replace them in the workplace. As women proved to be as capable and, in some instances, even more capable than men, they began to fight against unfair practices.

As for myself, that streak of independence my first would-be employee accused me of (or, as I like to think of it, credited me with) was a big help to me. After that interview, I was very angry, but I didn't wallow in my resentment. Instead, I did part-time work and continued my education. After all, I told myself, if I had been hired for that boring job, I might have been stuck with it indefinitely and never have had the courage to get out in the world and learn.

Women in the workplace today, especially those born after World War II, should be grateful to those who worked tirelessly to fight the discrimination I experienced that day. My example is just one of many that perhaps would surprise women who now take for granted the protection that anti-discrimination laws provide for them.

I have seen many favorable changes in my lifetime that affect different groups in our society -- and not only in the workplace. Progress has been slow, but for me, the redeeming factor is that I have seen that change is possible. It gives me hope that someday all discrimination will disappear.

- LaVerne Hammond, who divides her time between Wisconsin and Florida, is an octogenarian at work on her memoirs. Write her in care of the St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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