Women’s History is Our History

by Carl Fillichio on March 13, 2014 · 0 comments


March is Women’s History Month . . . the perfect time to do exactly what the month is designed to encourage us to do: learn more about women’s history. After all, since women have likely made up half the population throughout history, if we haven’t gotten their side of the story, we haven’t gotten the full story.

Women’s history is labor history. And labor history is women’s history. So not surprisingly, a number of titles on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Books that Shaped Work in America list reinforce this.  Here are five to start with:

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

Suggested by two of the nation’s foremost experts on the world of work (Solicitor of Labor M. Patricia Smith and author Daniel H. Pink) and published in 1963, this book began a national discussion about the role of women in society by arguing the merit of work outside of marriage and motherhood. The case it put forward, in the context of the time it was written, drastically altered the American workforce going forward. The foundation for the book was a survey conducted by Friedan of her former Smith College classmates during their 15-year reunion, the results of which revealed overall discontent with lives primarily dedicated to housework and childrearing. It tapped into American women’s psyche, and changed everything.

The Feminine Mistake by Leslie Bennetts

Published in 2007, this book posits that balancing a career and parenting obligations is not only realistic for most women, but also the best choice for all parties involved. Through interviews with hundreds of women, Bennetts concluded that mothers who choose to “opt out” of the workforce – even temporarily and when doing so is financially viable based on their significant other’s income – forfeit the many benefits that come with self-sufficiency, which relate to not only finances, but also physical and mental well-being. Author and career blogger Eve Tahmincioglu recommended it.

This Is How We Do It by Carol Evans

TV journalist Liz Claman for Fox Business News is the ultimate modern working mother, so if this book was helpful to her, it’s likely a useful guide for any woman walking the family/work tight rope. In this book (subtitle: The working mothers’ manifesto) Evans illuminates the successful and rewarding side of mixing motherhood and career ambitions from the perspective of women who either need or choose to work outside of the home. Its conclusions – that it is possible to balance family and work responsibilities and derive satisfaction from both – are drawn from firsthand accounts and research, as well as 25 years of wisdom gleaned from readers of and contributors to Working Mother magazine, which Evans helped found in 1978. Despite all the gains working moms have made since it was published in 2006, this is still the “how-to” to turn to.

The Girls in the Balcony by Nan Robertson

I love that my colleague Sharon Block (Senior Counselor to the Secretary of Labor and a former member of the National Labor Relations Board) put this title on the list, because when journalists turn the tables on themselves, the stories are always great! Published in 1992 and written by a former The New York Times staffer, “The Girls in the Balcony: Women, men, and the New York Times” describes the different status bestowed upon the paper’s female reporters prior to 1974, when its Women’s Caucus filed a sex discrimination suit. Within this context, the book sheds light on the struggle for women’s equality in the workplace. The title refers to the balcony of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where, before 1971, women reporters had to sit during luncheons while their male counterparts dined below.

Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David von Drehle

In March 1911, almost 150 workers, mainly young, female immigrants, perished in 20 minutes when a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building in the heart of New York City’s garment district. Many died jumping from windows, because the fire escape collapsed and the doors to the stairwells were locked. This book provides a detailed account of the tragedy and its critical role in galvanizing support for passage of worker protections. For Mary Beth Maxwell, the Labor Department’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, and countless colleagues here at DOL, the book and the story has additional relevance. A young social worker named Frances Perkins witnessed the fire and it changed her life. Twenty-two years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her secretary of labor, making Perkins the first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet; and she championed protections for all of America’s workers, including its women during her time in office.

I will suggest other Women’s History Month titles from the Books that Shaped Work in America project in future blog posts. Until then, please share with us your recommendations.

Carl Fillichio heads the Labor Department’s Office of Public Affairs and serves as the chair of the department’s centennial. Learn more about the department’s 100 years of service by viewing an interactive timeline and watching a special centennial video at dol.gov/100.

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