Nina Rothchild: A Lifetime Seeking Equity

The late 1970s and early ‘80s were heady times for many Minnesota women. There was the excitement of the early days, the sense of discovery, the naming of the previously unnamed. There was a new understanding of the role of women, both in the home and in the marketplace.  Women wore buttons that said, “Make Policy, Not Coffee,” and ones that simply said, “59 cents,” which referred to the wage gap between men and women.

Nina Rothchild (Wilder Foundation image)

Despite the negative images of feminists as “strident” and man-hating, in many ways it was easier at that time to be a feminist because the disparities were so large and obvious. The numbers were all there: in schools, for example, practically no women in administration and on school boards, few sports for girls, stereotypes in the Dick and Jane books, home economics for girls and shop for boys. In the graduate and professional schools, the percentage of women in medicine, business, law, and engineering were seldom more than in single digits. 

In addition to the 59 cent difference in wages, the workforce was highly segregated by gender.  Newspapers had separate columns labeled “Help wanted – male” and “Help wanted – female.”  Most women worked in large classes of clerical work or in helping jobs.  Women who got pregnant or got married often lost their jobs, and few women were in professional or managerial positions.

In 1976, I took the job as director of the newly established legislative advisory Council on the Economic Status of Women.  Prior to that time, I had lived a very typical ‘50s life — suburban housewife, three children, some volunteer work in the community — but also an elected member of our local school board.  It was here that I had my “Aha!” moments. I discovered that the men on the board rarely heard or paid attention to what I said or, for instance, that the all-male administration said there are no team sports for girls because girls don’t know how to get along with each other.

Although my feminist interests were wide-ranging at the time, the first research and report that we did for the Council on the Economic Status of Women was on women in state government employment, a report which relied heavily on a numerical analysis of women in State jobs.  Most obvious, of course, was the disparities between the pay for women and for men in jobs of equal value (as measured by an evaluation system that rated jobs in terms of skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions). 

We found that in every instance the jobs held by women paid less than those of equally valued men’s.

Our report also went beyond the issue of pay equity.  Not surprisingly, we discovered that the higher you go on the wage scale, fewer women held those jobs, with the number of women in managerial and administrative positions few and far between. In addition, the State’s workforce was strongly segregated, with a huge disparity in the number of job classes held by men and those held by women. Women worked in large undifferentiated classes, while the “men’s jobs” were more closely defined. Other ways that women were disadvantaged in the workplace was the lack of childcare help or flexible work hours, the lack of part-time work, the inability to have shared jobs.

I have gone into some detail because the analysis of women’s State employment showed little difference from all workplaces in Minnesota at the time. What has changed overall is that the pay gap is now smaller, at 80 cents on the dollar. More good news is the large increase in the number of women in the professions, as well as in management jobs, although the highest levels are still not equal.

The major problem that still remains is the extensive segregation by gender in the workplace. The women’s movement has been very successful in moving toward equality for “privileged” women, but most women are still in clerical and helping professions, and these jobs are generally valued much less than male jobs.  My view is that if women are going to reach parity, feminists need to focus attention on low-wage jobs.  Teaching women to negotiate a higher salary (at McDonalds?) will be a small part of the solution.  Similarly, teaching women to start businesses and to learn more math and science will not have a major effect on the majority of women.

The women’s movement, as such, seems outdated to many people these days — partly because of the visibility of more women at higher levels, and partly because what is new and trendy gets the most attention by the press and the public. 

My hope is that a renewed feminist movement will pay more attention to issues like the minimum wage, parental leave, childcare support, stronger unions, and other strategies which would have a positive effect on the economic status of women.