Intro: A story about jobs, job equality, and family. Enjoy.
In the summer of 1961, I needed a job. I’d been accepted at a university down east, scholarship and all. But I’d need money for the train fare from Alberta to Montreal and for clothes and spending money.
Lucky for me, when it came to getting a job, I had family connections. My mother was head secretary in the Purchasing Department of the University Hospital in Edmonton, Alberta, my home town. She’d been there for years and knew everybody. More important, everybody knew her. She was known to be a perpetual motion machine. She walked faster than young men ran. She came early. She worked late. She told me that the hospital was looking for ward aides for the operating suite—and she knew the head of housekeeping, the woman who would be my boss.
Well, that job in the operating room suites was miserable. For eight hours a day, in a windowless room, for $135 a month, I folded doctors’ gowns and wrapped them for sterilizing in an autoclave. I emptied giant laundry baskets. On other days I washed kidney basins or served endless cups of coffee to cranky interns.
So I decided to prepare myself for a better job by learning to type—in a fashion—on an ancient manual Remington typewriter that belonged to my mother. I became an expert at “fff” and “jjj” and “the quick brown fox jumps…”
I didn’t learn numbers because it was hard to reach that far. Besides, numbers were boring. I didn’t learn how to use carbon paper either.
The next summer I interviewed with the head of Payroll. He expected I would be a good worker—because he’d seen my mother speeding down the halls. Little did he know how different I was from her. He asked me how fast I could type. I had no idea.
“Forty words a minute,” I said.
I got the job.
I was supposed to cover for each of the women in payroll as they took summer vacations. The first day was very hard for someone who knew precious little about typing. The boss asked me to type a letter that he’d written by hand. Wouldn’t you know, the substance of that letter—and every other letter that left payroll–was chock full of numbers! And he wanted three copies in addition to the original!
When he left the office, I looked over at the other women to spy on their carbon paper techniques. Hard to remember which side went up. Hard to figure out how to hold all those sheets together. Hard to fix the mistakes with those little slips of correcting paper tucked between.
The envelope was a nightmare. Slap, tap, release, shove the envelope to the correct spot. Even so, the address was always wrong: too far to the left or right, too close to the top or bottom, and too slanted.
I threw away the messy copies and started over. By the end of the day, I’d completed one perfect letter and envelope. I’d even corrected my boss’s spelling while I was at it. My wastebasket, however, was overflowing. I’d done nothing else all day long. My boss was happy with perfection and strangely oblivious to my astonishing lack of speed.
I soon was permitted to operate the giant payroll machine, perhaps because no one else wanted to do it. I would go into a small room, alone, carrying huge hand-written spreadsheets detailing the salary and deductions for hundreds of employees.
Now, as it happens, I am a person who hyper-focuses. If I’m concentrating on something, the rest of the world disappears. When I was a teenager, I melted not one, but two whistling tea kettles while sitting four feet away, reading a book. The darned things apparently whistled until they ran dry and then slowly melted into globs on the stove. By great luck I didn’t burn the house down, and I became a well-read person at an early age.
Hyper-focusing is a great asset if you’re using a payroll machine. There I was, sitting alone in front of a humongous machine in a separate room. Column by column, row by row, I entered thousands of numbers. I could take my time. I didn’t have to pretend to know where the numbers were. No one would disturb me until I was done because if I made even a one-cent error, we would need to spend the better part of a day finding it before we could start the next payroll.
When each payroll was complete, I’d have stacks of printed records and stacks of employee checks. I have never loved any work as much as I loved using those machines.
While I was doing the work that others found too mind-numbing to do correctly, I was memorizing the salaries of every employee in the hospital. I found out some interesting things.
In those days, different jobs and different salaries for men and women were taken for granted. The job ads in newspapers were divided into two sections: those for men, and those for women. The good jobs, the high paying jobs were in the men’s section.
I was to find out, as I sat at the payroll machine memorizing salaries, that salaries for women WEREN’T FAIR. At home I informed my mother of this gross miscarriage of justice.
“Do you know how much housekeepers make?” I asked. I didn’t wait for her to answer. “$150 a month.”
She didn’t look up.
And do you know how much janitors make? $300! That’s twice as much!” My voice rose, indignant and shrill.
“Housekeepers only do dust mopping,” my mother said calmly. “Janitors do wet mopping. It’s harder.”
She seemed strangely oblivious to the point. “I’m strong,” I said. “I’d rather do the wet mopping and make twice as much money.”
“You can’t,” she said. “Only men can be janitors.”
“Another thing,” I said, “do you know what the starting salary is for a registered nurse?…$300 a month. The same as a janitor. And a janitor doesn’t even need to finish high school.”
(I knew–because I’d also memorized the forms that came from personnel.)
“An RN studies for years and years and she makes the same as a janitor who only finishes the eighth grade.”
I paused melodramatically. “It’s not right.”
The next day, injustice in the world or not, we were both back at work at the hospital.
She was, as she often told us kids, indispensable. She could lay her hands on any piece of paper in the office in seconds. She knew the order number of every product that the hospital regularly stocked. She knew every vendor. She did all the ordering for all sorts of products, from toilet paper to syringes. She trained the new secretaries and the young male buyers, fresh out of school.
None worked hard enough in her opinion, and most were fools. But she liked her boss, Mr. Beaton. He had the good sense to appreciate her. She saved the lovely cards he gave her at Christmas and on her birthday. She was thrilled to be invited to his house over the holidays. (His wife, she told me, was a lovely person, too, and a good cook.)
I graduated from college. By then, it was the mid-sixties and women’s lib was in the air. Betty Friedan had written her book The Feminine Mystique. Women were beginning to dream new dreams. It wasn’t that they hadn’t wanted equality before. Of course they did. But now it felt possible.
My mother was still head secretary in purchasing at the University Hospital. A position as junior buyer was posted. She fumed for days about how she knew more than all those young men put together. She was sick and tired of having to train them to do the very work that she was already doing—for a secretary’s salary.
“I don’t see why I shouldn’t have that job,” she declared. “I don’t see why, just because I’m a woman, I shouldn’t be considered.”
And all the women that she had coffee with every day agreed that the system was unjust and that she should apply.
Still, she worried about offending Mr. Beaton, about putting him in the uncomfortable position of having to turn her down for the job. He was such a nice man…
“Even so, I have half a mind to apply, anyway.”
But still—what would people think? That she had a lot of gall? A middle-aged secretary who thought she could be a buyer? It was, always had been a man’s job.
Every day she agonized over the decision. Finally, a couple of days before the deadline, she decided that come hell or high water, she would do it.
“Let them tell me to my face that I’m not qualified!”
The women that she had coffee with cheered.
Defiantly, she walked her application down to personnel and plunked it down on the desk. Defiantly she returned to her office.
Later that day Mr. Beaton stopped by her desk to talk to her.
“We were all waiting for you to apply,” he said dryly. “What took you so long? If you hadn’t applied, I was going to tell you to. You know you’re qualified.”
She got the job. First woman buyer ever at the University Hospital in Edmonton, Alberta. I suspect she didn’t get paid as much as the male buyers got paid. But she got paid a lot more than she’d got as a secretary, and it made a big difference in the retirement income she got a few years later. Even more than that, she felt that an injustice had been righted. She had been recognized in ways more substantial than praise and a little gift at Christmas time.
As for me, I’m proud of her. After all, my mother was the first woman buyer at the University of Alberta Hospital, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Copyright by Margaret French
What a great story, one that all girls and young women should know. So many things are taken for granted these days. The struggle may be unknown. That said, I believe that there is still discrimination out there. Thank you for sharing.
What a great story! I’m a hyper-focuser, too, and a reader. It’s wonderful to be able to block out the world sometimes, although there are some dangers in blocking out the voices of husbands and kids.
I became a letter carrier the first year that women were allowed to work in this position. I loved making the same salary as the men. I didn’t hold the position long. I had babies instead and then went back to college, but I’m proud that, like your mom, I took that one small step of applying for a job usually held by men.
I lovei it, Margaret. Your mother was quite a woman but I think she has you to thank for her ultimate triumph. You put the bee in her bonnet.
Hi Margaret, thanks for another wonderful, heartfelt story. Beautifully written. Hope to see you down the storied path! xo, Leeny
Margaret, this wonderful article I have shared with my Minnesota sister (also Margaret) so she can read it out loud to her two daughters so they can learn about equality and justice that many women have fought for. Thanks. I tip my hat to your mother. And you too. Ciao, Tony Toledo