Working your Panties off!

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Women were at a huge disadvantage at home and workplace till the 1960s, both in India and the US. Things had improved for women on paper, in India. The reality was much different. Payal showcases the life and times of women, about seven decades back, in her weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

Year: 1940

Workplace: A Radio Station in the US

Narrator: Helen Gurley Brown (later, Editor-in-Chief at the Cosmopolitan)

“When I was working through secretarial school…some of the men would be playing a dandy game of ‘Scuttle’.”

Scuttle Rules

All announcers and engineers who weren’t busy would select a secretary, chase her down the halls, through the music library, back to the announcing booths, catch her and take her panties off.

Once the panties were off, the girl could put them back again. Nothing wicked ever happened. ‘Depantying was the sole object of the game’.

Nothing wicked ever happened?

My mom started working sometime in the early 1960’s.

In our mind, the 60’s were the age of idealism. Of Flower Children, of rebellion, of changes in the world. Influences from the West were evident in films and fashion but for women in India, things had not changed much.

By the time my mother was a young woman of about twenty, women had started joining offices in India. True, there were a few – very few, doctors and engineers but for the large part, women entered the workforce in subsidiary roles – as secretaries or assistants.

Women in elite India were wearing chiffon and pearls and no longer covering their heads. They were accompanying husbands to parties and to clubs on limited occasions. They were completing school level education and progressive families were sending to college, although since this coincided with what was considered the ‘marriageable age’, continuing education was left to the goodwill of the husband’s family.

Rural India remained pretty much unchanged – child marriages were still happening, was extremely restrictive, caste differences made life even more difficult for women, as they were doubly oppressed first because they were female and secondly by belonging to the lower class.

In urban India too, marriage was the norm for all ‘decent’ women and one which they aspired to. The woman was the building block of society and held to a strict moral code. The father and husband were accorded absolute control.

Widowhood was a scourge.

However, on paper, things were better than at ground level. The Indian Constitution granted equal rights to women, in terms of freedom and opportunity and the right to vote.

1955: Hindu Marriage Act – provided equal rights to women to get a divorce and maintenance – in certain conditions

1956 – The Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act – a woman can adopt a boy or a girl as her son or daughter

1956 – The Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act – entitled a woman to be the natural guardian of her minor children

1956 – The Hindu Succession Act – granting a woman equal rights to her father’s property

1961 – The Prohibition of Dowry Act – made taking/demanding of dowry illegal

But life in real terms was skewed hugely towards attitudes established in society.

While more women were acquiring ‘college’ education in the cities, ‘working’ outside of the home was still considered scandalous. When my mother completed a ‘secretarial’ course she was part of a handful of women, the majority of whom were Anglo-Indian girls. She had a strong sense of self, to begin with, probably because her father died when she was a child and she had learned early that she had to fend for herself. As the eldest child of a widow, she wanted to be financially independent and help her mother.

When she started working – a group of community elders visited my grandmother and advised her to ‘keep her daughter home’. It was understood that a girl was at risk once she stepped out of the home and started associating with strange men. She was also warned that ‘marriage would be extremely difficult’ if her daughter was to work.

Women working was considered a bit of a joke by male colleagues. They were treated with condescending indulgence and it was believed that their meager salaries were for the purpose of buying ‘fripperies’. That a woman might have financial responsibilities or a for independence was incomprehensible. The role essentially remained the same in the male mind – wives were at home to cater to the comfort of husbands and in the office the secretaries/assistants brought you your coffee, fetched you your files, made arrangements for your travel and generally provided all the lowly ‘services’ a man was too important to bother with.

The dichotomy was that women who ‘conformed’ to social codes of behavior – got married, did not work, dressed as expected were treated with outward respect and held up as examples of ideal womanhood. But within the home, they were still considered as lesser beings.

Those who did not ‘conform’ – dressed in western clothes, smoked, God forbid were divorced, or hobnobbed with men – were treated as trashy and having loose morals, easy bait for all kinds of unwelcome attention.

There was no question of women having managerial positions or leadership or decision making roles. The highest you could aspire to was ‘Manager of the typing pool’. Addressing your superiors as ‘Sir’ was the norm, and yes, all men were superior to you.

Since women were at the lower end of the hierarchy, obviously there was a huge disparity in salary and benefits including leave.

Other jobs available:

1.   Airline Stewardess

2.   Nurse

3.   Factory Worker

4.   Agricultural Labourer

5.   Domestic worker

 This is what was happening in America in the 1960’s

1.   Yale and Princeton did not accept female students till 1969, Harvard till 1977

2.   In 1963, women earned 59 cents for every dollar that a man earned

3.   Contraceptive pills were illegal in many states and even where they were legal they required proof of           marriage

4.   Women could not get a credit card if unmarried, required the husband to co-sign.

5.   PANAM required stewardesses to have a standard height, maintain a certain weight, resign if they got          married and maintain soft hands and feet

6.   Women could not serve on a jury as they were considered too fragile to hear ‘grisly details’ of cases.

 Hallelujah to all the women who dared to step out of the home. We can only imagine what they struggled against.

I’m a feminist. Aren’t you?

©Payal Talreja

Pictures from the net and sourced by the author.

#Feminist #HistoryOfWomen #WomenAtWorkPlace #Discrimination #FeministAtFifty #DifferentTruths

Payal Talreja

Payal Talreja

Businesswoman, curator of handlooms, poet, writer, and erstwhile . Payal Talreja practices everything except her involuntary ‘profession’. She claims that words chose her and are now her weapon of choice because an activist born will stay silent for no man. A wanderer, a voyager, she’s happy to slum it or luxuriate in any life experience. She crafts poems and fiercely feminist essays and will assume her ‘Chandi’ avatar to ‘write’ any wrong.
Payal Talreja
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