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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Book Recommendation

Stephanie Swirsky

Stephanie Swirsky
Senior Policy Advisor

Gail Collins, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present (2010). This mix of oral history, startling facts and commentary begins in 1960s America, when women couldn’t have a drink alone at a hotel bar or a credit card in her own name. Collins takes us through the last 50 years of cultural, social and economic history, one woman’s voice at a time. And these women had a lot to say. Famous, infamous or ordinary: from Pauli Murray, an African-American lawyer who steered President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, to Sylvia Acevedo, a Latino NASA engineer who studied engineering at Stanford because she was unable to go to West Point. The book reminds us that while progress can be uneven, it is never uninteresting. Whether laboring in an office, factory or at home, this is a women’s eye journey through the history of modern work in America. Not since Lois Rabinowitz was barred from pleading her boss’s case in traffic court for wearing pants in 1960 have stories so cried out to be heard.

Marjorie Hart, Summer at Tiffany (2010). This is a memoir of a magical summer when Hart and her intrepid college friend, Marty Garrett, set off for New York City from Iowa in the summer of 1945 for adventure. They hoped to find work as “shopgirls” at Lord & Taylor with their sorority sisters, but had to “settle” for jobs at the venerable Tiffany & Co. Their tale of being one of the first two women in the “front of the store” (with their robin’s egg blue silk dress uniforms) started off as a bit of a movie cliché of two Midwestern girls in the big city looking for husbands. But the story morphed into an important reminder about how far women in the workplace have come, as well as the notion that work is about community and collaboration. As this story suggests, we can make our dreams ultimately come true through determination and creativity. While Hart only stayed for the summer (returning to Iowa to complete her cello studies), she ultimately became the chairman of the Fine Arts Department at the University of San Diego and a professional cellist. 

Janet Groth, The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker (2013). Armed with a degree from the University of Minnesota in 1957 and a dream of finding fame and fortune as a writer, Groth secured a job interview at The New Yorker through connections. Lacking typing proficiency, she was hired as a receptionist. While remaining at the reception desk on the 18th floor of The New Yorker building for 21 years and never realizing her dream of becoming a New Yorker writer, Groth provides us with a fascinating narrative of the inner workings of the magazine and its eccentric staff. Groth paints us an on-the-ground illustration of how smart, but overlooked, women at the time were able to realize their dreams, albeit delayed, in the context of post-war America. Groth herself went on to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia University, teach at numerous universities and write several books. 

Like the women in Collins compilation, Groth and Hart did not set out to change the world. But in the context of their times, they did just that. They remind us that success for women in the workplace was not always a straight line. Dreams and goals were (and are) often deferred by reality and economics. These women got there not by breaking down walls and barreling through, but by walking a slightly different path, going around a different corner and walking through a different door. They looked good doing it and had some fun along the way!

Stephanie Swirsky is a Senior Policy Advisor in the department’s Office of the Secretary’s Executive Secretariat.

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