Seniors of SOWN recall their best and worst jobs
Women make up 46.6% of the workforce in the United States and are consistently undervalued, underpaid, and overlooked. What would a woman think when faced with that reality? Where did it hit hardest – her heart or her wallet? Talking with older and elderly women revealed that they often didn’t have time or motivation to analyze their position in the workplace.
SOWN’s participants told of loving, loathing, or simply having no choice but to work. When asked to describe their worst/best job, their responses covered a wide range of reactions. When set in the context of various eras and events, their stories are oral history. It’s history seen through the eyes of the women who lived it.
Elements that were common among the SOWN respondents began to surface. Yet, each woman’s experience was unique to her circumstances.
Unsurprisingly, money was a big reason why women kept or left a job. There were many other lessons learned from the women we interviewed. To list a few:
Farm work was hot and hard and had poor pay.
Working in healthcare was often emotionally rewarding but the relatively low pay made it necessary to look for a better career.
One woman shared that she “really liked the good benefits” she received during her 20 years in the Philadelphia School system as support staff in a middle school.
Another shared a truck with her sister-in-law so she could have a 2nd job at night on a construction site 2 hours away. It was weekend work and she liked it. It paid really well, but her son was late for school every Monday.
Ironically, when workers demanded better pay and better working conditions, they experienced hardships. One woman was fired when she tried to organize staff to demand pay equal to the male staff.
Another woman really liked her job in a hot water heater factory, but when the workers wanted to unionize, the company moved out to Bristol. She commuted there, but then they moved the factory even further out. She left because it was too far of a commute.
Yet another woman liked her job and made many friends, but “at the end it was horrible.” The company locked the doors, which the state said was an illegal lockout. No one wanted to sign the contract because they weren’t guaranteed an 8-hour workday. That meant they wouldn’t get their benefits.
Women brought qualities to their jobs that were hard to define in a resume or convey in an interview. In return, there were unexpected rewards:
“As a waitress in a Hilton Hotel, I got good tips and met interesting people.”
“My mentor was from Nigeria and I loved the diversity of the staff.”
“As a ceramics teacher for children, I enjoyed observing other people’s children.”
“As a crossing guard, getting to know the kids was my favorite part of the job.”
Innate qualities of empathy and understanding were a source of heartache, too. As a medical assistant, one SOWN participant said “I over-identified with the patients’ pain and suffering.” Another participant became a certified nursing assistant and worked for 22 years. She loved the patients but it too was hard on her heart. Contrast that to her worst job, which lasted only lasted 3 days – unloading pallets of newspapers that were bigger than she was!
And then there were jobs that ended very differently from the way they started. For example, one participant told us how she really wanted to work in the Department of Welfare doing clerical work. She got the job, but one day file cabinets fell on her. It took 6 people to lift them off of her. She left the job in 1987 and still experiences pain from that accident. On the upside, she also worked for Mrs. Paul’s Fish company, where she met her husband on the bus they took out to the factory.
Another participant shared her history as a housekeeper at Academy House, the upscale apartments next to the Academy of Music. Her employer told her she couldn’t eat off her plates. One day that changed as their relationship grew and the woman began to trust her. She even wrote checks for her employer. She met celebrities such as basketball star Dr. J, who had an office there.
As for a dream job, Clara Miles had it. Her favorite job was at the Goldberg Candy Company, which manufactured Peanut Chews. She enjoyed packing them in boxes and loved going in the back and grabbing a handful of peanuts.
Out of necessity or ambition, SOWN women found ways to gain a degree, which often increased their career satisfaction and prospects. With more time to talk and listen to the participants, each story could have become a richer example of how one life exemplifies the history of an era. These stories bring history to life and show us history is all around us. Just ask.
Questions? Comments? Please add them below to keep the conversation going.
ABOUT SOWN The Supportive Older Womens Network serves grandparent-headed families, caregivers for loved ones, and vulnerable older adults in the Greater Philadelphia region. A grassroots news partner with WHYY/N.I.C.E.
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This column was written by Jill Gates Smith, Outreach/Administrative Coordinator for SOWN. Read last month’s column here.