When want ads were divided by sex

feminism is the radical notion that women are people

Today I learned something new. I learned that classified want ads used to be segregated by sex (e.g., ‘Male Help Wanted’ in one section and ‘Female Help Wanted’ in another). I also learned that, in 1969, a woman named Wilma Scott Heide filed a complaint against the Pittsburgh Free Press in regard to these ads, suggesting that the division was a form of discrimination against women. I learned these things because the mathematician who performed analyses relating to these ads (showing that women had fewer employment opportunities and also that, the opportunities they did have were for jobs with less income) died on Saturday and there is a very interesting obituary in the NY Times about his life. From the obituary: “What Gerry did was calculate the statistical chance that a woman could get a job in one of the male categories,” said Eleanor Smeal, the president of the Feminist Majority and a former president of NOW. “He calculated pay differentials. The disparities just flabbergasted him. He contributed the hard intellectual theory based on the math, and he made it understandable, powerfully so.”

The obituary includes some interesting details about his life, his wife and his beliefs in regard to life and rights. You may just learn a few new things by reading it, like I did.

Having been born in 1976 and thus remembering mostly the 80s as encompassing my childhood, it is difficult for me to identify with a time in which job opportunities were so vastly segregated by sex (they still are, but to a far lesser degree). Mad Men makes for interesting conversation with women and men I know who were adults in the 60s and who have made very clear to me that the gender dynamics are not all that exaggerated in the show. And then there is Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem by Gloria Steinem, which taught me quite a bit about women’s and men’s roles in the 60s and 70s as well.

From my perspective, as much as we’re often reminded of the need to deal with our country’s issues around race, we’re not often given (or perhaps we don’t often enough take) opportunities to discuss sex differences in opportunities – at least not in many mainstream publications (Jezebel and Feministing have done an excellent job of commanding an audience around these issues, but unfortunately there appear to be few men involved as writers or readers, which is a challenge for many media and academic departments that try to grapple with these issues).

I was reminded of this during the presidential campaign when then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama was able to introduce a dialogue about race in the US and yet discussions around sex and gender, whether in relation to Hilary Clinton or Sarah Palin, were often dismissed as whiny excuses by or for women. As a woman, I find this pushback makes it difficult to confront real issues around sex. And it’s when I read articles like the one referenced here – about a man who spent a good deal of his life passionately advocating for social justice – that I learn more about where we’ve come from and a time when more women, and frankly more men too, seemed to be openly passionate about these issues.

[NY Times]

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.