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Gains by womem are hallmark of eventful era

From outer space to the workplace, 'woman's hour' has arrived in many lands.

By Linda Feldmann Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 25, 1998


Nov. 24 - When former astronaut Mae Jemison was a little girl in the 1960s, she used to wonder if there were really aliens in outer space. And, she worried, what if these creatures bumped into an American spacecraft full of men and concluded that all humans "look like these guys."

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By 1978, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had accepted its first women for astronaut training. Fourteen years later, Ms. Jemison herself was blasting into orbit on board the shuttle Endeavor - the first woman of color to go into space.

One by one, the number of "firsts" women have yet to achieve is dwindling. Women head major corporations. They run universities. They have their own professional sports leagues. They make millions on Wall Street.

Women serve as generals in the military, but are still not allowed to go into combat. A record number of women will serve in the next Congress, but they will still comprise only 9 percent of the Senate and 12 percent of the House of Representatives. Only two chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies are women.

Women also have yet to crack the ultimate glass ceiling: the presidency of the United States.

But in the 90 years since The Christian Science Monitor began publication - itself a notable achievement for a woman, the paper's founder, Mary Baker Eddy - the advancement of women remains one of the period's premier developments.

Even by 1933, when the Monitor was celebrating its 25th anniversary, women's gains were celebrated in the most lavish of terms. "The Emergence of Women: Most Stupendous Social Drama of Modern Times" read the headline over a lengthy article by staff writer Millicent J. Taylor. Rights and practices that are now a given were still new and immediate sources of pride - the right to vote (achieved in 1920), the ability to work in male-dominated professions, such as the law and medicine, the right to form unions, the ability to speak in public without being viewed as "unsexed."

Then, Miss Taylor heralded individual women as "a credit to their sex" - such as Dr. Mary E. Woolley, a leading educator who in 1932 became the first woman to represent the United States at an international disarmament conference.

"In law they have their Judge Florence E. Allen and others," Taylor wrote, referring to the first woman to be a state supreme court justice. "In aviation, they have their Amelia Earhart, and in government their diplomat, Ruth Bryan Owen, their Grace Abbot, chief of the Children's Bureau, and their Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins."

Today, the roster of women judges, aviators, diplomats, and government officials would fill a large phone book. Two women serve on the Supreme Court. A woman, Eileen Collins, will command a space shuttle mission. A woman serves as secretary of state, the nation's top diplomat.

But in 1933, the pioneering women Millicent Taylor wrote of were a much rarer breed. Only a few decades earlier, women received little formal education, could not own property if married, had no right to the custody of their children in the event of divorce, and could rarely hold leadership roles in church.

The year 1908 saw many noteworthy events. Not only did Mrs. Eddy launch The Christian Science Monitor, but also The New York Times named its first female reporter, Nancy Hale. Marian Nevins McDowell opened an artists' retreat, the McDowell Colony, in Peterborough, N.H. In San Francisco, a waitresses' union was formed and in New York, the first brokerage house only for women traders was established.

Still, women were seen as the "weaker sex," requiring special rules to protect them from the rough world and from unladlylike appearances. In 1908, New York City passed an ordinance banning women from smoking in public places. By 1933, workplace laws remained in effect that restricted the labor of women, in the name of protection. Ironically, laws preventing men from abusing and raping their wives didn't come until much later.