A Family History, A Changing World

The lives of four women from one family reflect an expanded universe of rights and opportunities.

Barbara Jackson will never forget that feeling of exhilaration the first time she grasped the steering wheel, shifted the gears, and pressed the accelerator of her husband's Chevy.

The year was 1959, and Mrs. Jackson's cousin had decided it was high time she learned to drive. She was, after all, an adult and the mother of three school-age girls. And she was tired of relying on her husband every time she wanted to leave her suburban Toledo, Ohio, neighborhood.

Besides, many of her girlfriends were also learning how to drive around that time, though some never did. "I just thought it was the grandest thing I could ever have done - except give birth," says Jackson, now a great-grandmother. "It was the freedom that I could go when I wanted to, that I could actually not depend on my husband."

In the vast universe of rights and opportunities women have gained during the past century and a half - either by law or by custom - driving a car may seem trivial. But in a way, it symbolizes the kind of freedom women have been denied throughout most of history, as they have been forced to rely on men - their husbands, fathers, brothers - for just about everything.

When the American women's movement took shape 150 years ago in the bucolic upstate New York town of Seneca Falls, women - and especially married women - had few rights. As girls, they were rarely educated beyond the rudiments of reading. As adults, they had limited opportunities for paid work, and, with few exceptions, no say in church affairs. Married women could not own property or escape an abusive marriage through divorce. Child-custody laws favored men. Black women were still enslaved.

At that first convention on women's rights, in July 1848, the 300 women and men in attendance endorsed a "Declaration of Sentiments" and issued 11 resolutions. In an intentional echo of the Declaration of Independence, these documents were infused with the notion that woman is equal to man in the eyes of God. From that basis of fundamental equality, a more worldly equality would spring forth, one that would "overthrow the monopoly of the pulpit" and secure for women "an equal participation with men in the various trades, professions, and commerce."

These were radical demands at a time when most women claimed satisfaction with life. But most radical was the proposition that women should be allowed to vote. White men, after all, didn't want to give up their monopoly, and many women weren't sure that politics was a place for ladies. While all the other resolutions at Seneca Falls passed unanimously, the demand for suffrage was approved by only a slim majority - after heated debate. It took women another 72 years to win the right to vote.

The story of Barbara Jackson and her daughters, granddaughters, and now a great-granddaughter is in many ways a typical American saga.

There's been a commitment to family, faith, and hard work. There's also been divorce, unwed motherhood, a brief period on welfare, and, eventually, a realization that education is as important for women as it is for men. With or without diplomas to prove it, this is a family of intelligent women who have made their way in the world - and have found satisfaction through their families and pride in a range of professions, including traditionally male ones.

Along the way, their lives have reflected the challenges and progress millions of American women like them have experienced. And even if Barbara Jackson and her daughters weren't on the ramparts, fighting for equality when the second wave of the women's rights movement hit in the 1960s, they have come to accept much of what that movement has stood for.

When Barbara Jackson was born in 1931, the world economy was in collapse, Herbert Hoover was president, and Charlie Chaplin was popular in the movie houses. Women had enjoyed the right to vote for 11 years, but they still had limited prospects when it came to education and employment. Because of the Depression, in fact, about half of the states prohibited married women from working altogether. And so by law, as well as convention, a woman's place was most definitely in the home.

It came as a particular shock, then, to six-year-old Barbara and her three siblings when their mother abandoned the family. Her father took the children to live with his sister, near Ashland, Ky., and went back to West Virginia to resume work as a coal miner. To this day, Jackson doesn't understand why her mother left. She knows her dad struggled with a "sometime drinking problem," but when she went to visit her mom in Kentucky 33 years later to offer her own forgiveness, she came away with no clear answers.

"Her mom died when she was nine, and she told me if she had had a mom growing up, she wouldn't have made so many mistakes," Jackson recalls. "I came away from that determined not to make her mistakes."

Jackson's schooling ended with the ninth grade, when her father died under mysterious circumstances. She got married a year later at age 16 - to a handsome young soldier just out of the Army. "We met on a Monday and were married on Friday," she recalls with a grin. Such a quick courtship was unusual then, as now, and "our friends didn't think the marriage would last."

Eleven months and one day later, daughter Bonnie was born, soon to be followed by two more daughters and, later, a son. Barbara and Robert Jackson celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary on May 23.

Hard times

Times weren't always easy. When Robert lost his job in 1953, Barbara stepped in and became the family breadwinner, taking a job as an elevator operator in the 22-story First National Bank building in Toledo. Later, she spent 4-1/2 years working in the toy department at the local Sears Roebuck, quitting only after her husband had been back at work for a year and a half and she felt secure about the family finances. In addition, she now had a fourth child, and she felt the pull of the home front.

Jackson says she never experienced sexual harassment or wage discrimination on the job, as best she knows. She probably wouldn't have thought much about it at the time. In those days, the late 1950s and early '60s, pay equity was far from being an issue. Women's job options were limited to the "Help Wanted - Women" section of the classifieds, which included only occupations such as secretary and nurse. In 1968, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) outlawed sex-segregated help-wanted ads.

Jackson wishes she'd had more education. "There were times when my kids needed help on homework in high school, and I couldn't do much for them," she recalls.

Still, Jackson was right in step with her times. In 1949, the year she would have graduated from high school, the typical woman completed only about nine years of education. In families with money and status, women did graduate from high school and go on to college - perhaps to prepare to become teachers, nurses, or at least better shepherds of their children's schooling. But for this coal miner's daughter, by now with no parents and no money, the ivy-covered walls of academia were a distant world.

By the mid-1960s, Betty Friedan's book "The Feminine Mystique" had been out a few years, and the early rumblings of a feminist movement could be heard. In the Toledo suburb of Sylvania, Ohio, where the Jacksons had settled into a comfortable, middle-class life, women's rights weren't a topic of dinner-table discussion. But eldest daughter Bonnie was making good grades in high school, and the Jacksons started thinking she might be college material. Barbara offered to get a job to raise the money, but Bonnie told her not to - little brother Kyle still needed his mom at home, she said.

As she reminisces, Bonnie Belcik sounds a little angry, not at her mother, but at her high school guidance counselor. "She never looked into how I could pay for college," she grumbles.

Instead, Mrs. Belcik graduated and headed straight into marriage and kids. But the marriage foundered. She found herself lying to her mother about black eyes and bruises, fooling no one, and in 1971, after five years, was divorced.

The court awarded her child support for her son, Todd, and daughter, Tiffany - $40 a week - but her ex-husband wouldn't pay, and she didn't force the issue. "There was no point. They didn't back you up in court," she says.

By the mid-1980s, however, Belcik decided it was time to fight for that overdue child support. Laws dating from 1975 and 1984 had beefed up states' ability to pursue deadbeat parents, and public attitudes were much harsher toward these parents, usually men. Belcik located her ex-husband, took him to court, and got the money - by then a hefty sum that underwrote his kids' college educations.

Still, the memories of those early years as a young divorce, back in the early 1970s, burn bright for Belcik. She had no time for bra-burning or the fight for an Equal Rights Amendment. Tiffany was only six months old, and Belcik had no job, no car, no access to credit, and no way to pay the rent.

Not wanting to burden her parents, Belcik went on welfare for 11 months. And as in high school, she wasn't steered toward any educational opportunities that would boost her job prospects. Instead, she found work at Hunt Wesson foods and moved with her kids into a subsidized town house.

Four years later, in 1975, Belcik remarried. By then, she was working at a Ford Motor Co. plant near Toledo, stacking car bumpers. Soon she became the plant's first pregnant employee. This triggered a dispute with her foreman over her ability to work: He said she couldn't, her doctor said she could - but on light duty. And after several hearings, she won her case.

Outlasting discrimination

The rest of Belcik's work history is speckled with incidents of what she feels is sex discrimination. At one company, after a recession-induced layoff, she claims a male colleague with less experience was called back before she was. At the Champion spark-plug plant in Toledo, where Belcik worked for 16 years, she felt held back at first.

"They kept telling me, 'You're too good to promote!' " she says, her dark eyes flashing with indignation. "They said they couldn't spare me!"

When EDS, an information-systems company, took over her department at Champion, Belcik's opportunities blossomed. She was suddenly required to take classes each year to boost her skills. The hard work paid off: Belcik is now manager of information systems for the City of Oregon, a job that required a bachelor's degree, which, the city concluded, she had completed in all but name through her course work.

Looking back, Bonnie Belcik is proud of the fact that she's made it in male-dominated workplaces. As with her child-support battle, Belcik has seen laws enacted along the way that made her path a little easier and some that came too late.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, for instance, barred employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and other grounds. It was a start for women in the battle for workplace fairness but didn't provide any guarantees.

For pregnant women, it wasn't until 1978 - after Belcik was finished having children - that Congress explicitly protected workplace rights under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which requires employers to treat pregnancy and childbirth like other short-term disabilities. Still, employment discrimination against pregnant women remains a problem, and it is difficult to prove.

For female workers in general, discrimination in hiring, promotion, and pay levels also remains very much at issue. When Congress amended Title VII in 1991, it allowed employees, for the first time, to collect compensatory as well as punitive damages in sex-discrimination lawsuits. Since then, the number of such lawsuits has grown.

A brighter future

For Bonnie Belcik's daughters, Tiffany Capuano and Jennifer McNamee, life in the post-feminist world of the '90s is full of promise.

But already in their young adulthood - both are now in their 20s - their paths have diverged widely. Tiffany, the elder, became the first woman in her family to graduate from college and has now entered the white-collar world of public relations in Norfolk, Va., while working on a master's degree in higher-education administration. She and her husband hope to start a family soon.

Jennifer's life has taken a radically different turn, a turn that touches on one of the most divisive social issues of today. Her story begins right after her 15th birthday, with a late-night call to her father from his sister: Jennifer is pregnant and set to have an abortion the next day.

Mike Belcik, Jennifer's dad, waited till it was closing time at the Fritzie Freeze where she worked, then went to get her. He brought her home, and they sat down with her mother, Bonnie. Jennifer admitted everything.

"I really wanted to have the baby, but I was afraid of Dad," she recalls six years later, wiping away tears. "Not that he would hit me, but that he would be disappointed."

Jennifer had decided to have the abortion in Michigan to make it harder for her dad to find out. She had already gone before a judge in Michigan to bypass the state's parental-consent law. He rubber-stamped her request.

Jennifer never went back to Michigan. But the pregnancy put the final crack in her parents' already-shaky marriage. Six months later, in 1993, Jennifer gave birth to a daughter, Alexa, and the two of them lived with Bonnie. Jennifer enrolled in a special program for pregnant and parenting teens at her high school and graduated a year early, in the same class as Alexa's father, Matthew McNamee.

"We all grew up together - Matt, Jennifer, and I," says a tearful Bonnie.

Last summer, Jennifer married Matt, and they now have a new baby boy. Jennifer has decided not to go back to her job handling medical accounts and will stay at home with her two kids. Matt, she says, is making decent money as a tool-and-diemaker and can support the family. They're shopping for their first house.

Jennifer McNamee may not be every feminist's poster child of the "liberated woman." After all, in these days of reproductive choice, women now have no reason to feel "trapped" in early child-bearing and marriage, and they can plan what has become a typical middle-class woman's life course: college, a career, marriage, and then children when the family finances are solid.

But if the definition of feminism is to have a full range of opportunities and choices, then Mrs. McNamee feels she's taking advantage of that freedom - and doing so responsibly. She didn't plan to get pregnant at age 14, but having done so, she considered all her options - including adoption - and decided to become a mother. College and a career can come later, she says.

While McNamee's early motherhood is hardly typical - only 1.6 percent of 15 year olds give birth each year in America - she does represent part of the highly publicized minority of American girls who engage in early sexual activity, pregnancy, and child-bearing. Though US teen-pregnancy and birth rates have declined, they remain the highest among the Western democracies. And the unwed-motherhood rate is climbing, with about one-third of children born out of wedlock.

Yet for a child who suddenly became a mother, McNamee appears to be improving her circumstances. Statistics show that by age 30, only 32 percent of teen mothers have high school diplomas. And nearly 80 percent wind up on welfare within one year of giving birth. She credits her strong family with helping her through.

Keeping ties tight

In this age of easy mobility, when people move far from home for college, a job, or a nicer climate, it's getting increasingly rare to have four generations of a family living so close together - at least for part of the year.

Barbara and Robert Jackson spend six months in Winter Haven, Fla., and the other six here near Toledo, and near their family. None of the women sees herself as any kind of example of feminist activism, rather each has simply lived the changes as they unfolded.

The men in the family also seem to reflect how attitudes have evolved. Robert Jackson, the patriarch, lurks in the distance on the day a reporter visits his home. Finally, he's cornered for an opinion: How did he like working with women during his years as a railroad worker? "Not at all," he replies gruffly. "I told 'em, 'I don't like working for a woman, so just tell me what to do and leave me alone.' "

John Roecker, Belcik's fianc, shrugs when asked about women in the workplace: "As long as they can do the job, I don't really care."

Matt McNamee, the youngest man here, has the most on his shoulders at this point. He's got a wife and two young children to support, but he seems proud to be handling all this responsibility when most of his peers are still finding their place in life.

By all accounts, he dotes on his little girl - playing the "fun Dad" to Jennifer's "strict Mom."

As for Alexa, she hasn't yet decided what she wants to be when she grows up. Her mom, though, does have one goal in mind: college. If nothing else, women in America today know education is the key to opportunity.

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