I Fought For Women’s Rights In The 60’s. What’s Happening Today Feels Like Déjà Vu.

By Evelyn LaTorre

Girls in the small midwestern town where I grew up planned for the horse and the husband they wanted, in that order. Though uncertain about the horse, most 1adolescent females I knew in 1958, fanaticized about the husband. Aspiring to a job outside the home then was at odds with a woman’s main duty—rearing the children they were expected to bear. Careers were less important and thought to be more difficult for women than for men. My father’s desire that his four daughters receive college educations pushed me to aspire to a life and career of my choosing. But I had to skirt around society’s obstacles for women to forge an identity in a profession.

Society often portrayed women as less competent than their male counterparts in the 50s and 60s. I never believed that. I didn’t want to be limited by the kind of roles society demanded or that TV shows of the day reflected. Mothers like June Cleaver of Leave it to Beaver, Harriet Nelson of Ozzie and Harriet, and Donna Reed of The Donna Reed Show, fed their husbands’ egos in spotless homes—all while dressed in pearls and heels. Only Lucy of I Love Lucy sought a life outside her home. 

I looked to the models of independent-thinking women like my female teachers and those whom I admired in the books I read. Wuthering Heights, Anne of Green Gables, and Emma had feisty female characters with minds of their own.  They made me realize that I too could be self-sufficient and determine my own life’s path. 

In 1966, the year I married at age 23, US society imposed a long list of financial and personal disadvantages on women. No female I knew, complained that she’d been denied a credit card, placement on a jury, or employment if she were pregnant. So, I didn’t notice the discrimination based on my gender until I entered the workplace. When I did, the imbalance of society’s treatment of males and females made me rebel against it. My consciousness moved from awareness to indignation to action. I looked for ways around society’s limitations for women.

A major gasoline company turned down my application for their credit card. They required my new husband’s permission to issue me a card—even though my earnings were ten times his. I found another gas company that saw me as a legitimate wage earner and granted me a card in my name. I became their loyal customer and never again purchased gas from the company that had turned down my application. 

I was three months pregnant in 1966 when I applied for a county hospital clerk position for which I qualified and desperately needed. The hospital would have legally denied me the job if not for the sympathetic intern physician who gave me a “pass” on the required pre-employment medical exam. His report didn’t reveal that I was expecting a baby. Months later, the county required that I submit proof of my due date and quit work two months before my child’s birth. We couldn’t live on my husband’s income and I felt healthy, so I forged ahead and changed the date on my obstetrician’s report from “1” to a “3” to indicate that my baby would arrive two months later than the actual date. These regulations designed to protect, instead, limited women. 

There were other restrictions for females that didn’t affect me directly. My gender couldn’t serve in the military or attend military academies. We weren’t accepted to Ivy League colleges until the 70s and 80s. Spousal rape, granting a woman the right to refuse her husband sex, was finally criminalized in all 50 states in 1993. Sex discrimination in health insurance was outlawed in 2010.

The FDA first approved the birth control pill for “severe menstrual distress” in the 1960s. Some states said oral contraceptives were immoral, promoted prostitution, and were tantamount to abortion. It wasn’t until several years later that birth control was approved for use by all women. I became pregnant before marrying, in part, because oral contraceptives were forbidden by my religion.

Sometimes, the attitude of a female colleague mirrored society’s stringent mores and values. Before the feminist movement, women often doubted the ability of their own sex to lead. One day in 1973, in the lunchroom of the school I served as a bilingual psychologist, I had an interesting conversation with a highly regarded teacher.

“I’ve yet to run into a female administrator in this district,” I said, thinking of how many women held responsible district-level positions in the school district I’d just come from. 

“Oh, I could never work for a woman,” she said, with conviction. “With a male principal, I know someone experienced is in charge.”

“But if women are never hired for administrative positions,” I said, “they can’t get the experience they need. And some women in education are more talented than the men in charge.”

Years after this conversation, that district and many others, employed scores of women as principals and district office administrators, including me. We’ve made inroads in other areas besides education. Women now lead government agencies, school districts, and corporations. In 2021 the number of women running businesses on the Fortune 500 hit a record of 41.

Forging an identity in a career for me began with encouragement and freedom to seek my own path. When I was ready, I chose carefully and married someone who encouraged my career path. I followed my talents and desires and studied in higher education, then worked for 32 years in demanding jobs. My life and my identity continue to be forged by my decisions and not dictated by a society that hasn’t always valued women’s abilities. 

My book, Love in Any Language, A Memoir of a Cross-cultural Marriage, chronicles how my roles as a wife, mother, and educator evolved between the 1960s and the 1990s—from the free speech movement to women’s liberation. By being present for these evolutions, my life and my identity were forged by my decisions and not dictated by a society that hasn’t always valued women’s abilities. 

The Texas Heartbeat Act, an example of recent efforts to erode rights in the areas of free speech and a woman’s right to choose, should be a call to action for the next generation. We need to remember how these entitlements took decades to obtain yet are still tenuous. We must not become complacent lest these hard-won rights be stripped away. 

You can read more about Evelyn’s life in her two memoirs: Between Inca Walls and Love in Any Language. Available through her website: www.evelynlatorre.com and wherever books are sold.

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