Working for Justice

On Studs Terkel’s Working

Longform.org recently republished four excerpts from Studs Terkel’s Working, which is a 1974 book of oral histories collected by Terkel that focuses on the careers of interviewees from across the spectrum of American jobs.  The four entries excerpted by Longform were all from women, and Longform republished them as “Women at Work.”  Together, the four oral histories detail the careers of a housekeeper, a receptionist, a factory worker, and a social worker. I encourage you to take the time to read these accounts.  Although the challenges women face in balancing their professional and personal lives have been a topic of much discussion in the news media recently, looking back at Terkel’s accounts forty years after their publication illustrates that these challenges have been present for decades.

For example, compare the challenges faced by Maggie Holmes, a housekeeper, with the recent comments of Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi.  In her telling, Holmes recounted how she was late to work one morning because a snowstorm delayed her from taking her children to school.  After arriving, her employer confronted her regarding her tardiness.  Holmes responded by zealously defending her late arrival:

Before I go to anybody’s job in the morning I see that my kids are at school. I gonna see that they have warm clothes on and they fed. I’m lookin’ right at the woman I’m workin’ for. (Laughs.) When I got the phone I tell this employer, That goes for you too. The only thing I live for is my kids. There’s nothin’, you and nobody else.

Recently, Nooyi weighed in on the issue of work-life balance, explaining that seeking to balance her personal and professional lives is a persistent struggle.

I don’t think women can have it all. I just don’t think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all. My husband and I have been married for 34 years. And we have two daughters. And every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother, in fact, many times during the day you have to make those decisions. . . .

Although Holmes and Nooyi were in the workforce during different decades and had very different occupations, the everyday decisions Nooyi discusses aren’t far removed from Holmes’ decision to send her kids out to school each day before going to work.  And I think there is some level of comfort to be had in recognizing that the difficulty we all face in balancing our professional and personal lives is not a problem unique to our generation.  Instead, it’s an issue that has long been a part of American life, regardless of whether you worked in domestic services in the 1970s or are a present-day executive.

Beyond recognizing such parallels, Terkel’s accounts are worth reading as a reminder of the sheer difficulty many people face in their daily responsibilities. Grace Clements, a factory worker, detailed in her account that her daily responsibilities required repeatedly removing large sheets of hot pulp from a six-foot-deep tank for eight straight hours, only leaving the tank for two ten-minute breaks and one twenty-minute break.  Handling the hot pulp inevitably scarred Clement’s arms, which she accepted as merely a part of her job.

Returning to Holmes’ telling, she poignantly explained her frustration with her working conditions, “They don’t have no feeling that that’s what bothers you. I think to myself; My God, if I had somebody come and do my floors, clean up for me, I’d appreciate it. They don’t say nothin’ about it. Act like you haven’t even done anything. They has no feelin’s.”  The women detailed in these accounts worked difficult and often thankless jobs.  I encourage everyone to take the time to read the full histories and reflect on your daily lives in light of them.

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP is a nationwide litigation law firm with offices in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, and Baltimore. We represent individuals against powerful interests. We act as a private attorney general in support of the private and public good. Learn More

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