From Little Women to Madame Secretary: The Arc of Working Women

You could write a dissertation on the challenges of balancing the demands of career and family – and plenty of people have. But few explorations of that theme are as memorable as the opening passage of Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It, which finds a hedge fund manager distressing a pie in the dead of night so her child’s teacher won’t judge her for providing a store-bought dessert for the school holiday party.

Working women have played a critical role in this country’s history and its literature, so it’s hardly surprising that so many of the books on our list of Books that Shaped Work in America address the unique challenges and triumphs of America’s working women.

The list includes biographies of powerful women like Madeleine Albright, Sonia Sotomayor and our own Frances Perkins, as well as non-fiction accounts of  women competing for equality in male-dominated fields, such as Open Wide the Freedom Gates, The Girls in the Balcony and Those That Mattered.

Several fiction selections also reflect how the roles of women in the workplace have changed over time. One of the oldest novels on the list, Little Women, reflects the limited professional options available to nineteenth century women and the rigid social expectations of the time, with one of the characters exclaiming, “I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy.” But by the mid-20th century, U.S. society and literature had begun to change.

Stories like The Best of Everything reflect how the struggle for women’s equality played out in the workforce. And a collection of 21st century titles like The Devil Wears Prada show that not only have women in the workplace become common, but they have risen to occupy powerful leadership positions.

As a contributor to the Books project, I recommended five of the books included on the list, and I chose titles that reflected the focus of my professional career: advocating for working women.

With my colleagues in the Women’s Bureau, I have helped develop policies and standards to protect the interests of working women. We have advocated for equal treatment, pay and professional opportunity. And we have led conversations about the changing nature of women’s work, and the work that lies ahead.

In a recent conference, we examined the major milestones working women have passed over the past five decades. We know that new generations are entering a workforce shaped by all the benefits of these hard won achievements, things like equal pay legislation and protected family and medical leave.

And we know that equality is not universal, and that women still face unique challenges in the workforce. Fifty years from now, writers will look back on the challenges and achievements that today we can only look forward to. So I’ll close by acknowledging something that this nation’s women have been saying for centuries: There is good work to be done.

Latifa Lyles is the acting director of the Women’s Bureau.


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  1. Stephanie steward says:

    This is a good job made by you Madame Latifa , you enter the history via your carreer , full of defence for the working womens in the USA .

    Best Regards.

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