Sheryl Sandberg and Ann-Marie Slaughter? Meet Eilis Lacey and Alice Kramden.
The first two are famous for writing about difficulties 21st century women face in the working world. This after women, for decades, were expected to do nothing more than stay home and tend to domestic duties.
Well, some women.
The new movie Brooklyn is about an Irish immigrant, Eilis, played by Saoirse Ronan, who comes to America in search of -- you guessed it -- work. Eilis also falls in love and faces a difficult choice when she feels the pull of home.
The film (based on Colm Toibin’s best-selling novel) comes just as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of another Brooklyn love story: Ralph and Alice Kramden in The Honeymooners. That classic TV show began it’s brief but brilliant run on CBS in the fall of 1955.
Funny thing about The Honeymooners: Jackie Gleason’s Brooklyn Irish background influenced every part of the show (most of the neighbors were identifiably Irish or Italian) with the exception of the Kramdens themselves. Gleason possibly didn’t want to alienate advertisers by making the show’s central couple too ethnic.
Anyway, one particularly hilarious episode entitled “Brother Ralph” features Gleason’s beloved bus driver ranting and raving not only because he was laid off at work, but also because Alice must go out and get a job.
There are dozens of reasons why The Honeymooners remains not only hilarious but insightful, one being that the show is more urban, ethnic and working class than typical 1950s sitcom fare.
That’s why the interesting thing about “Brother Ralph” is not that Alice went out to get a job, but the fact that she didn’t have one in the first place.
When we talk about jobs and gender these days, the talkers are usually people like Sandberg (Facebook’s chief operating officer) or Slaughter, whose new book Unfinished Work expands on her famed Atlantic magazine article about how it’s impossible for even the most successful women to balance family and home and “have it all.”
The debate often centers on how important this balance is because we don’t want to go back to the 1950s when women (it is assumed) were trapped in the home and unable to work.
But look at Eilis and Alice. The fact is, working class and immigrant women always “had it all” -- whether they liked it or not.
My mother, mother-in-law and all of my aunts came of age and married in the 1950s or early 1960s. Some of them had careers (there were several nurses and a teacher); others took whatever part-time work that came along (baby-sitting, house or office cleaning).
Either way, if any of them were culturally discouraged from working because of their gender, financial need trumped all that.
“In many working class communities, mothering had long included being a good provider, as well as a good nurturer,” writes Rutgers professor Dorothy Sue Cobble, who studies labor and gender. “Employment, rather then being incompatible with good mothering, was viewed as ‘a fulfillment of a mother’s duty to her children.’”
Of course, women of the 1950s did all this, as well as keep the house in order and the children clean and fed. Let’s be clear: This was no paradise for women. But it is instructive to think about all this as we continue to fiercely debate gender and the workplace.
When we talk about income inequality in the corporate board room, does this really resonate with the workers of both genders at your local restaurant? When Sandberg encourages women to “lean in,” is that really relevant to a single, immigrant mother attending community college or trade school?
The truth is, when the inconvenient topic of class is introduced into an already-heated debate about gender, things get really complicated and messy. A lot of very smart people don’t quite seem to know what to say about the millions of women who are raising kids as well as holding onto careers.
Way back in 1955, Ralph Kramden referred to his wife as a “career girl.” To which Alice responded, “My career is stuffing jelly into donuts.”
As Eilis Lacey -- and many Irish immigrant women before her -- could tell you, there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it comes with a paycheck.
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