Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ladies in Libraries

I recently read A Strange Stirring by Stephanie Coontz, a book that breaks down Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique, and describes the clash of cultures between working and non-working women in the 1950s and early 1960s.  She describes the feelings of inferiority and lack of completeness that middle class homemakers felt at the time that The Feminine Mystique was published.  As someone who has never known a world where we are expected not to join the workforce and actively kept out of it, I was surprised at how relevant I found Coontz’s summary of the infamous book. 

As a woman who is studying and a part of a profession that is predominantly made up of, and led by women, I am proud to be a woman who works.  But I know that this is still not the case for women in many fields today.   In archiving the history of my local library, the North Hollywood Regional Branch, I was struck by the fact that when the branch opened in 1929, it was operated completely by women.   In looking further into the history of librarians in Los Angeles, many of the City Librarians have been women, dating as far back as 1880.  But they too have struggled in a society that was dominated by men, especially those men who served on the library board. 

From 1947 – 1990 there were 2 City Librarians in Los Angeles and both were male.  This was during the time that Friedan was speaking to educated middle-class homemakers.  Women who had the intellectual training and ability to be a vital part of the workforce were told that they should not want to join the ranks of the professional class.  Many of these were the same women who had been productive in the workforce during World War II, furthering the blow to these women’s egos and sense of self.  Meanwhile, millions of women at this time needed to work out of economic necessity, furthering the divide between working women and wives and stay-at-home wives.

It was during this time, from the late 1950s throughout the 1960s, often called the public library’s “golden era” due to increased federal funding for public services that the library prospered.  The increased demand for librarians brought many professional women back into a workforce that has historically been female led, as well as female-friendly to those the library served.  The public library has traditionally been a safe space for un-biased learning.  In an era when a woman’s education about the world most certainly ended after high school, or college for some, it was a space for continued enlightenment.

The public library continues that tradition today.  It is a place to seek answers to questions without shame or embarrassment.  It is a place for facts in a world where women’s choices are often relegated based on fear.  It is a cultural place in neighborhoods and communities where women who are full-time mothers deserve to spend time with their children during the day.  It is a space for book discussions and for activism with neighbors and friends.  In my experience, I have witnessed the public library as a place for all women, whether behind the reference desk or standing in front of it, to further literacy and intellect regardless of working status. 

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