Monthly Archives: August 2017

Christian women

“Women in Christianity” is a vast and complex subject with multiple dimensions as Christianity is one of the largest religions in the world practiced in different societies and cultures around the world. When we deal with the subject of “Women in Christianity” we need to understand that Christianity as that exists today is a mix of different denominations with Catholics and Protestants being the principle denominations. Further it would be prudent to delve into the history of Christianity to understand the role of women in this religion. In early Christianity there was no separate roles prescribed for men and women and women were not distinguished separately from men. This was despite the fact that the society in West Asia at that time was highly patriarchal in nature.

Women in Christianity: The early Christian prophets

From West Asia, Christianity spread to ancient Greece and Rome which were purely patriarchal societies. In these societies women and children were thought of as assets or possessions held by the head of the family. Men and Women were distinguished separately in this kind of set up and women were generally considered inferior to men. During these times Christians believed that the world will end soon and Christ will come to earth for the second time. There were many women teachers and prophets in Christianity in those days who believed in this proposition and went their way in preaching this doctrine.

Women in Christianity: Development of the patriarchal thought

But the initial belief of the immediate “second coming” of the Christ did not happen. From hereon Christianity slowly started to evolve as a systemized religion with the churches enjoying enormous clout and power. This led to the development of the patriarchal thought in Christianity which abolished and discarded the earlier view that men and women should not be distinguished separately. The havoc of the power of churches continued for the next two thousand years during which women were not only treated as inferior to men but great atrocities were committed against independent women who were branded as witches and hunted down mercilessly.

Women in Christianity: Wave of change in twentieth century

Only in the twentieth century things started changing in Christianity. With the churches losing much of their clout and power in the twentieth century, with democratic governments firmly established in many countries in Europe as well as in America and with religion getting separated from politics things started to change in a dramatic fashion in Christianity that was never thought about in the last two thousand years of the religion. It all started with the early feminist movements and peaked with the second wave of feminism from the period of 1960s. This period saw a profound change in the status of women in Christianity as a religion. Women’s rights came in the forefront.

Women in Christianity: Feminist Theology

Feminist theology was established as a branch of feminism to study the role of women especially in Christianity. The feminist theological movement influenced the development of the Wisdom literature that expressed God through a feminine image.

Women in Christianity: Women’s liberation movement

The period of 1960s and thereafter can be considered as the beginning of the “women’s liberation movement” in history which advocated social, cultural, political and religious equality of the gender. Though the women’s liberation movement went full throttle in this period the patriarchal set up did not vanish as such and the concept of sexual dualism still existed. This concept not only viewed the differences between men and women in mere biological terms but it also ranked and applied values to these differences. For instance, men were considered to be more idealistic, spiritual, and psychic than women. On the other hand, women were thought to be more emotional, instinctive, and physical than men. This was a senario of absolute “gender stereotyping” and it existed from last two thousand years. In fact this kind of sexual dualism originated from the Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Christianity had adopted it since then. It was only the women’s movement in 1960s that challenged these kind of thinking to some affect.

Women in Christianity: Marian devotion

The patriarchal Christianity surprisingly also witnessed another phenomenon that is the Marian devotion. Catholics were highly influenced by this whereas the Protestants rejected this phenomenon. Marian devotion even affected the feminist movement in both ways. One school of thought believed that the Marian devotion helped to offer the feminine view on God where as the other school of thought believed that the Marian devotion in fact harmed the feminist movement. They said that proclaiming Mary as Virgin Mary and worshiping her in fact in this form is damaging to the cause of women as “women and womanhood” are elevated to the “high pedestal of morality” and they are inhibited or discouraged to express or explore the more humane side of their nature. The sexual and cultural revolution of the 1970s and 80s precisely wanted to break free from this high pedestals of morality attached to women and womanhood.

Women in Christianity: The two parallel movements

After 1960s the emergence of two parallel movements took place in Christianity as a religion and the society in general. These two movements were the liberal and conservative movements. These two parallel movements exist till date. The more liberal feminist theological movement is influenced by the goddess worship, wisdom literature, Jesus’ movement and Marian devotion. On the other hand the religious right within Christianity works on the principal of sexual dualism. The religious right tries to find values only within an established tradition and they resist change of any kind to an established order. The religious right opposes the liberal reproductive rights of women especially the right to abortion, it rejects cloning technology, it rejects homosexuality and it seeks reestablishment of traditional family ideals based on the patriarchal system. Initially the religious right was only involved with the faith but after the 1970s they have increased their presence in the matters of politics so that they can influence mainstream culture and society in a more profound manner. This is especially true in America. It is natural that the religious right hates feminists. They fear that women will assert themselves, gradually obtain various rights, and ultimately threaten the position of men. For the religious right the advancement of women in society means that they will ultimately take over the jobs of men. Also, they feel that the differences in traditional gender roles are quite essential.

However, from the viewpoint of feminists, gender roles are never absolute or essential. They feel that these were formed within society, and that the concept of “gender” was established to analyze and distinguish the differences in the roles of men and women.

Women in Christianity: The religious right and the liberal feminist theological movement

It is quite natural that the Religious Right criticizes feminists, who challenge the superiority of men. They in fact resist everything about the feminist movement. For example they even dislike the liberal welfare policies for women because under such policies, single mothers who need to raise their children and the economically destitute are assisted financially. The Religious Right view such assistance as preventing the establishment of traditional families. They also reject the relativism of human existence and therefore they are intolerant to other views, cultures and religions. They believe in the absolutism and purity of Christian values and tradition. For the religious right “Patriarchal Christianity” is the central core of all existence. Anything outside this central core has to be resisted and absolutely rejected.

In relation to the role of “women in Christianity” we can see that now we have two parallel schools of thought that exits within the religion as well as in the society. These are the liberal feminist theological movement and the conservative religious right movement. Though this being the current scenario it is not a static situation and there is a continuous evolution that is taking place in regard to the “role of women in Christianity” as it had happened in the last two hundred years or so.

Further to understand the role of Women in Christianity we need to study the following topics in detail

1. Women and the genesis of Christianity
2. Women and Christianity- This includes subtopics like Women of faith surviving but not reporting abuse.
3. Sexuality and early Christianity.
4. How Christianity Changed the World-This includes subtopics like freedom and dignity for women.
5. The advent of the Religious right and the goals of the Religious right.
6. Feminist theology-This includes subtopics like Re-interpretation of the historical origins of Christianity, re-examination of the Bible from the viewpoint of Women, Biblical translation using “Inclusive Language”, formation of new understandings of God, networks of women from Different cultures, sharing methodology with sexual minorities and presenting new views on ecology.

The changes that happened in the Christian society in the last two hundred years have also affected other cultures and religions in a profound manner. The feminist movement owes its roots to the Christian society and thanks to it feminism has become a global phenomenon today which advocates gender based equality and ending of all types of discriminations and bias against women. In fact the study of the role of “women in Christianity” transcends the spectrum of “religion” and gives us a broad perspective of the struggle of women from the last 200 years for a right to a dignified and meaningful life.

Women Net-Savvy

Did you know that most planets rotate anticlockwise, while Venus rotates clockwise? Somehow this may explain why women are more correct, more logical, more pragmatic, more sensual, more aware, and more social than their male counterparts (who are, let us say, simple domesticated pets). Women have always been trendsetters and have always shown the way, even in typical male bastions like hunting and war (lionesses hunt the best; and is not every war so far recorded in history somewhere linked to a woman?) Elementary then, to surmise that women always work towards individual progress on the micro level and towards human progress as a whole on the macro level. Her role in this tech-savvy Internet age is no exception. According to the The Boston Consulting Group more than 57% of online women are traversing the cyberspace for at least more than a year, with the advanced users logging in for more than six years.

The number of female web surfers grow faster than the overall Internet population, according to Neilsen//NetRatings. Females accounted for 52 percent or 55.0 million Internet users at home with a growth rate of 9 percent. Males comprised the remaining 48 percent of the total surfing population, rising three percent from 48.2 million to 49.8 million surfers.

“Men spent more time online, logged on more often, and accessed more content than women, despite being out-numbered by the female Internet population by more than 5.2 million surfers,” said Dawn Brozek, senior Internet analyst, Neilsen//NetRatings. “Generally speaking, women shoulder a majority of the household responsibilities and therefore, face a ‘time poverty’ at home, with less leisure time than men to spend on activities such as surfing the Internet.”

This shows that women zero in and stick to sites that are most relevant to them, while males generally surf around casually and flit from site to site, without any specific object of enquiry. A study by HarrisInteractive stated that 95% of the purchasing decisions were finalized by women in any average U.S. household, as almost 90% of the household finances were controlled by them. The interesting part is that most of the costly purchases were done offline after researching about them online; whereas, most of the less costly purchases were done online after researching about them online. This shows that online purchasing is gaining ground and finding favor with women as years go by. Also, that women are more discerning and without adequate research do not buy. While online, they do not just follow ‘impulse buying’, which is common in offline shopping. Besides online shopping, they also are interested in socializing and sharing views.

The net-savvy online woman has distinct online attitudes, experiences, and habits. She uses the Internet for varied purposes like exchanging experiences, advice, interests, emails, banking, online securities/commodities trading, portfolio management, work from home employment opportunities like medical transcription, medical coding, programming, typing, consulting, freelancing, etc. She actively participates in discussion boards, blogs, and forums. She regularly visits websites related to food & drink, cooking, parenting, diets and weight loss programs, pregnancy, celebrity gossip, albums, horoscopes, shopping, travel, inspiration, ideas, technology, music, entertainment, games, gambling, lotteries, interactive tools, careers, beauty, style, fashion, fitness, dating, nutrition, quizzes, romance, relationships, sexuality, health, news, current events, family, and any other issue that lights up the sparkle in her eyes, or flowers her fertile imagination, or enhances her expertise in domestic or commercial, standard or niche segments.

Nowadays, women shop at eBay,, Amazon after comparing prices at BizRate, PriceGrabber, and Frucall. The epicureans visit Epicurious or FoodNetwork. The travelers search SideStep or Kayak and later share their travel and other photos of memorable moments at Flickr. Those who want to know why the devil wears Prada or why Max Factor is naughty and nice prefer going to Glam, PopSugar, and Style Diary. For entertainment, they watch videos and movies at YouTube and NetFlix. The money minded undertake online stock trading and regularly checkout CNNMoney, MSN Money, Yahoo! Finance, and Marketwatch. Job seekers visit Monster or CareerBuilder. The directionless career seekers find counseling at LinkedIn or Ryze. Freelancers meet at eLance or Guru. For cool deals real estate finders check out Realtor or RealtyTrac or The affluent geeks and the techie divas update themselves at Cnet, Thinkgeek, Digg, and Moms get and give parenting advice at MomJunction, Mothering, BabyZone, and Kaboose. And all of them, without exception, discuss sex, secrets, and lies at MySpace, friendster, Orkut, hi5, Facebook, and Bebo. Of course, they also send emails, chat, and join groups at Yahoo!, Google, MSN, and AOL.

Woman per se, was, is, and always shall be, intrinsically woven into the warp and weft of the societal fabric. Earlier the society was limited to one’s village, which now with the Internet has encompassed the whole world. The Internet has truly made the world a big global village, and women were the first ones to recognize, appreciate, and embrace its numerous functions and benefits. Due to this first mover advantage, women gobble up the largest chunk of the Internet users’ pie.

Market research companies like eMarketer , Forrester Research, EPM Communications Inc., Datamonitor , JupiterResearch, Hitwise, ComScore Media Metrix, BSM Media, Neilsen//NetRatings, AndersonAnalytics, Borrell Associates, Cyveillance, Pew Internet & American Life Project, Fulcrum Analytics (formerly Cyber Dialogue) and scores of other notable research companies unanimously agree that more than 70% of the total US Internet population is comprised of women! This is the sole reason why so many websites focus on what motivates women, what frustrates them, and what needs do they have. Most of the women-centric websites deal with attitudes, behavior, style, tastes and preferences; thereby, attempting to present a unique insight into the buying and social patterns of today’s online women.

According to Alexa , the top 10 online women-centric sites in the category “On the Web” sorted according to the most popular are BellaOnline (a community of women members, experts and hosts exchanging experiences, encouragement, interests and advice), SoFeminine (women’s magazine featuring articles, celebrity gossip, readers’ albums, blogs and discussion boards), (offers advice, shopping opportunities and ideas, information, inspiration and community, horoscopes, interactive tools and games), BlogHer (#1 guide to blogs by women), WomanSavers (world’s largest database rating good and bad men, helps women worldwide avoid dating alleged cheating, lying or abusive men), CodeGrrl (free PHP/MySQL scripts, tutorials, resources and forums), NZGirl (New Zealand-based magazine for teen girls and young women), Femail (online lifestyle magazine, issued monthly, with articles, discussion forums, and regular columns), All for Women (by women, about women, …all for women, friendly forum, articles, and links) and Womensforum (an online portal for women linking to a dozen partner sites).

The wind is clearly blowing in favor of women and thus more websites are becoming more and more women oriented. It is evident that the Internet has changed traditional norms of the society, as it embraces different cultures of the world and tries to synthesize these cultural variations, attempting to make one unified culture, one global culture. Women have also changed and have become proactive as their lives are being changed by the ever-changing societal trends. A virtual knowledge boom has taken place and women fuel its growth. Slowly gender roles are being exchanged as mature groups come under women’s dominion. Due to great advances in healthcare, people live longer. They get greater time to pursue their chosen careers and this has led to economic independence in the lives of women. Economic independence has brought in its wake all types of independence, which has prompted women to postpone few milestone events of their lives, like marriage, settling down, becoming a parent, and raising a family.

Due to increased earning power, women have become the most prolific consumers, the biggest spenders, and the greatest demanding buyers. They relate to technology in a different manner than men. They are more interested in what the technology can do rather than how it does. They see the usefulness of the Internet and use it accordingly to satisfy their needs, cravings, and wants. Advertisements go on testing women’s endurance, skill, and patience with the superwoman myth, who is successful both as a high-flying career woman and is also a loving wife cum a devoted mother. The media plays an influencing role in the trends of dress, food, beauty and body image. Education, fitness, nutrition, and healthcare websites are all gearing up to meet the hectic lifestyles of women. Women oriented websites employ feminine humor, deliver tension-relieving experiences, promote sociability, and facilitate amicability.

Venture capital would be easy to obtain for websites who aim to target the women audience. It has been found out the online purchases a woman makes is directly proportional to the time spent at the website. Thus Marketing & Advertising will also try to evolve newer and better ways of keeping the women engrossed at their websites. Women also forge strong online loyalties with the sites that they like. Due to their having less time on their hands, they go to their favorite sites immediately and buy what they need, after satisfactory prior research has been completed on it. This increases repeat customers for the websites, and increases web traffic due to word-of-mouth advertising. The majority of the netizens have always been women, and the feminization of the e-commerce websites ensures it will remain so, at least for the next decade or so.

Women Invisible Depression Great

During the Great Depression, women made up 25% of the work force, but their jobs were more unstable, temporary or seasonal then men, and the unemployment rate was much greater. There was also a decided bias and cultural view that “women didn’t work” and in fact many who were employed full time often called themselves “homemakers.” Neither men in the workforce, the unions, nor any branch of government were ready to accept the reality of working women, and this bias caused females intense hardship during the Great Depression.

The 1930’s was particularly hard on single, divorced or widowed women, but it was harder still on women who weren’t White. Women of color had to overcome both sexual and racial stereotyping. Black women in the North suffered an astounding 42.9% unemployment, while 23.2%. of White women were without work according to the 1937 census. In the South, both Black and White women were equally unemployed at 26%. In contrast, the unemployment rate for Black and White men in the North (38.9%/18.1%) and South (18%/16% respectively) were also lower than female counterparts.

The financial situation in Harlem was bleak even before the Great Depression. But afterward, the emerging Black working class in the North was decimated by wholesale layoffs of Black industrial workers. To be Black and a woman alone, made keeping a job or finding another one nearly impossible. The racial work hierarchy replaced Black women in waitressing or domestic work, with White women, now desperate for work, and willing to take steep wage cuts.

Survival Entrepreneurs
At the start of the Depression, while one study found that homeless women were most likely factory and service workers, domestics, garment workers, waitresses and beauticians; another suggested that the beauty industry was a major source of income for Black women. These women, later known as “survivalist entrepreneurs,” became self-employed in response to a desperate need to find an independent means of livelihood.”

Replaced by White women in more traditional domestic work as cooks, maids, nurses, and laundresses, even skilled and educated Black women were so hopeless, ”that they actually offered their services at the so-called ‘slave markets’-street corners where Negro women congregated to await White housewives who came daily to take their pick and bid wages down” (Boyd, 2000 citing Drake and Cayton, 1945/1962:246). Moreover, the home domestic service was very difficult, if not impossible, to coordinate with family responsibilities, as the domestic servant was usually on call ”around the clock” and was subject to the ”arbitrary power of individual employers.”

Inn Keepers and Hairdressers

Two occupations were sought out by Black women, in order to address both the need for income (or barter items) and their domestic responsibilities in northern cities during the Great Depression: (1) boarding house and lodging house keeping; and (2) hairdressing and beauty culture.

During the “Great Migration” of 1915-1930, thousands of Blacks from the South, mostly young, single men, streamed into Northern cities, looking for places to stay temporarily while they searched for housing and jobs. Housing these migrants created opportunities for Black working-class women,-now unemployed-to pay their rent.

According to one estimate, ”at least one-third” of Black families in the urban North had lodgers or boarders during the Great Migration (Thomas, 1992:93, citing Henri, 1976). The need was so great, multiple boarders were housed, leading one survey of northern Black families to report that ”seventy-five percent of the Negro homes have so many lodgers that they are really hotels.”

Women were usually at the center of these webs of family and community networks within the Black community:

“They ”undertook the greatest part of the burden” of helping the newcomers find interim housing. Women played ”connective and leadership roles” in northern Black communities, not only because it was considered traditional “woman’s work,” but also because taking in boarders and lodgers helped Black women combine housework with an informal, income-producing activity (Grossman, 1989:133). In addition, boarding and lodging house keeping was often combined with other types of self-employment. Some of the Black women who kept boarders and lodgers also earned money by making artificial flowers and lamp shades at home.” (Boyd, 2000)

In addition from 1890 to 1940, ”barbers and hairdressers” were the largest segments of the Black business population, together comprising about one third of this population in 1940 (Boyd, 2000 citing Oak, 1949:48).

“Blacks tended to gravitate into these occupations because “White barbers, hairdressers, and beauticians were unwilling or unable to style the hair of Blacks or to provide the hair preparations and cosmetics used by them. Thus, Black barbers, hairdressers, and beauticians had a ”protected consumer market” based on Whites’ desires for social distance from Blacks and on the special demands of Black consumers. Accordingly, these Black entrepreneurs were sheltered from outside competitors and could monopolize the trades of beauty culture and hairdressing within their own communities.

Black women who were seeking jobs believed that one’s appearance was a crucial factor in finding employment. Black self-help organizations in northern cities, such as the Urban League and the National Council of Negro Women, stressed the importance of good grooming to the newly arrived Black women from the South, advising them to have neat hair and clean nails when searching for work. Above all, the women were told avoid wearing ”head rags” and ”dust caps” in public (Boyd, 2000 citing Drake and Cayton, 1945/1962:247, 301; Grossman, 1989:150-151).

These warnings were particularly relevant to those who were looking for secretarial or white-collar jobs, for Black women needed straight hair and light skin to have any chance of obtaining such positions. Despite the hard times, beauty parlors and barber shops were the most numerous and viable Black-owned enterprises in Black communities (e.g., Boyd, 2000 citing Drake and Cayton, 1945/1962:450-451).

Black women entrepreneurs in the urban North also opened stores and restaurants, with modest savings ”as a means of securing a living” (Boyd, 2000 citing Frazier, 1949:405). Called ”depression businesses,” these marginal enterprises were often classified as proprietorships, even though they tended to operate out of ”houses, basements, and old buildings” (Boyd, 2000 citing Drake and Cayton, 1945/1962:454).

“Food stores and eating and drinking places were the most common of these businesses, because, if they failed, their owners could still live off their stocks.”

“Protestant Whites Only”
These businesses were a necessity for Black women, as the preference for hiring Whites climbed steeply during the Depression. In the Philadelphia Public Employment Office in 1932 & 1933, 68% of job orders for women specified “Whites Only.” In New York City, Black women were forced to go to separate unemployment offices in Harlem to seek work. Black churches and church-related institutions, a traditional source of help to the Black community, were overwhelmed by the demand, during the 1930’s. Municipal shelters, required to “accept everyone,” still reported that Catholics and African American women were “particularly hard to place.”

No one knows the numbers of Black women left homeless in the early thirty’s, but it was no doubt substantial, and invisible to the mostly white investigators. Instead, the media chose to focus on, and publicize the plight of White, homeless, middle-class “white collar” workers, as, by 1931 and 1932, unemployment spread to this middle-class. White-collar and college-educated women, usually accustomed “to regular employment and stable domicile,” became the “New Poor.” We don’t know the homeless rates for these women, beyond an educated guess, but of all the homeless in urban centers, 10% were suggested to be women. We do know, however, that the demand for “female beds” in shelters climbed from a bit over 3,000 in 1920 to 56,808 by 1932 in one city and in another, from 1929 -1930, demand rose 270%.

“Having an Address is a Luxury Now…”
Even these beds, however, were the last stop on the path towards homelessness and were designed for “habitually destitute” women, and avoided at all cost by those who were homeless for the first time. Some number ended up in shelters, but even more were not registered with any agency. Resources were few. Emergency home relief was restricted to families with dependent children until 1934. “Having an address is a luxury just now” an unemployed college woman told a social worker in 1932.

These newly destitute urban women were the shocked and dazed who drifted from one unemployment office to the next, resting in Grand Central or Pennsylvania station, and who rode the subway all night (the “five cent room”), or slept in the park, and who ate in penny kitchens. Slow to seek assistance, and fearful and ashamed to ask for charity, these women were often on the verge of starvation before they sought help. They were, according to one report, often the “saddest and most difficult to help.” These women “starved slowly in furnished rooms. They sold their furniture, their clothes, and then their bodies.”

The Emancipated Woman and Gender Myths
If cultural myths were that women “didn’t work,” then those that did were invisible. Their political voice was mute. Gender role demanded that women remain “someone’s poor relation,” who returned back to the rural homestead during times of trouble, to help out around the home, and were given shelter. These idyllic nurturing, pre-industrial mythical family homes were large enough to accommodate everyone. The new reality was much bleaker. Urban apartments, no bigger than two or three rooms, required “maiden aunts” or “single cousins” to “shift for themselves.” What remained of the family was often a strained, overburdened, over-crowded household that often contained severe domestic troubles of its own.

In addition, few, other than African Americans, were with the rural roots to return to. And this assumed that a woman once emancipated and tasting past success would remain “malleable.” The female role was an out-of-date myth, but was nonetheless a potent one. The “new woman” of the roaring twenties was now left without a social face during the Great Depression. Without a home–the quintessential element of womanhood–she was, paradoxically, ignored and invisible.

“…Neighborliness has been Stretched Beyond Human Endurance.”
In reality, more than half of these employed women had never married, while others were divorced, deserted, separated or claimed to be widowed. We don’t know how many were lesbian women. Some had dependent parents and siblings who relied on them for support. Fewer had children who were living with extended family. Women’s wages were historically low for most female professions, and allowed little capacity for substantial “emergency” savings, but most of these women were financially independent. In Milwaukee, for example, 60% of those seeking help had been self-supporting in 1929. In New York, this figure was 85%. Their available work was often the most volatile and at risk. Some had been unemployed for months, while others for a year or more. With savings and insurance gone, they had tapped out their informal social networks. One social worker, in late 1931, testified to a Senate committee that “neighborliness has been stretched not only beyond its capacity but beyond human endurance.”

Older women were often discriminated against because of their age, and their long history of living outside of traditional family systems. When work was available, it often specified, as did one job in Philadelphia, a demand for “white stenographers and clerks, under (age) 25.”

The Invisible Woman
The Great Depression’s effect on women, then, as it is now, was invisible to the eye. The tangible evidence of breadlines, Hoovervilles, and men selling apples on street corners, did not contain images of urban women. Unemployment, hunger and homelessness was considered a “man’s problem” and the distress and despair was measured in that way. In photographic images, and news reports, destitute urban women were overlooked or not apparent. It was considered unseemly to be a homeless woman, and they were often hidden from public view, ushered in through back door entrances, and fed in private.

Partly, the problem lay in expectations. While homelessness in men had swelled periodically during periods of economic crisis, since the depression of the 1890’s onward, large numbers of homeless women “on their own” were a new phenomenon. Public officials were unprepared: Without children, they were, early on, excluded from emergency shelters. One building with a capacity of 155 beds and six cribs, lodged over 56,000 “beds” during the third year of the depression. Still, these figures do not take account the number of women turned away, because they weren’t White or Protestant.

As the Great Depression wore on, wanting only a way to make money, these women were excluded from “New Deal” work programs set up to help the unemployed. Men were seen as “breadwinners,” holding greater claim to economic resources. While outreach and charitable agencies finally did emerge, they were often inadequate to meet the demand.

Whereas black women had particular hard times participating in the mainstream economy during the Great Depression, they did have some opportunity to find alternative employment within their own communities, because of unique migration patterns that had occurred during that period. White women, in contrast, had a keyhole opportunity, if they were young and of considerable skills, although their skin color alone offered them greater access to whatever traditional employment was still available.

The rejection of traditional female roles, and the desire for emancipation, however, put these women at profound risk once the economy collapsed. In any case, single women, with both black and white skin, fared worse and were invisible sufferers.

New Calls to Act for Women and Entrepreneurs

Here’s a news flash: Women are poised to surpass men on the nation’s payrolls for the first time in American history. According to a recent report by the New York Times, four out of five jobs lost in the current U.S. recession belong to men-a consequence of the surge in layoffs within distressed, male-dominated industries, such as manufacturing and construction. This emerging workplace trend may ultimately be a momentous boon to women-shifting their power and influence, both at home and on the job. It also represents a new call to action for women-and employers.

Another news report offered a different take: “Jobs of 22 Million Women Threatened by Global Financial Crisis,” says the International Labor Organization, as conveyed by the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) in the March 16 issue of its Human Resources Report. In a report issued in advance of International Women’s Day on March 8, the United Nations agency said the global unemployment rate for women could reach 7.4 percent in 2009, compared with 7 percent for men. This trend also serves as a wake-up call for women as employers face difficult decisions about workforce reductions-causing women to work even harder to “make the cut.”

The hidden element
Over and above these contradictory headlines, there’s a third factor affecting professional women in the workplace-one that is hidden or seldom addressed. Before the economic downturn and unemployment hit the marketplace, many women were already facing a personal crisis: while they had been busy during their careers securing more power, they became sicker and sadder. This trend has been subtly taking place across a wide range of age, income, and marital status spectrums. Now, at a time when jobs are suddenly a necessity, working women are generally unhappier and struggling to cope with the increased demands they once sought in the quest for “having it all.”

Whichever headline becomes the final truth in today’s workplace dynamic, women facing these changing times have both unprecedented opportunities and obstacles. For many, they find themselves in a holding pattern as the employment landscape unfolds. Meanwhile, employers are beginning to see women in different light.

Unprecedented opportunities-and obstacles
Women may now gain access to professional power and influence that were previously out of reach. As a result, women everywhere can shape their lives and careers with a greater sense of empowerment and serve as vital role models for future generations of women and girls. Additionally, many women are likely to emerge as sole or primary breadwinners for their families and, in turn, begin to revise and update old and rigid gender roles at home-balancing domestic roles and responsibilities more fairly and flexibly. For men, these shifts offer new chances to stretch and grow as well. But don’t be fooled. These emerging and unprecedented opportunities-for women, men, and organizations-will be matched by extraordinary obstacles.

The present plight-and fight-of professional women
Before the current economic downturn, women were already beset with a number of crises-personal and professional-and were seeking radical change in how they work and live. According to my research-a yearlong national study in partnership with the Esteemed Woman Foundation-seven out of 10 women, particularly those in their middle years, say they are at a major turning point in their professional lives. After devoting years to building successful careers, they feel that their professional lives and identities no longer work. Consequently, most are facing at least one of 12 “hidden” work/life crises, including chronic health problems, financial bondage, and failure to balance family and work.

12 hidden crises women face
My research helped confirm that a true professional crisis is far more than a “tough time.” It is a no-turning-back situation-a point in time that demands reckoning and reevaluation. So how do women know when they’ve reached that point? When they frequently find themselves saying, “I can’t do this”-the desperate cry, or negative mantra, of work-life crisis-and consistently have deep-down feelings of disempowerment, they are likely experiencing one or more of 12 hidden crises. Among the crises:

– Suffering from chronic health problems
Failing health-a chronic illness or ailment-that won’t respond to treatment
The mantra: “I can’t resolve my health problems.”

– Losing their “voice”
Contending with a crippling inability to speak up-unable to be an advocate for themselves or others, for fear of criticism, rejection, or punishment

The mantra: “I can’t speak up without being punished.”

Facing abuse or mistreatment
Being treated badly, even intolerably, at work-and choosing to stay

The mantra: “I can’t stop this cycle of mistreatment.”

– Feeling trapped by financial fears
Remaining in a negative situation solely because of money

The mantra: “I can’t get out of this financial trap.”

– Wasting real talents
Realizing their work no longer fits and desperately wanting to use their natural talents and abilities

The mantra: “I can’t use my real talents.”

– Struggling to balance life and work
Trying-and failing-to balance it all, and feeling like they’re letting down who and what matters most

The mantra: “I can’t balance my life and work.”

– Doing work that feels wrong
Longing to reconnect with the “real me”-and do work they love

The mantra: “I can’t feel good about my work.”

The call and the action-what employers can do
For women, a professional crisis is saying that change must occur-now. That doesn’t mean it will be easy-most likely, it won’t-but, one step at a time, every woman can create her own breakthrough. Moreover, considering the shifting or “new” workplace and an increasingly difficult and demanding business environment, organizations must be there to help-understanding and supporting women’s unique challenges and contributions.

The predominant male competitive career model has been, up until now, slow to recognize and respect women’s differences. The work landscape has changed dramatically, and despite the headlines that women are losing headway as a necessity for a company’s survival, this long-standing model has four key elements that no longer work and must be modified; these elements are:

1) a bias for linear or continuous employment histories;
2) an over-emphasis on “full-time” and “face-time;”
3) the expectation or belief that “ambitious” professionals will be most committed in their 30s (when many women are having babies); and
4) a guiding principle that money and power are primary motivators.

Now is the time to revise and reform this model. How? By expanding it with new thinking and initiatives that meet the needs and wants of women.

I believe, and my research confirms, that now is the time for such a reform. To survive and thrive in a shifting workplace and complex business world, organizations must rise up and be constant, committed, and contemporary champions for women. I offer eight strategies for getting started:

1. Embrace women as women.
An abundance of workplace research shows how and why women differ from men and contribute in unique and indispensable ways. Undeniably, women have distinct values and priorities, needs and wants, styles and approaches. A recent medical study shows that men and women even have unique physiological reactions to crisis and stress, and companies are best served when there is a balanced representation of both genders in leadership roles. In fact, it has been said that if Lehman Brothers were “Lehman Brothers and Sisters,” our current economic crisis might not exist!

2. Foster support.
Develop an internal support system for women. Create a woman-to-woman mentoring program, sponsor women-only networks, and initiate an ongoing forum for women to connect, converse, and collaborate. Essentially, encourage women to come together-formally and informally, face-to-face and online-to address challenges and opportunities, seek advice, and celebrate individual and collective successes.

3. Train for growth and expansion.
Commit to training and development. Help women build new hard and soft skills through formal training programs and, wherever possible, one-on-one executive or leadership coaching. Provide regular access to internal and external seminars, and promote women’s involvement in “stretch” assignments. Put women on new projects and teams-including special task forces-and broaden their distinguishing gifts, talents, and abilities.

4. Focus on flexibility.
Women’s need for flexibility is bona fide and fundamental. In consideration of weighty realities such as childcare and eldercare, implement new programs, policies, and procedures that foster optimal flexibility-telecommuting, flextime, job sharing, part-time offerings, and more. Additionally, institute incentives and rewards that go beyond the traditional framework of money and power. Ask women what they really want, and work to incorporate those incentives into the company’s recognition and reward programs.

5. Expand the options.
Grow the options for how women can contribute over the arc of their careers. Recognize the fluid nature of women’s priorities, and consider differing career paths and trajectories-up, down, and across. Experiment with a variety of options-all providing for unique opportunities for “on-ramping” and “off-ramping” as women’s lives and priorities shift at home and on the job.

6. Encourage work-life balance.
Women are increasingly beleaguered as they try, and fail, at balancing work
and life. What’s more, research shows that working women, even as sole breadwinners, are still shouldering most domestic responsibilities at home. Companies, in response, must be champions for work-life balance and wellness for women-offering internal resources or outside referrals to programs focused on striving for balance, pursuing a healthy lifestyle, and managing stress.

7. Empower women leaders to “walk the talk.”
Years ago, as a corporate VP in a large national marketing firm, I was “put down” by the head of HR for my choice to take a full week off to move my family, including my husband and our two small children, to another city. “I moved to another town with my kids last month and only took a half day,” the HR leader said. Criticizing my personal choice, as wife and mother, was a “less than” form of leadership-lacking a critical sense of empowerment, balance, and support to women. Worse, the source was at the helm of HR-and a woman.

Today, just as President Barack Obama is a powerful and “visual” role model for change, the workplace needs women leaders to serve as visual role models-working and living from the core values of women everywhere. Organizations must embrace this need from the top, actively spotlighting female leaders who walk the talk and encouraging male leaders to outwardly support them.

8. Measure efficacy.
Programs that support women-attracting, engaging, and retaining strong and skilled female talent-are essential to organizational success. It’s one thing, however, to develop and implement those programs; it’s another thing to evaluate them against key business measures or metrics. Commit to regularly assessing-quantitatively and qualitatively-how ongoing initiatives to support women impact business measures such as recruitment, retention, engagement, productivity, wellness, and more.

Bottom line
Today, with a dramatically shifting workforce and do-or-die business environment, no employer can afford to ignore or overlook the unique needs and contributions of female talent. From the HR department to the executive suite, organizations must answer the call to action and support women in unprecedented new ways.

Kathy Caprino, MA, is a work-life expert and author of Breakdown, Breakthrough: The Professional Woman’s Guide to Claiming a Life of Passion, Power, and Purpose (Berrett-Koehler, Nov. 08). A national champion for professional women in crisis, Caprino is a trained psychotherapist, specialized career and life coach, and sought-after writer and speaker on women’s issues. She is founder and president of Ellia Communications, Inc. and a former corporate VP, who today openly shares her own story of breakdown and breakthrough.