When Mary Blatnik thinks back to her long career at General Motors, she can’t help but thank her mother. As workers at GM’s New Departure-Hyatt Division, her mother’s generation fought unfair layoffs, job requirements designed to keep women out and sexist remarks from their male counterparts.
After she and other women were laid off while men with less seniority were called back, Virginia Manning fought back.
The lawsuit Manning and 72 other women filed with attorney Dennis Murray Sr. in 1969 set a precedent for female employees throughout the nation.
“It wasn’t easy for my mother — she went through a lot of threats from men,” Blatnik said. “But women have to keep fighting. They can’t allow themselves to be taken advantage of.”
Women today still struggle, but the battles are often less public.
Pay equity, child support and health care are just a few of the issues that keep them lagging behind men, experts say.
“On one hand, we’ve done great things — but on the other hand, we’ve fallen quite short,” former Erie County judge Jane Lucal said.
Lucal recalls being one of only three women pursuing a law degree in the early 1960s at The Ohio State University. Now, the ratio is 50-50 at nearly all of the country’s top law colleges.
Though more women seek higher education than ever before, positions of power remain largely out of reach, she said. Women are far more likely to gravitate toward lower-paying government and public-sector jobs than pursue private practice.
Very few run for public office, and even fewer are invited to join the influential boards of large corporations or financial institutions.
Lucal said women need to take matters into their own hands to grasp positions of power — just as she did years ago.
After graduating from law school, she struggled to find a job in the Sandusky area and ultimately opened her own practice because no firms would hire her.
A difficult year followed, with few clients and great financial risk. But she went on to become a teacher, one of the area’s first female attorneys, an assistant prosecutor and finally a judge.
Women today make up half the labor force and middle management realm. But a report by Catalyst, a women’s research organization, showed only 11.9 percent of all corporate officers among the 500 companies interviewed were women. Only 27.5 percent of those women bore responsibilities for profit and loss.
The wage gap between men and women is narrowing, but women in full-time positions still earn an average of 80 cents for every dollar a man makes, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
In 1979, the first year for which data is available, full-time working women of all ages earned an average of 62.5 percent of men’s wages.
By the mid-1990s, women were earning about 75 percent and reached a peak in 2005 with 81 percent.
Emy Sok, an economist for the bureau, said wage gaps are less visible among younger workers, who tend to hold less skilled positions in the service sector. Among jobs requiring more experience, the gap appears to widen.
Erie County Department of Job & Family Services Director Judy Englehart said the high cost of childcare compounds the problem, especially for single women.
“If you have a couple of kids at home, you’re going to pay out probably half your take-home pay for childcare, and by the time you pay for gas, it’s just not worth it,” she said.
Englehart also pointed to a lack of strong, female mentors in the workplace. While men tend to form close networks, women in positions of power are more likely to be “queen bees” — looking out for themselves and sticking with other men.
Teen pregnancy prevention coordinator Kay Gilbert said attitudes that lead to inequity develop long before women enter the workforce.
“I think one of the things I’ve seen is young girls who don’t know what their futures could be,” Gilbert said. “They don’t visualize anything great, and they set their goals pretty low. But just because their parents don’t have a high income, they can still go to college.”
Pregnancy prevention is half the battle — but the other half requires strong mentors and goal-setting programs, she said.
For women who already have children, maintaining a steady income can be an uphill battle.
Danielle Ridgeway, 23, a stay-at-home mother, said a lack of child support enforcement makes it difficult to raise her 3-year-old alone. She has yet to see a single check from her daughter’s father.
“He doesn’t keep a job long enough, so by the time they track him down, he either loses his job or quits,” she said. “He’s still out making other babies, but he won’t support them.”
Kennisha Jackson, 20, said there aren’t enough incentives in the area to keep young women from becoming pregnant. Though she graduated from high school and became certified as a cosmetologist, she’s still struggling to find a job.
“I’m single with no kids, and if you don’t have kids, they can’t help you,” she said. “Kids or no kids, you should get some assistance.”
Kitty Brandal, a Sandusky resident who once supervised more than 200 men in her former position as a U.S. Navy chief, said women must take responsibility if they want men to take them seriously.
“We can’t be conceited enough as women to think we’ve arrived,” the Wisconsin native said. “We’re still laying the foundation for the next generation, and we have to make small innovations along the way.”
Brandal plans to start her own consulting firm to train business leaders after earning her doctorate in leadership.
She said today’s women need to step up, work for themselves and communicate their needs rationally.
“We have to come across as collaborative ... not as blaming or whining, and your male brethren will respect you,” she said. “I’ve heard women say, when they get a box, they call a man from the back to pick it up for them — but we pick our own kids up and our bags of groceries. Pick up your own box ... kill your own spider. If we don’t, why would men want to perceive us as needing equal rights?”
Want to go?
WHAT: Women’s Rights Convention, commemorating the 160th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention
WHEN: Noon to 2 p.m. TODAY (Saturday)
WHERE: Washington Park Gazebo, downtown Sandusky; if it rains, First Congregational United Church of Christ, 431 Columbus Ave.
COST: Free, but seating is limited; please bring lawn chairs or blankets.