Women's History in 'Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk': A Book Review
It’s 1931 and The New York World-Telegram declares Lillian Boxfish “the highest paid advertising woman in America.” (p. 24) Lillian, though proud of her achievement, confronts her boss: “But woman, Chester. It says woman. Why not person? I’ve come in here to ask for a raise. We both know I bring R.H. Macy’s more business than anyone else on the thirteenth floor, woman or man. Why not pay me what I’m worth?” Of course, it’s 1931 and Lillian doesn’t get the raise, “…this is just how it is,” Chester says. (p. 27) In Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, author Kathleen Rooney explores women's issues. She explains the state of maternity leave and the glass ceiling in the 1930s and 1940s with historical accuracy. Using Lillian Boxfish as a jumping-off point, let's discuss maternity leave and the glass ceiling today.
To begin, real-life Margaret Fishback inspired Rooney to create Lillian Boxfish. Fishback's career flourished during the 1930s when she was, per the Poetry Foundation, “described by a New York magazine as 'the highest-paid advertising woman in the world.’”1 Like Fishback, Lillian Boxfish made a name for herself while working as an ad writer for R.H. Macys. Lillian and Fishback also wrote light-verse poetry and had a son.
Why was Lillian Boxfish’s Situation Unique?
Stories must be about someone interesting. Or something interesting. Or an ordinary person thrust into interesting situations. At first glance, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is about a boring, old, privilaged, white woman. Sure, Lillian Boxfish is all those things, except boring.
History books make it seem like everyone struggled during the Great Depression. Don’t get me wrong, the Great Depression was a terrifying time. The U.S. had an unemployment rate of 25% in 1933. According to Irving Bernstein writing for the United States Department of Labor, that means that 12,830,000 people didn’t have jobs.2 Even people with jobs struggled to make ends meet. But, a few people not only survived the Great Depression but thrived in the midst of it, and Lillian would have been one of those people. Lillian was also unique because she was a woman who made a lot of money at a time when society hardly tolerated women in the workplace. Moreover, during the Great Depression, people believed that women took jobs that belonged to men. Never mind that most women earned low wages and worked under harsh conditions for long hours.3 Lillian was lucky, but she also worked hard enough for her boss to dub her "irreplaceable." (p. 160)
Let's be honest, most of us are replaceable employees, but Lillian wasn't. She kicked butt, but she still had to quit her job after the birth of her son in 1942. “Maternity leave was unheard of;” Lillian remembers, “having one’s job held was not an option, and the assumption was that a mother couldn’t work anyway—not to mention that she shouldn’t, what with having a man, her baby’s father, to support the little family” (p. 161). Lillian was also unlike her peers in that she kept working while she was pregnant. According to Pew Research Center, even as late at 1961, only 40% of pregnant women worked full time while pregnant.4 Part of the reason women didn’t work while pregnant was because of the way society viewed pregnancy. Lillian explains, “In the early 1940s, though, the fashions for women expecting a blessed event did not look or feel so blessed. Made to conceal one’s impending maternity, they seemed designed to induce both embarrassment and regret.” (p. 158) She goes on to describe a “Butcher Boy” as “an unflattering mess with a flapping front of rayon crepe that the ads said would keep your little bundle-to-be as secret as a rabbit in a magician’s hat.” (p. 158)
So, What’s Changed Since Lillian’s Heyday?
Luckily, through a combination of state laws, federal laws, and company policies, the number of women who work while pregnant has increased since Lillian’s Time. But, employers didn’t have to change their policies toward pregnant women until 1978 when Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. That's only four years before the first millennials were born! The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and made pregnancy discrimination a form of sex discrimination. The law required employers to treat pregnancy and pregnancy related medical conditions like any other health issue that impacts an employee’s ability to work.5 It didn’t guarantee maternity leave though. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which wasn’t passed until 1993, did that, sort of.
The FMLA gives "certain" workers 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for themselves, babies, or immediate family members. The key word here is certain. Employees must work at their jobs for at least a year and accumulate at least 1,250 hours in that time to qualify for the FMLA. Workers must also work for companies with at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius. According to Vick Shabo in the peer-reviewed publication Generations, “Exclusions in the law mean that only 59 percent of the workforce is covered by its protections and, among those who are eligible, the most common reason cited for not taking leave is the inability to forego pay.”6 This is part of the reason many people currently fight for paid maternity leave and as well as other entitlements for low-income workers.
Another contentious, and related, issue in the US is the glass ceiling. In the 1930s and 1940s, when Lillian’s career peaked, only about a quarter of women in the U.S. worked, and they earned about half of when men earned.7 As of 2012 “women earned 84% of what men earned on an hourly basis” in the U.S. according to Pew Research Center.8 Pew speculates that the discrepancy is explained by the extra time women take off work for parenting duties. Interestingly, the U.S. government subsidized childcare during World War II. The daycares allowed women to work in factories that supported the war effort. Unfortunately, America hasn’t seen government subsidized childcare since. In her article, “Who Took Care of Rosie the Riveter’s Kids?” published in The Atlantic, Rhiana Cohen points out,
The programs stand out historically for another reason: They addressed the needs of both children and mothers. It wasn’t low-quality custodial care meant to serve as a holding pen for children while their parent worked, nor was it a program that sought to educate children without regard to mothers’ working schedules. As Sonya Michel chronicles in Children’s Interests/Mothers’ Rights, over the last two centuries, one barrier to the establishment of high-quality national childcare has been a battle between those advocating for the interests of children and those advocating for the rights of mothers.9
Lillian was not part of the demographic these daycares served, but she did have her son the year they opened, 1942. Later that year, Uncle Sam drafted Lillian's husband. Because she couldn’t work at a traditional job, Lillian freelanced to earn money while her husband served his country abroad. Today, freelancing continues to be a way for women to earn money when schedules or circumstances don’t allow for a traditional job. Citing her own organization’s research in Fast Company, Sara Horowitz, Founder and Executive Director of Freelancers Union, explains that today 53 million Americans freelance and the majority (53%) of freelancers are women.10 In Horowitz’s words, “Freelancing is Feminist."
Coincidentally, Rooney, the author of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, describes Margaret Fishback as a protofeminist and herself as a feminist in her Author’s note. (p. 285) But Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is only a subtly feminist book. It accurately explains the state of women's issues throughout Lillian's life but doesn't make a statement. Nevertheless, Lillian Boxfish is a strong woman. After all, she was a high-paid career woman before employers welcomed women in the workplace. I recommend this witty, lighthearted novel to anyone interested in history and women’s issues. Finally, my favorite thing about Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is the abounding historical references. You can find them on almost every page! So, buy Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk: A Novel, and let me know what you think of the book!
- “Margaret Fishback.”
- Bernstein, “Americans in Depression and War.”
- Baughman et al., “Working Women in the 1930s.”
- Gao, “Working While Pregnant Is Much More Common than It Used to Be.”
- “Facts About Pregnancy Discrimination.”
- Shabo, “Advances in Workplace Protections for Family Caregivers.”
- See note 3.
- Kochhar, “How Pew Research Measured the Gender Pay Gap.”
- Cohen, “Who Took Care of Rosie the Riveter’s Kids?”
- Horowitz, “Why Are More Women Than Men Freelancing?”
Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk
By Kathleen Rooney
St. Martin's Press. 304 pp.