Sixty Years of Change for Women . . . and One Trailblazer Who Led the Way

According to an analysis by Pew Research, in the first quarter of 2019, there were 29.5 million women in the labor force who held a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, compared to 29.3 million men.  This means that women, ages 25 and older, now account for more than half of the college-educated workforce . . . an 11% increase since 2000.

We’ve come a long way baby!

How different was life for women in their early 30s in 1960?

  • Nearly 80 percent did not have a college degree and did have a husband and kids.
  • Only 7 percent had a bachelor’s degree (or higher); by 2012, 40 percent did.
  • Among the same women, only 30 percent were employed in 1960; by 2012, 71 percent were employed.
  • In 1960, 93 percent (!) of women in their early 30s were married; by 2012, 66 percent were.

The role of women in American society changed dramatically in the 1960s.  At the beginning of the decade, women were portrayed on television and in advertisements as happy homemakers, secretaries, teachers, and nurses. Women who did not get married were depicted as unattractive, unfortunate spinsters, and those who asserted themselves were dismissed as nags. Women were to strive for beauty, elegance, marriage, children, and a well-run home.

It was not so long ago that this was the reality for women. If you’re 45 or older, you were born into this world.

What if you had the grades to attend college, but your gender kept you on the other side of those hallowed halls?  This was a mixed message, effectively telling women, “Go! Learn! Accomplish! Grow! … but also, have babies and put your husband’s needs before your own.”

This is the story of one of our Grit and Soul readers, who exemplifies the tenacity of women who bucked the trend and were trailblazers for all of us who came after.


Serendipity and Reinvention
By Laurie Besteman

Growing up in a small town of 2,700 in Wisconsin, I never would have known that I would be something of a pioneer as a woman in the world of investments and finance.  Nothing in my education prepared me for it, but serendipity often influences our choices and direction.

After studying Journalism at the University of Wisconsin, I got married and took a job editing a company’s employee magazine. In 1958, we moved to Seattle when my husband was hired at Boeing.  At the time, as I was raising my children, I did a lot of volunteering—the League of Women Voters, the School Board and some freelance writing for the local newspaper.

That was life until the late 1970s when I knew I needed to make a change in my life:  I didn’t want to stay married, but I didn’t want alimony and I didn’t want to be poor! I needed to get a job.

Luckily, I was hired by Sound Savings and Loan, the first and only women founded and run savings and loan in the country.  The Board Chair and CEO were women.  My job was in Marketing and Public Relations:  we needed to build the business and generate deposits.   I was hired on a half time basis at first, which meant I worked much more than half time! I put out a newsletter and developed a radio show to interview people and publicize the S&L . I even drove around the city picking up checks to be deposited —a distinctly low-tech way of doing business. I contacted every woman I knew to convince them to invest in our  Certificates of Deposit (CDs).

As I was getting closer to leaving my marriage, I needed to make more money to prepare for independence.  A fortuitous turning point was when I contacted  a neighbor whose husband managed an office in the investment business for a firm that now is Wells Fargo Advisors.  In the late 1970s they were looking for women and he called me!  I knew nothing about the business, but I went to the interview and got hired as an investment advisor/stockbroker in 1980.

To this day I still appreciate that he took the leap of faith to hire me.  I was 45 years old, and the last of my three children was in high school. When I had to go to New York for a three-week training class, my mother was worried about what my husband and daughter would do without me.  I told her they would survive, and they did!

I was the oldest in the class and am still friends with the woman who was the youngest person in the class.  That was my start in the financial business.  I found it rewarding that people needed someone ethical to gather knowledge and provide sound advice for them—this was in the days before Google or even computers! It was a good career and I loved it.  I fell into it and did well, so I was able to take care of myself financially.  I was learning all the time, traveling for business, and because being a woman in the investment business was unusual then, I often spoke to women’s groups.

Some women I spoke to at the time had “me too”/sexual harassment type issues.  I was lucky that I never did, but it was a real issue for women as we were making our way in a male dominated industry. I was in charge of my life and income, and I spoke up for women insisting the sales assistants be called “women” not “girls” as often was the case at that time.

My husband and I divorced in 1984, but at that point I was established in my career and financially independent.

I couldn’t have predicted my career would also lead to a happy second marriage.  In 1985, I was at an industry event.  I danced with a young man who said, “you should meet my father” and he told his dad,” I’ve found a woman for you.”  He had recently been divorced. After four years we married, and that was 30 years ago.

At the end of 2000, I had turned 65 and had been in the business for 20 years.  I realized there were other things I wanted to do in my life and said, “I’m ready to retire.” I became heavily involved as a volunteer and joined several boards  in Seattle. We traveled and I tended to my extensive garden. It was a happy retirement.

When I turned 80, I realized  that life can narrow in older age.  People often stop doing some physical activities such as skiing, as I did. I realized I had to do something new to prevent my life from becoming smaller.  I am an avid reader, so I began a monthly blog reviewing books.

One of my grandchildren helped me set it up at bestlau.wordpress.com.  It feels good to have a new accomplishment at this age. I get great feedback and am engaged in an intellectual life. I heard a great quote recently  that goes like this:

“I no longer care to do the things I used to do, but I really do care that I don’t care to do them.”

As we get older, we have to continue to seek new challenges and fulfilling activities. As we cast off some activities, we need to develop new interests. Each stage of our lives is like a new chapter, and we must embrace the new phase, adapt and be grateful.


You may also like:

Crying at work – it happens!

The Skill of Delegating

How to Make Criticism at Work, Work for You.

How to Approach and Explain Your Career Gap


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