Divorce - So You Were Left Destitute
( Originally Published 1952 )
For sheer and prolonged terror, there are few things that happen in this more-or-less civilized hemisphere that are worse than the experience of a woman who has been well taken care of for years and who suddenly finds herself with-out enough money to live on. It is the kind of fear that puts a cold lump in the pit of your stomach, that wakes you up in the night in a cold perspiration, that wears your nerves and saps your courage and never leaves you till the problem is solved. It oughtn't to happen, and it's just possible, if it does, that it's as much through your own lack of foresight as anyone else's, though this may not be so. In any case, it has happened to innumerable women and it's something you can't laugh off. When it happens to a woman too far along in years to start a career or take an old one tip all over again, you can't even give her advice. You can only say you're very, very sorry.
Fortunately, these days, a woman has to be pretty far along to be past the age when she can turn a pretty penny if she has to, all the articles about the dearth of jobs for the older woman to the contrary. Look at Grandma Moses. Or, if you think genius makes her an exception, look at the photograph in "Woman Are Here to Stay" showing a white-haired grandmother working energetically in an airplane factory. These are two out of thousands and there's probably no reason why you can't be another if Fate has been unkind enough to make it necessary. Actually (though we hate statistics and believe confidently and with no reason that they never apply to us), the fact is that the 1947 census reported four million women between the ages of forty-five and sixty-five who were holding jobs.
We do not claim that it's as easy as though you were a blooming twenty-one. The literature on the subject is, frankly, pretty grim. Right now, there is a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the plight of the older woman in need of a job, and much of what is written includes what, to us, are mere chits of thirty-five. The general idea seems to be that nobody wants anyone older than that in the cold business world. We don't believe it.
We can think of twenty women of our own acquaintance, none under fifty and one over seventy, who have found themselves in this position and gotten along very nicely. We can, in fact, think of even more, but we'll stick to these. We have never known a single one who really needed a position enough to put determination into hunting for it who didn't get one, though, perhaps not just what she'd hoped for. Of the twenty we are citing, two took up selling insurance and do very well, thank you. One, who had considerable social background in the Midwestern city where she lives, is society editor of a newspaper. Another, with similar back-ground in a larger city, is membership secretary for a charitable organization. Two have gone into real-estate offices and had considerable success. One is social secretary for a wealthy woman and does such varied things as opening and closing the town and country houses, engaging the staff, and attending to correspondence. One drives her car about the town where she lives, representing the organization called "The Welcome Wagon." One does research work for a publication of the encyclopedia type; two are secretaries; one is a companion-housekeeper for an invalid. One represents an out-of-town dress manufacturer in New York. One sends out the tickets and otherwise manages many of the large benefits in the fairly large community in which she lives. Two write; three have jobs of the promotion variety; and one has taken photographs to illustrate some lectures she has cooked up and shows them at church meetings and women's clubs. With most of these women, the poise and dignity of their years are definite assets.
Some of the jobs mentioned are not very glamorous, we grant you—and there, we think, is the real rub. Nobody likes to come down in the world, and if you had a certain position through your married life, you quite naturally want a job that gives you at least some of the same feeling of importance.
You probably won't get it, and you almost certainly won't get it at first. It is scarcely reasonable to expect to be an Edna Woolman Chase, a Dorothy Shaver, the president of a bank, or an executive Big Shot all in a minute, under your circumstances. Even though you had business experience before you married, and were considered successful, you've been out of touch for a period, whereas these shining lights have kept their noses right to the grindstone. Besides, to be rude but honest, you aren't quite what you used to be, though all our contemporaries will rise up in wrath at the statement.
Women of fifty, and even of sixty, deny this vehemently. The rare ones who admit it don't believe their own words and wait hopefully for you to contradict them. Most women tell you earnestly that they are as good as they ever were, and they think they mean it. They feel just as young, they say—but do they? Don't they mean, deep in their hearts, that they feel the same unbelief that they've grown up, the same secret hunger to be cherished and taken care of? We know that this feeling persists into the forties and fifties, and we suspect that it is right with you into the nineties. We know, too, that it is not a purely feminine feeling, that it is very human and perhaps very important, and that it has nothing what-ever to do with the ability to hold down a job.
The women we are discussing are not only as good as ever, they are a lot better—as women, but not as businesswomen. Somewhere along in the fifties or sixties, you begin to slow up a little, unless you have the constitution of Mrs. Roosevelt, which is very, very rare. We have seen this happen to women in their forties. What's more, your outlook changes even more than your physical stamina, though you will be the last to admit it. You wouldn't think of talking about the good old days, of course, but there are a lot of things about them, things that brought you happiness, that begin to seem to you to be very much better than current modes and manners. You are not quite moving with the changing times. You don't quite feel the pulse of progress. Consider the world of fashions, just as an illustration. You may snatch at new details—most of them, if you are accustomed to following the mode carefully, but you do not sense them with the same old instinct if you have been out of touch professionally, and certainly you have no part in creating the current fashion feeling by being, yourself, an expression of the contemporary point of view. Somewhere along the line, you have begun not even to look quite as smart as you once did. At least, we hope you have. There are older women in the fashion business who go right on being as chic as all get-out and you' recognize them in any gathering as being women in the fashion business, which, while a splendid thing to be, is not the effect they were aiming at when they bought the outfits.
Take, as an example of what we are saying, a woman who worked for some years on a fashion publication and then left it for what is called private life. Let us suppose she was pretty good in her time and now, after say fifteen years, needs a job and would like to return to the old familiar desk. We don't think for a minute that the powers that be would take her back—and why should they? What she once considered on Exciting Adventure would now seem to her a Necessary Chore. All those hours of overtime she once gave with enthusiasm and all her heart she would now give grudgingly, if at all. The Ruff and the chi-chi would seem just that. And while she was once delighted to turn hand-springs, or practically that, in order to rush to the press the earthshaking news that skirts had gone up or down in Paris, before her competitors heard it, they wouldn't seem worth the effort now. She wouldn't, in fact, be as good at her job as she was the first time.
She would be typical of women in many fields, but there are compensations even for this grim truth. If you are in her position, some years away from the world of business, you can still get a job, as we have said already, and while it won't be as top executive, and even below that level, you may have to compromise more than you like, it is probably better for you not to undertake too much right now. But beyond all that, through the years of your marriage, when the Career Women were panting to get to the top, weren't you having something you wouldn't give up for the salary of the best-paid woman in America? Memories can be as enriching as money, and what your married life did to you as a person may quite possibly be worth more in personal happiness than any achievement of business ambition. Even if your marriage wasn't a success—do you honestly wish you had never attempted it? The experience involved in the intimacy of marriage, the discipline involved in doing your best to make it successful, are more important and more developing than most single-handed projects. You may have had both, of course, but in general, the successful business-woman either hasn't married or, if she has, nine times out ten (there are exceptions: we've known a few ourselves, a very, very few) hasn't had the full, rewarding, close companionship of a woman who has made her marriage her business twenty-four hours a day. Most of us can't have everything.
Besides all this, you are probably not equal just now to the responsibility of a very big job. There's a lot of wear and tear in business, and this is no time to take too much on your shoulders. As we have pointed out several times, this is a period when you are not at your best. You've got enough readjusting to do without attempting to run the works in any organization, or even any department, all at once. You may possibly want to try that later, though if you do, we think you'll be an exception. A moderately good job and more private life is a better plan from now on for the aver-age not-so-young working gal.
To get to the job itself, and high time too, we believe that the best bet for the older woman is to make her own, if she possibly can. We are not referring, as does much of the literature on the subject, to the doddering old things in the late thirties. We mean women of fifty or over, though some of them may be pretty young in the ways that matter to make our suggestion necessary, and an occasional one may belong in this class while she is still in her forties.
One of the real advantages of this make-your-own job idea is that you will escape the rebuffs that we will have to admit are probable when you start out to look for a position. You'll have other troubles, to be sure, but they won't be quite so deflating as a constant reminder of the untruth that you're too old to be bothered with.
The things you can do will probably not make you wealthy. Being wealthy, however, is nice, but not really essential. If you can live comfortably, attractively, and with dignity, you'll come out just as well in the end and have a lot less trouble. And in spite of current high prices, this can be done without a fortune. It can also be done without hurting your pride. The gap between the rich and the poor is shrinking rapidly. Fewer and fewer people have servants. The number of large estates is decreasing so rapidly one wonders how soon they will become obsolete. The apartments being built are smaller and smaller. Their rooms are so compact and their closets so few that one can't have many clothes and possessions and live in diem. It is also true that a large proportion of the divorcees and widows who need to work are not penniless. They have at least a small income, though they do need to augment it.
It is quite possible, if you own a house or have been comfortably settled in the same one for a long time, that the wisest thing for you to do is to stay right there and let a few carefully chosen businesswomen or schoolteachers come to live with you. This idea is far from new, but a good many of our great-grandmothers' methods had their points. A woman whose only training is to run a house and to be a good hostess still has a business asset and she'll probably do better by making the most of it than by trying to branch out in a brand-new field.
If her house is large and particularly charming, she might make it a place for a rest cure for the tired businesswoman, complete with beautiful breakfast trays, chintz-hung bed-rooms, masseuses for those who want one, and all the pampering details she can think up, and do very well indeed, but she'll need a wide acquaintance to start with or enough capital for advertising. It is one thing to find a few women looking for comfortable living quarters and quite another to find a continuous stream of well-paying guests.
Another thing that many women have done successfully in their own homes is to turn a couple of rooms into a shop, provided that the zoning laws permit. We know one woman in the Midwest who has had a charming baby shop for years, carrying everything from bootees to complete layettes, all in what was once her sun porch. As she has excellent taste and knows everyone in town, she has done very well and had the fun of buying trips to New York besides. A divorcee we know runs a lingerie shop in a smart suburb and sup-plies all the young marrieds with their underpinnings, negligees and bathing suits, having an elegant time while she does it, since her friends make it a meeting place where they sit around and gossip. Dozens of women (probably hundreds, if not thousands) all over the country have done similar things with dress shops or gift shops or antique shops or tearooms, some disastrously, to be sure, but more with surprising success. Each type requires taste and knowledge along that line, to say nothing of enough capital to start with, but they are all definite possibilities, though it's wise to look for a position as assistant in a similar place and stay there till you are sure you have learned the ropes.
We have spoken already of a women who took charming kodachromes and prepared some lectures which she gives before church groups and women's clubs, and this is some-thing we think more women could do in cities and towns all over the country, particularly if they choose as their subjects their own town or city, photographing its beauties, its points of historical interest, and perhaps some of its curable ills. Club chairmen are in perpetual need of new programs, especially at a price lower than that brought by a Name. Al-most any program chairman would see merit in educating the members of her club as to their own home town, and most of the women would like it, if done really well. Or you might photograph gardens—rock gardens or spring gardens or autumn gardens or rose gardens or all of them—and talk about them, which would have the advantage of all-yearround interest, since garden clubs meet through the summer, when other clubs don't. Also, you might interest the board of some important local institution in your own community in a really good illustrated lecture on the work it does, as a fund-raising plan. Such a lecture might be extremely useful in raising money for an old people's home, an orphan asylum, a camp for underprivileged children, a day nursery, or whatever, if given before all of the church groups and women's organizations within reasonable distance.
Many of the good old domestic arts, now practically dying out, hold possibilities for making money at home; occasionally, quite a lot of money. A number of the largest candy businesses in the country, for instance, started in the kitchen of some nice lady who made better fudge than her neighbors and needed a little extra income. There are bake-shops and other food businesses with the same origin, and, now that fewer and fewer people go in for old-fashioned home-cooked meals, there are endless schemes that a woman with a special flair for cooking might turn to profit. Just look at the front advertising pages of most of our slick-paper magazines and see the number of mail-order businesses selling home-made jams, preserves, pickles, sausages, soups, salad dressings, and a dozen other things. In the cities, deliver-at-home casseroles, private catering enterprises, and food specialties of all sorts and varieties bring in good pro-fits. Even if you don't attempt so large an undertaking, you might still augment your income in a small way, possibly through the local exchange of women's work.
All this is true of other types of homecrafts—needlepoint, knitting, quilting, making beautiful bedjackets or luncheon mats, rugmaking, dressing or making dolls—the possibilities are endless.
We believe that any woman smart enough to design a really good version of that rare object, a bedjacket for men, could, with a little discriminating advertising, make a tidy little sum. (We don't mean one of those tailored, uncozy, near-smoking-jackets—we mean something soft, comfort-able, and easily slipped on over a man's pajamas when he is ill or wants to read in bed.)
We know of one woman with a flair for making over hats who goes to her customers' houses, looks through all their hatboxes, and creates a few new models out of what she finds, at less than half the price of custom-made models. This might well be applied by some talented lady to well-stocked wardrobes, though we don't know of any who does it. And mending the beautiful lace and embroidered table linen so hard to buy nowadays brings in a very good price, if you do it well.
Various people recently have turned their herb gardens into money-making projects. And if you have a really green thumb, considerable knowledge of gardening, and enough capital to buy a small greenhouse, you might do well in that field and have fun besides.
An enchanting project for one who could do it would be to make miniature period rooms, or historic scenes, or nature scenes, suitable for museum or exhibition use. Fun, too, and a relief to harried mothers, is the business of running children's parties. Or, if you love animals and are experienced in caring for them, you might run a kennel and raise or train dogs.
All the suggestions so far can be done at home, but most of them demand some special talent. If you don't feel that you have any, all is not lost. Outside of the home, there is almost no field from which women are barred, though we admit that in many places, the younger you are, the more welcome you seem to be. However, we are so far from the days when older women were restricted to teaching, sewing, or finding an elderly new husband regardless of desirability, that no one need be downhearted.
Older women find places in travel agencies and real-estate offices, as housemothers in college dormitories and sorority houses, as hostesses and demonstrators of new products, in certain types of social work, in lending libraries and as housekeepers and companions. They tell stories to children in libraries; they are employed in certain museums in various cities; they build themselves businesses opening and closing people's houses. They find executive-housekeeper positions in hotels and hospitals; some find positions in the cosmetic world, often (though not always) in such behindthe-scenes jobs as dying hair or giving facials. Women whose motherly hands have rubbed a hundred miles of backs while bringing up a family have taken up massage and done it well.
If you will settle for safety first, putting security above a large salary (perhaps a very good plan), there are Civil Service jobs with no age limit, unless you were hoping to be something as strenuous as a policewoman or a firewoman. These are for the young only, which is all right with us. The others, demanding less physical prowess, are largely, though not entirely, clerical or secretarial, and while glamour may not be among their assets, they do have others. You get one by passing an examination, which is a not-too-frightening Intelligence Test, and once you have one and have made good in it, it's yours right up to the time you are eligible for a pension or for participation in the retirement plan. (A state or city Civil Service job, that is; Federal ones may not be so permanent.) New York has an unusually liberal pension system and an excellent retirement plan, and it also allows a lot of free time—almost a month's vacation and extra time for illness and special personal needs.
If you must have glamour, one sees women right up to ninety in the theater or movies, but perhaps they all started young—we wouldn't know. There are certainly some well beyond the first flush of youth who have radio programs, some in the fashion field, some who do landscape gardening or decorating, some in the field of advertising, and many selling insurance. There are innumerable older women who have built up secretarial businesses of their own. There is no age limit on writing or painting or designing. Re-search workers don't have to be young.
Getting any of these jobs takes enterprise and some may take pull. Holding one takes determination. Some require genuine talent. But all of them have been done by older women and can be done by them again, though you yourself will have to choose the one you are best suited to succeed in.
A few final words of advice begin with the suggestion that you do a little reading up on the problem as a whole before making tip your mind what you would like to do. There are many books in the libraries that will help—books on the general subject of jobs for the older woman, books on how to prepare for finding a jot), books on the specific jobs them-selves. It won't hurt you to read a few; it won't even discourage you. And it may give you some ideas far better for you than any we've thought up.
Next, we suggest that you consider your appearance care-fully, especially if you're going job-hunting. It may make all the difference. Smart clothes, attractive make-up, a good hairdo may well help you to get a job that would never be given to a woman who had let herself go. This has been said a thousand times, but it bears repeating, for most employers feel (usually correctly) that if you let yourself go as to looks, you've probably let yourself go in other ways too. And those extra pounds just below the waistline had better come off —they add more years than any other single detail of your appearance.
A third word of warning is to be cautious rather than overambitious. Be sure you're up to what you're planning before you start out—up to it physically and also financially. Investigate thoroughly before you lay out any capital and get the advice of some able, reliable businessman if you can. Don't borrow money if there is any possible way to get started without it. Don't borrow it at all without the advice of a banker. A debt hanging over your head can take all of the joy out of your work and all of the profit besides.
No less important is not to be too humble when you look for a job. A few of the rebuffs you will probably get will make you feel that anyone who engages you is doing a charitable deed, which will not be the case. We admit that you can't be too haughty either, and you may have to compromise as to what you take. But, after all, you have the wisdom and experience of your years, the poise that no very young woman can have, and these are assets. Keep your dignity (which doesn't mean not being as pleasant as you possibly can) throughout any interview.
And finally, however discouraged you get, don't give up and fall back on charity. Be it ever so humble, there is no job that isn't better than that.
CASE XVI.: Mrs. O.—Ever since Mrs. O. was a girl, she has had a special interest in the cosmetic field and when she found herself divorced and in need of eking out her income, she was wise enough to turn to the thing she really liked. First, she did some studying in France and then she got a job in New York in a glorified beauty salon where every-thing looked like peaches and cream and smelled divinely. While there, she took some night courses in the care of the skin and allied subjects and eventually, she opened her own small, but very, very elegant salon for facials. Mrs. O.'s business is conducted in two adjoining rooms in her own apartment and all treatments are either given or supervised by Mrs. O. herself. Her clients are so enchanted with her French accent (Mrs. O. is an excellent linguist), her appetizing treatment rooms, her sophisticated gossip, and the way they look after she has finished with them that they don't mind her astronomical charges.
CASE XVII.: Mrs. V.—When Mr. V. died, Mrs. V. couldn't see any reason for keeping herself up. What had she to live for?
She soon discovered that she not only didn't have much to live for, she also didn't have much to live on. Needless to say, her spirits drooped lower than ever and she began to look as drab as she felt. Egged on by necessity, however, she dragged herself to six different offices where, through letters of recommendation from friends, she hoped she might find a job.
She didn't (quite understandably), and we don't know what would have happened to poor Mrs. V. if she hadn't had a friend ready to do more than write a letter of recommendation. The lady in question was intelligent, kind-hearted, and ruthlessly frank. She bullied Mrs. V. into spending some time and some of her limited means on a course in a success school and, between sessions, she dragged her from shop to shop looking for bargains in What the Efficient Business-woman Should Wear. When Mrs. V.'s feet gave out, she treated her to a cocktail and lectured her on How to Impress a Prospective Boss.
At the end of two months, Mrs. V. didn't recognize herself in the mirror. Her figure was a triumph, her complexion was clear, and her new coiffure was a knockout. She was wearing the kind of suit she had always wanted to wear, but never dared because of bulges (now disappeared), and she had caught a great deal of her friend's enthusiasm.
When she applied for the seventh job, she not only got it, but after the interview, her new employer congratulated himself on having engaged a Find.
CASE XVIII.: Mrs. K.—Mrs. K. loves elegance and before she married, she achieved it through her own efforts, a happy situation which Mr. K. continued for some twenty-odd years. On his death, however, it was found that his interest had been in the present rather than the future and Mrs. K. had to start all over in every sense.
She did this stoically enough, but she aimed pretty high. With her eye on a charming apartment, preferably with a terrace, a couple of well-trained maids, plenty of parties, and considerable froufrou, she scorned various small jobs which she might have had and began thinking up Big Business schemes which would net her a fine income if they ever came off. So far, they never have, and for some years Mrs. K. has lived much less comfortably than she might have. She is still hopeful, and perhaps she is right, but she has taken a lot of disappointments and frustration and, if she does win out, we wonder if it will be worth it.