Sunday, August 18, 2019

Review: Women at Work by Betty Medsger

I snapped this 1975 volume up at the used book store the other day, because I am a father of daughters. I felt that it was the kind of book I'd like to have, you know, just lying around the place as my children grow. This won't be criticism as such, I don't think. I'm just going to tell you about it.

It's very fun, both as a document of its time, and as a bunch of photographs and stories.

Betty Medsger is a journalist of some note, and apparently also takes pictures. In the early 1970s she decided to do a photojournalistic project documenting the state of women in the workplace in the good old U.S.A. and accordingly set out around the country to do that. She interviewed and photographed a whole bunch of women, and gives us 170-odd different professions in this book.

The reproductions are not great, and it's possible the underlying negatives are also not great. Lots of blocked up whites. Lousy detail. The old "Soot & Chalk" pejorative comes to mind. Better than a newspaper, but not really a lot better. All black and white, natch. Most women and their job get one photo, but a few get two or three photos. Some subset, maybe on third, get a little paragraph of quotes and context.

The book opens with a fairly lengthy essay on the project, some of the women, and a general statement of the overall status of women in the workplace. We get a few statistics, and a handful of telling personal stories of the kinds of difficulties that women face getting certain kinds of work, and being the workplace both generally and specifically.

As opening essays go, it's quite readable. The bar here is very low, though, this thing isn't exactly a thriller. I can recommend actually reading it, though.

A fascinating detail that Medsger hits several times both in the opening essay, and in the main content of the book, is this: It is common to find people who say women ought not to do that kind of job who, when confronted with the fact that Sue does it, and does it well, respond oh, well, Sue. She's fine, it's ok for Sue. This kind of thing illustrates, I think, how attitudes change over time. It is not that people cease abruptly to hate black people, to look down on women, to fear some other group. They continue to do so, while also coming to agree that specific cases are different. I hate fags. Well, not Bill, Bill's my friend and he's fine is a normal intermediate stage.

Onwards to the pictures.

There's pictures all over the place. She shows us playboy bunnies, waitresses, cleaning ladies; she also shows us corporate executives, marine corps officers, company owners, and lobsterers. It's the full gamut of work, from "traditional women's work" to everything else.

In spite of the poor reproduction, the photos are, generally, somewhere between pretty good and fantastic. Medsger had a real eye for movement, and the women photographed look like dancers as often as not. Really fun to look at, without feeling posed, awkward, or false. There's a strong sense of that mid-century photo-essay truthiness here, to go with the often (but not always) elegantly shot frame. I suspect she did a lot of radical cropping.

The book feels a little "salon style" with pictures all over the place on the page. Some are surrounded by white borders on all sides, but others bleed off one edge. Tall frames might bleed off the top, bordered on the other three sides. Occasionally, a picture will bleed off two sides of a corner. I am still trying to work out the uses for this approach to bleeds. Anyways, the result is somehow a very 1970s feel to the book.

The picture placement creates rectangles of white space that can appear anywhere on the page, so the paragraphs of descriptive text and quotations fill in here and there, without much rhyme of reason, but generally pleasingly.

The women profiled are awesome. There's some really crazy stuff in here, and some really mundane ordinary stuff, but it's all engaging, fun, encouraging. Medsger makes us like her subjects, root for them, applaud them.

This is pretty much exactly the book I'd hoped for, for my daughters. It's a bit old school, pretty historical, but encouraging as well as realistic and still very much relevant today.

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