A Lifetime of the Wage Gap: A Granddaughter’s Perspective on Her Grandmother’s Career

This post is the sixth and final post in a series of blog posts leading up to Equal Pay Day (April 12) featuring the perspectives of women at different points in their careers on the lifetime wage gap.
Over my desk at the National Women’s Law Center I have hung pictures of women in my family who persevered despite discrimination to participate in the workplace and contribute their talents to their communities. One of those images is of my maternal grandmother, Jeanne Rottman Hansen, in a nursing student’s uniform, although she never was allowed to serve as a nurse nor earn the wages she deserved. This injustice had a decades-long impact on her income and her family’s economic security.
nancygmaNana entered nursing school as a young woman during World War II.  In May 1942, she and my grandfather scrambled to be married during a brief leave he was able to secure from his service in the Army as a fighter pilot. Usually women were not allowed to stay in her school if they were married, but rules were relaxed during the war because nurses were needed so badly.
During another of my grandfather’s leaves, Nana became pregnant, due in the fall of 1943.  She kept the pregnancy secret for fear that she wouldn’t be allowed to continue in her nursing program.  She finished the entire course of study except her board exams, which were to take place in the summer.  By then her pregnancy was visible so she wasn’t allowed to take the tests.  Thus, she never became a licensed, registered nurse – even in the darkest days of World War II when our nation desperately needed medical professionals.
My mom was that baby, born on Halloween 1943, and my Nana and Papa went on to have two more daughters after Papa returned from his military service and found work as a manager in a gear factory in Milwaukee. They needed another income and Nana wanted to work, but without her registered nursing license she could only work as a lower-level, lower-paid licensed practical nurse.
My nana was bitter about this her whole life, especially after my grandfather died at the relatively young age of 65 and she struggled to cover her medical and other expenses during her retirement. When she reached the end of her career, my nana’s Social Security benefits were limited because the pregnancy discrimination she suffered prevented her from completing her nursing degree, becoming licensed, and earning higher wages throughout her career. This is the story of too many women when they reach the end of their careers.
Nana’s nursing school picture hangs above my desk to remind me of the discrimination she faced, the opportunities that women are denied, and the barriers we at NWLC are working so hard to eliminate.  I’m proud that I have the opportunity to raise the resources that make our work on those women’s behalf possible, and I’m proud that my mom became a nurse and that my sister became a certified nurse midwife and is beginning a doctoral program.  This year on Equal Pay Day I celebrate hard-working women and encourage everyone to join us in pressing for justice in the workplace!