“Still,” she continued,” one’s sex is sometimes a handicap, especially in our own institution, where those few of us who have not served as commanders of a large navy vessel are expected to prove our worth in riskier ways. It’s a fine line one has to walk to survive te executive gauntlet. A woman must give the impression that she is confident and never let down her guard.
Careers for Women by Joanna Scott is an introspective and inquisitive look into the women behind the Port Authority of New York City and one corporation known as Alumacore in upstate New York. Set in the 1950’s and 1960’s, it was unusual for young women to take up a career, though some chose to take this route as a means to the ultimate end: marriage.
I figured I would find a temporary job, something that would give me a chance to meet single young men. I hadn’t thought to question the ethos I’d inherited from generations of housewives. My mother, my grandmother, my aunts all made it clear that they pitied working women. successful ladies did not have to work for a living.
This is the case for our narrator, Maggie Gleason, who begins to work in public relations at the Port Authority under the omniscient career woman Lee Jaffe, or Mrs. J as she is fondly referred to. Following their occasional lunches out, where Mrs. J collects her girls as a mother hen would chicks, the girls witness a scene between the police and a group of prostitutes. Innocent as many of the girls are, this is a shocking reminder of their current success in life. On the other hand, for the unflappable Mrs. J this is an opportunity for her to flaunt her influence, to extend her business card as if she was offering with it the very solution to their problems. Enter Pauline Moreau.
Just as I forecast, Pauline got special treatment in the department and was moved from filing to reception. She seemed to enjoy the work of answering phones, though often the person on the other end had to wait for her to exhale a lungful of cigarette smoke before she spoke. And she frequently called in sick or left early. But Mrs. J didn’t seem to mind. For a while, Pauline was golden. She would have stayed golden if she hadn’t gone looking for trouble.
Here the store intersperses tales of Pauline’s life before the fateful day she met Mrs. J and Maggie, too. A young women, barely seventeen, out in the world looking to make something of herself, Pauline begins to work for Alumacore as a typist. Like a frightful gazelle she becomes the prey of the hungry lion, Mr. Whittaker.
For now he’s got her pinned in that position not uncommon for a young female secretary when a nearsighted boss leans over from behind her chair so he can better examine a document in her typewriter, creating with his torso a wall that reeks of aftershave while his arms are like two sides of a split-rail fence set there to keep in the livestock. With his hands gripping the ends of the typewriter roller, his fingers are taut, the skin blotched, a gold band beneath a bony knuckle shine in the light now that the boss has tilted the desk lamp to illuminate the numbers she has typed for far. She can smell his cigar breath when her murmurs, “Good, good.” She can hear a rumbling in his belly, which makes her wonder if he’s hungry. She can feel the stubble on his chin when he kisses the back of her neck. She can feel the vice of his hands pressing now on her shoulders instead of the carriage of her typewriter, holding her in the chair while he goes on nuzzling her.
This is just the first of many instances like this in Pauline’s life. In an attempt to take control of a situation that is threatening to swallow her up within its vortex, Pauline leads Mr. Whittaker to a quiet, empty office and wields the only weapon she feels capable of carrying; her sexuality. When she falls pregnant, she is paid off by Mr. Whittaker to avoid a scandal and to preserve what he has worked for hard for in his life, with little regard for what Pauline has done and will do with hers. From here we see the way life treats Pauline, who becomes desperate to provide for her daughter in a world that is beyond unkind to unwed mothers. The narrative circles back to the chance meeting between Pauline and Mrs. J where the seed up hope in planted within Pauline and also were our two stories converge.
She needs a good friend. Will you be that for her? When I remember Mrs. J asking me to be a friend to Pauline, I can’t help but invest her with an impossible visionary power, as if from her office chair she could see into the past and future and grasped in that quick, voracious mind of hers the whole story I’m telling you now. But then I wonder if whether Mrs. J had been mistaken to trust me, of all people, to help Pauline.
Maggie and Pauline become fast friends, and Maggie serves as a surrogate aunt to Pauline’s daughter, Sonia, who is mentally disabled as a result of complications during her birth. One evening, Pauline asks Maggie to watch her daughter so she can go out alone. But when hours morph into days and week, Maggie begins to question Pauline’s motive for leaving that night.
“A woman can’t just disappear into thin air,” I said in desperation. “We’ll talk to a detective we know and get him on it right away. He’ll have questions for you, I imagine. If we could just find out where she actually went when she said she was going to Saratoga Springs…”
When the truth is discovered it is more sinister than Maggie could have ever feared it would be.
Set against the backdrop of the construction of the World Trade Center in New York and the corruption and corporate disregard for the environment and waste regulation within the fictional Alumacore, Careers for Women is largely about the imperfection of the human species and the tragic nature of our experiences.
Like a ghost animated by no more than the desire to be seen, the truth rose into the air and wafted with the puffs of milkweed seeds far into the sky, where it would travel with the wind currents, circling the world for years to come.
A review copy of this title was provided by Little, Brown and Company.