Volume 12, Issue 11 ~ March 11-17, 2004

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Bay Reflections

Living History for Women’s History Month
Call it Char or Chore, a Woman’s Work Is Never Done
by M.L. Faunce

A while back, I read that female night custodial workers at the U.S. Capitol won an equal pay lawsuit. The $3 million dollar settlement — the first-ever class action lawsuit against the Architect of the Capitol — was considered a milestone. The suit argued successfully that female workers were entitled to the same pay as male night custodial workers, who earned an hourly wage of $11.41.

Given the current state of our litigious society, the story may not have caught my attention, had not my Irish grandmother, Lillie Collins, worked at the Capitol as a “charwoman” some 60 years ago. She toiled at night cleaning offices — a job few of us ever notice unless left undone — in the same buildings where I later worked as a congressional aide.

In my grandmother’s day, char-ing (the name originating from the Middle English chore) was women’s work. My grandmother’s pay, I learned from the Architect’s archives, was an uncontested 50 cents an hour. Her job, secured for her by a congressman from Virginia, was a form of patronage. To the victor, the spoils?

During the day, the grandmother who died before I was born worked as a nutritionist for Visitation Convent, a private school for privileged young women in Georgetown. In her spare time, the skilled seamstress assembled dress shirts for a men’s clothing company. She raised a family of nine, mostly on her own. Then times were tough, families were large and wages uncertain.

Today women can be aviators and astronauts, administrators and architects, adventurers and artists. Some are in the same workforce as my grandmother. In my office building, they are rarely noticed unless you work late and see the empty boxes in the hallways on which we scrawl basura for the night custodial workers who have yet to learn English but know how to earn a living and care for their families.

What I know of my grandmother, I was mostly told: She had a fine sense of humor and deep pride; she was a wonderful cook, quick to set another place at the table.

Women are at the table now in all ways, making up half the work force. Competing, contending, connecting. Still, their work is never done.

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Last updated March 12, 2004 @ 1:37am.