New Roles for New Times

New Roles for New Times

A look at women’s changing roles as mothers and professionals in honor of National Women's History Month.

From physically demanding jobs to high-status jobs, women can be found working everywhere. March is National Women's History month, which is the perfect time examine the changing roles of women in Fairfax County.

Less than 100 years after women were granted the right to vote, women are getting elected at local, state and federal levels. Locally, six women sit on the 10-member Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, and three women make up the seven-member Fairfax City Council. Another woman, Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-34) represents the Fairfax and Vienna area in the Virginia General Assembly.

But women who are out of the public eye are re-defining roles too. Mothers and professionals are adjusting to the times by living their lives the way they want to live them.

“It’s a whole new world now,” said Laura Harrington, a single Burke mother who co-owns a business with another woman.

Harrington is divorced and has an 11-year-old daughter who attends Clifton Elementary. She has joint custody with her ex-husband, who lives in Clifton, and said being a single parent is, for the most part, a lot of fun.

She said owning her own business gives her flexible hours, so she can be there for her daughter at just about any time. Harrington has adopted the same flexible strategy for her Web technology business. Her 14 employees make their own schedules, and women who are balancing motherhood with their careers shouldn’t be afraid to be honest with their employers in today’s world by requesting that flexibility, she said.

“Its good to dictate what you want, right up front. I think generally you’ll find that companies who respect that will give you that,” said Harrington. “I’m definitely an advocate of saying [parenting] is my priority, right up front.”

FOR WOMEN, MOTHERHOOD is an inherent continuing role, but the way women are doing it has changed. The number of single mothers living with children younger than 18-years-old is 10.4 million, up from 3.4 million in 1970, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau. And it’s because of these changing roles in work environments that single parents can get by more easily, said Harrington.

A woman to be featured in the Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center’s women’s history program, Saturday, March 24, had a similar vision for the success of single mothers. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Dr. Kate Waller Barrett co-founded the Florence Crittendon Mission Homes for unwed mothers, with Charles Crittendon, a wealthy New Yorker. The homes were mostly for teenagers, but the purpose was ahead of the times.

“They opened about 90 homes across the U.S. where women could get health care,” said Susan Gray, curator at the Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center. “They were taught to care for their baby, and they were given some economic resources, [like being] taught some skill they could use for economic support.”

Barrett was the mother of six children and became a single mother when her husband died, said Gray. Crittendon had lost a young daughter, Florence, to scarlet fever. And often with tragedy, people look for an outlet to help in the community, said Gray, which is what they did.

“Dr. Barrett was a very unusual woman for her time,” said Gray.

WHILE SINGLE MOTHERS may have struggled more to succeed back then, today the struggle still exists, but the stigma has somewhat dissipated.

“I just think that economically, we’ve got a lot more freedom [in today’s world],” said Harrington. “You don’t necessarily need a man around to do all these things.”

Single mothers aren’t the only ones working hard, however, since the number of double-income households has surged since the middle of the 20th century, according to the census. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that working mothers with infant children reached a record high of 59 percent in 1998, which includes both single and married mothers.

Andrea Clark, the B-shift captain at station three of the City of Fairfax's Fire and Rescue Department, not only lives in one of those double-income households, but she’s an example of the ways women’s roles are changing. Clark has to keep up with the physical demands of a job that men have traditionally filled. When the city hired her about 13 years ago, no other women worked in the department, she said. Now, she’s one of five women in a department of about 50 members.

“I think the world of being a woman [firefighter] is different; the physical challenges are definitely different,” said Clark.

To keep up with the physical demands, Clark does weight, flexibility and cardiovascular training, both on and off-duty. She’s also one of the peer fitness trainers in the department.

“I have to be able to pull hoses, throw ladders — do everything they can do,” she said. "You can't just go along and bluff your way through it."

Working in what some might call “a man’s job” has little effect on her work environment, she said. The men treat her as one of them because she’s a firefighter, not because of her gender.

“I never ask for anything special," said Clark. "I’ve worked just as hard [as they have] to get where I am. They rib me just as hard as they rib each other, and I wouldn’t want that any other way.”

She too has a somewhat flexible schedule, since city firefighters work three 24-hour shifts spread out over six days, then have four days off. She said the schedule is appealing because it gives her more quality time with her children — something she, like Harrington, especially values about her job.

FOR MANY STAY-at-home mothers, that quality time is also cherished. Anne Sawin, president of Burke Moms Club-South, a chartered organization of Burke Centre comprised of mostly stay-at-home moms, said she sometimes misses having a professional career. She does, however, think the benefits of not working generally outweigh those of working.

“I get to be a part of every little milestone that all three of [my children] have,” said Sawin. “I know what happens at school, cause I can be there.”

The U.S. Census estimates that about 5.6 million women were stay-at-home mothers in 2006.

Sawin’s average day is jam-packed with plenty of activities. A typical day involves getting her three children up and ready for school, cleaning the house, running errands with her youngest child, causing everything to take twice as long, she said. Sawin said her sister is a working mother, and she often complains that she doesn’t get to see her children until dinnertime. That’s exactly why Harrington says mothers need to be straightforward with their employers.

“I won’t work a position that would require me to sacrifice my time with [my daughter],” said Harrington.

Sawin said most of the mothers in the moms club have bachelor’s degrees or used to work. The club offers them a place to meet and interact with each other, especially since mothers of younger children aren’t meeting other parents through school yet, she said.

For Janice Murray, a married mother of three in Fairfax, it's a balancing act. She works as a part-time physical therapist for the schedule flexibility and also volunteers heavily in the community. Last year, Murray was the vice-president of the task force on children and families in the City of Fairfax. The task force formed to enhance the city's programs for families — something Murray said is so important for a close-knit community.

She also stays home sometimes to take care of the types of tasks many stay-at-home moms do. She said being a mother has also taught her to slow down a little bit to enjoy things more.

Single parenting, while challenging at times, is also a lot of fun, said Harrington. Since her family is made up of fewer people, she has more flexibility with her daily schedule and a lot more freedom. It isn’t without its disadvantages, though. Dating can be tough, she said, especially with an 11-year-old daughter who has become protective and vocal with her opinions. Without two parents to enforce rules, discipline can also be a challenge, she said.

“You have to kind of be mom and dad; the good guy and the bad guy. That’s tough," said Harrington.