by Mary Goljenboom
Shirley Polykoff faced the difficult choices most working mothers struggle with today. She was a working mother in the 1930s and 40s.
In the midst of the Depression, I had borne two daughters. And in the next ten years I had experienced all the problems of trying to hold onto a career so that the family wouldn’t notice that I had one (although my daughters have since assured me that they certainly did notice) and to handle the home so that it wouldn’t appear to the career that there even was a family that might make any claims on my attention.
Who was Shirley Polykoff?
Today she is remembered as one of the most successful advertising copywriters of her time and, in 1959, the first woman elected vice president of the Foote, Cone & Belding agency. The famous Clairol hair color slogan, “Does she . . . or doesn’t she? Hair color so natural only her hairdresser knows for sure,” is Polykoff’s. But in the 1930s and 40s she was a young woman constructing a career in advertising, a marriage, and a family.
As a young married couple, Polykoff and her husband, George Halperin, tried to find the roles that fit their personalities and aspirations. Halperin’s law partners “did not find it seemly” that a wife should work, so, for a time, Polykoff attempted the role of stay-at-home wife and mother. It was not satisfactory for the family and in her autobiography she describes how they ended it. “George was very patient for about two weeks. Then one evening he came home with flowers. ‘Listen, sweetie. You make a lousy little woman in the kitchen.’” Polykoff happily returned to advertising work. She figured out ways to juggle work and family, including hiring nannies to assist her.
Obviously much has changed since Polykoff and her husband made their decisions about work and family balance. As a society we still need to improve the supports available to workers with family obligations. In this area there is no “one size fits all”. The supports that former Yahoo’s executive Marissa Mayer can afford to put into place—building a nursery next to her office—are available to those of us working from home but not those of us working from company cubicles. Flexible schedules and workplaces and good child- or elder-care options are vital.
Does she … or doesn’t she? : And how she did it by Shirley Polykoff
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