Back in 1959, in San Francisco, I was called into the office of the top executive who theretofore had never spoken to me. He said he had seen me at the movie theater on the previous Saturday night and wanted to know who the young man with me was.
I didn't see how it was any of his business but I answered anyway. “My boyfriend, Larry,” I said.
He seemed to ponder this for a moment and then told me that someone in my position (please; I was a clerk who typed the same letter all day), at this particular company (a large, national insurance company) should not be seen with “people like him.”
Larry was a year or two older than I, in his early 20s, a talented, fledgling jazz musician, gorgeously handsome, funny and kind. What could be wrong with that? Oh, he was also black.
Today, I would handle that situation more aggressively. But I was young then, only 17, and unsure of myself so I nodded with what I hoped was a neutral expression and continued dating Larry.
A year or so later, I was living in Phoenix, Arizona. My boss at a local company called me into his office one day after I'd been working there for two or three months and told me not to wear blue eyeshadow anymore.
It was hardly garish, not with sparklies or anything show-girlish. It was how young girls decorated themselves in those days.
He told me that if he saw me again with blue eyeshadow, he would fire me. I thought that was unfair so I arrived at work the next morning in my usual blue eyeshadow and he fired me.
The people who employ us, I have noticed through the years, have always believed it is their right to control aspects of our lives that have no bearing on our work. One, in the late 1990s, told me I should smile more. What they choose to try to control changes with the times, but there is always something.
For many years, one of the most common firing offenses has been and remains getting old. Last week, the Houston Chronicle reported that 52-year-old Sandra Rawline was fired from her $48,000-a-year job as a title company branch manager allegedly because she refused to dye her gray hair:
”Rawline said her boss told her to dye her gray hair because the office was moving from Katy to the Galleria area and wanted a more upscale image for its new digs. She said she was also instructed to wear 'younger fancy suits' and lots of fancy jewelry.
“Rawline...said the boss ordered the dye job on a Thursday afternoon in August 2009 — even offering to perform the coloring.
“Rawline, who has been gray since her early 20s and likes her natural hair color, said she refused. And by the following Tuesday, she was told her services were no longer necessary and was replaced by a woman 10 years younger.”
During the six years Rawline worked for Capital Title of Texas, she was regularly promoted, given salary increases and had won “outstanding employee” awards in 2004 and 2005. There were no complaints about her work, none on the day she was fired and the company did not contest her application for unemployment insurance benefits.
The case is now headed for court. The company, of course, denies Ms. Rawline's allegations labeling them “baseless and preposterous.”
These days, it would be preposterous for an employer to even mention, let alone question the color of a worker's boyfriend's skin, or their eye makeup. But age discrimination in the workplace lives on – and on and on.
Where this gets trickier (sadder, harder, more frightening) for workers now than in the past is the continuing threat from lawmakers to raise the retirement age for Social Security and the eligibility age for Medicare.
If you can be fired at 52 for gray hair, where are all these old folks going to find jobs? Ms. Rawline now works in customer service at a salary cut of 28 percent.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jackie Harrison: An Evening That Changed My Life