Local women reflect on how opportunities for women have changed over the decades

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By Brendan Heidner and Hunter Herbaugh
Sunday, September 4, 2022
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(L to R) Peggy Handtmann, Cindy Heidt, Ilene Robins and Robin Hill recently met with the Ranger-Review news staff to discuss the changes in opportunities and social norms for women they have witnessed in their lifetimes.

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Peggy Handtmann talks about her experiences as a teacher during a recent interview. Handtmann’s interview and those of the other women interviewed for this story will also be featured in a video on the Ranger-Review website next week. Brendan Heidner photo

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As times change, social attitudes towards a wide variety of things change with it, as technology and modern thinking opens opportunities to those whose roles in society were once much more restricted.

Women, in particular, have seen some of the most change in recent decades and while it may seem like it was a long time ago that women were bound by what these days are widely agreed on as ludicrous restrictions, there are plenty of women who remember times when things were much different.

Reflecting on those days, several women who grew up in and around Glendive shared their perspectives and experiences of what it was like growing up through several decades as opportunities, social norms and available technology changed.

Glendive residents Robin Hill, Cindy Heidt, Peggy Handtmann and Ilene Robins recently gathered to share what it was like for them starting out as young adults during a variety of decades and how they watched the world change around them.

Even though all of these women have had careers that they enjoyed, they were still aware of the barriers they and other women have faced over time.

For a few, they first saw these barriers in school, as what classes they took were usually shaped by what was expected of them.

“When I was in high school, the first girl in my high school to take shop classes was a year behind me. Otherwise, all the shop classes were guys, all the girls took home-ec classes... and they didn’t interchange,” Heidt said.

This then extended to women’s professional lives, as what jobs were available to them were limited to things like waitress or secretary, jobs that were typically labelled as “women’s work,” the women noted.

Going to college could help open the door to more choices, of course, but coming from rural backgrounds, financial hurdles were also an issue for some and even for the ones that could go to college, there were still only a handful of jobs that were considered appropriate for women.

Robins said when she graduated from high school in 1958, she wanted to pursue a career as a nurse, but didn’t have the finances to go to college. Instead, she started doing secretarial work, as not much else was available to women at that time.

“At the time, you could be a nurse, you could be a teacher, work in an office, but you never saw any of the other jobs available that women do now,” she added.

Even nearly 30 years after Robins entered the work force, these expectations persisted, as Hill said she faced many of the same obstacles when she graduated from high school in 1985.

“Where I was at, which was a small town in Montana, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for women except for in the areas of waitressing, secretarial office work and such. ... I actually had my first real job as a dental assistant here in Glendive, which was typically a woman’s type of a job,” Hill said.

It wasn’t until she returned to Glendive about 25 years ago that Hill got the chance to go to college, as she was at a better spot in her life where she had the time and financial stability to do so.

These days, Hill is a business owner, being co-owner of local business Signs of the Times.

Robins also eventually became a business owner alongside her husband, however she found that people decades ago would often overlook her role in the business. She said she felt relegated to a secondary role rather than being an equal

“Where I was at, which was a small town in Montana, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for women except for in the areas of waitressing, secretarial office work and such...,” Robin Hill

(L to R) Peggy Handtmann, Cindy Heidt, Ilene Robins and Robin Hill recently met with the Ranger-Review news staff to discuss the changes in opportunities and social norms for women they have witnessed in their lifetimes.

“When I started out, my husband and I owned a business, and everyone considered my husband to be the owner and that I was subservient, shall I say. If the salesman called on the telephone and asked for the owner, and I said yes I was (the owner), he’d hang up on me,” Robins said.

For Handtmann, the traditional role of teacher was something she knew she wanted ever since she was a young child. She had a 38-year long teaching career.

Even in the teaching occupation, expectations for women were much different than they are today, as they were expected to dress and conduct themselves in certain ways. These expectations persisted even as other aspects of working in schools became more relaxed.

This culminated in Handtmann and her colleagues becoming a bit rebellious, much to the frustration of the people who were in charge at the time.

“I just knew I was going to be a teacher and I don’t think anything on the outside was going to change that... One thing when I started teaching, we had to wear dresses, heels, the whole bit, and as time went on, things were more informal but not for us,” Handtman said. “So, as a faculty, all the women decided one day that was the day we would all wear pants to school, which upset a lot of people, but we did that and sort of broke through that barrier.”

Times did eventually start changing. Social attitudes shifted, technology advanced and a lot more doors have become open to women than ever before. Today, there is a lot that women can do, and that fact isn’t lost on the people who grew up without those opportunities.

“I think that there are more women in the trades then there used to be, and I think, educationally too, that there are more women going into technical fields and you see more of them in those jobs,” Heidt said.

“I think one of the opportunities is for women to grow in a company, and reach higher levels, executive levels, things like that, and I think there are more women-based businesses as well,” Hill added.

However, there are also areas where women are behind.

Even in recent years, a lot of attention has been placed on the difficulties modern women face in many professional environments. Disparity in wages has been a particular area of focus, as women in fields from technology to acting to professional sports reportedly struggle to get the same pay as their male counterparts.

“The wage thing has always been there, that a woman was never paid the same as a man,” Robins noted.

Reach Hunter Herbaugh at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.

Reach Brendan Herbaugh at news@rangerreview.com.

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