Although I hardly know her, Gilda Nardone reminds me of many of the women of my youth. Not because of physical resemblances or similarities of personality, but for a reason that goes to the heart of how people view their places in the world.
Nardone is the director of the Maine Displaced Homemakers Program in Augusta, which she helped to establish in 1978. In the last 15 years, the program has been so successful in easing the transition from the home to the paid workplace that Nardone will be inducted into the Maine Women’s Hall of Fame later this month.
Because of the good she’s done for nearly 4,000 Maine people, all of whom found themselves one day wrenched from the familiar and thrust into the frightening unknown, Nardone reminds me of how much the women I grew up with could have benefitted from her guidance.
When Nardone’s and other programs like it began forming around the country, their aim was to assist women who chose to stay home in the decade after World War II to raise children and work as community volunteers.
Eventually, the financial security they knew as wives and mothers was eroded by the loss of their husbands and providers. Woman who had nursed spouses through long illnesses suddenly became widows with large debts and little or no incomes. Others separated or divorced in their middle years were forced to confront issues they had barely considered before.
“In all instances there was a major life change,” said Nardone. “They had to rethink their situations and who they were.”
Some of them managed on small pensions and social security, but they never felt truly secure again without their husbands. If the dictates of tradition had kept them from the workplace, some involuntarily, the reality of the rest of their lives forced the big questions: How will I survive now? Who would hire me? What skills could I possibly offer to anyone?
In many cases, the chance of getting a decent job seemed as remote as taking a cruise around the world. So they scraped by.
“There was a whole generation of women who saw their careers as homemakers, and there was anger and frustration when that was interrupted,” Nardone said. “Now, more and more we’re seeing women with husbands who have become unemployed because of tough economic conditions. Likewise, there are more men who find themselves as single heads of households. We see families that have switched roles, so the displaced homemaker is not always the woman anymore.”
Women or men, Nardone’s program forces them to reevaluate their true worth to others. The corporate jargon, so daunting in a help-wanted ad, becomes the language of their self-sufficiency. Organizational skills, creativity, dependability, budgeting experience, crisis intervention, time management, an ability to work with people — all of it standard job criteria that many homemakers developed unknowingly by raising families and managing households.
“Often we have women who were active partners in family businesses, but they’ve never recognized that as working skills,” Nardone said. “Yet a lot of what they’ve learned is transferable to the workplace. And there is a growing recognition among employers that work issues don’t have gender.”
After 15 years of success, Nardone and the others in the program have never been so busy. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of displaced homemakers rose dramatically as the economy fell. More than 80,000 women in Maine are now considered primary wage earners, and 1,000 a year — 10 times as many as in 1978 — enroll in Nardone’s program.
“Self-esteem is the biggest challenge,” she said. “People who choose to be homemakers don’t get a lot of validation. They wonder whether what they have or who they are is going to be valued in the wider world. Many woman are so used to looking after the needs of others that it’s critical that they focus on what they need for the rest of their lives.”
And in a choice between two equally qualified job applicants, perhaps there’s something to be said for hiring the one whose life depends on it.