04/30/2014 05:19 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2014

That's Feminist, With a Capital F

Some years ago, I was asked to fetch coffee at an event where I happened to be the keynote speaker. The offending businessman had arrived early to the seminar, and since I was the only female present, he just assumed this was my role.

Which is one of the reasons I want to stab myself with a fork whenever I hear a fabulous young woman say: "I don't like to call myself a feminist; I just believe in equality for women."

Sometimes I wish I could take these women back in time to see what they missed.

When I started working in 1983, equal pay for equal work was a renegade concept. After I negotiated my first salary, the corporate recruiter -- who also was a woman -- told me that I should be very proud that I'd landed the same salary the company would have paid a man for the position.

What do you say to that? I thanked her.

Recently, public outrage erupted over the news that today's women earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. Outrageous, right? Except if you consider that when I began my career, on average women earned 59 cents on the dollar compared to men -- so 77 cents is progress.

Not so long ago, not being on a level playing field with men meant a steady diet of small humiliations for women, beyond those ungodly little bow ties we were expected to wear. Coworkers who were below me on the corporate totem pole called me "Linda" but believed I should address them as "Mr. Smith." When I bought my condo in the mid-1980s, I had to sign legal papers describing my legal status as a "spinster." (I am not joking. That was the accepted, legal name for an unmarried woman.) And as an employed adult with a steady salary, I couldn't get the same credit card that was offered to my younger brother, who was in college and had no income. When I complained, the customer service representative whispered to re-submit the application using my first initial instead of my first name. To this day, in my wallet full of credit cards, there remains one oil card issued simply to "L. Haase."

The degradation went beyond symbolism. Thirty years ago, to be a professional woman often meant having to handle off-color jokes from your coworkers -- or even your boss -- in which you were the punch line. Some of the comments my supervisors (and even teachers!) made to me in the 1970s and 1980s would make today's politicians blush. When I imagine someone doing the same thing to my daughter, I cannot breathe.

The hardest thing to admit about all of this is that I usually wasn't outraged at all at the time. It was just how things were.

Thirty years ago, starting a family could compromise a woman's potential career advancement, and even her job security. Maternity leave was in no way mandatory when my daughter was born. For many women, it was understood that by definition starting a family meant ending their career outside the home. There were no professional-looking maternity clothes, no nursing rooms in the workplace, no flexible schedules, no telecommuting options and no support groups for working moms.

(Excuse me while I have a flashback to sitting in a tiny stall in an office bathroom built in the 1920s, spending my lunch hour pumping breast milk with a hand pump.)

These realities didn't change by accident. Lots of fair-minded men and women worked to achieve them, and there was a name for us. Feminists.

When we reached management positions, feminists -- both female and male -- were the ones who used our authority to make the workplace fairer for the people who came after us. Feminists covered for many an employee taking family leave, even though no one covered for us when we had our own children. Feminists went out of our way to help working moms to telecommute for a day or two a week, even though we never had the benefit of such a professional arrangement. And feminists who hadn't had mentors of our own consciously strove to mentor younger workers, particularly women.

So I am a little dumbfounded when I overhear young professional women declare that they don't like to label themselves as feminists. Someday, I hope they come to see that name as a badge of honor.

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