Sarah Lim: Merced judge exemplified best of ‘Way We Worked’ exhibit

She skillfully put her hair in a bun and then began carefully applying her makeup. As she took one last look in the mirror, with a satisfied smile, Flossie Lobo left her home to go to work at the Merced County Courthouse. Except it was not like any other day. On Jan. 8, 1951, Lobo no longer worked for the justice of the peace – she went to work as a justice of the peace.

Lobo was a trained stenographer and had worked for Justice Claud H. McCray since 1938 in Township No. 2 (Merced City). When McCray decided not to seek re-election in 1950 because of his pursuit of a superior court judgeship, she ran and won. In a workplace considered a man’s world and in an era in which the ideal woman’s role was as “happy homemaker,” Lobo not only broke the glass ceiling and became the first elected female justice, but also redefined the role of women at work and at home.

Lobo’s previous occupation was defined by her gender. In the early 20th century, stenography was among the few careers available to women. It was not until World War II, when men were drafted for the war, that employment opportunities became more accessible to women because of labor shortages.

However, as the war ended and servicemen returned to their homes and jobs, women were being pushed out of different occupations, especially ones considered traditionally male. To be in Lobo’s unique, elected position speaks volumes not only of her determination and achievement, but also the sentiment of the Merced community that was ready to challenge the Cold War stereotype of a single-income nuclear family with the man as the breadwinner.

In the midst of the Cold War, American society promoted the security of the nuclear family while overplaying the “horrors” and “evilness” of anything perceived as “un-American.” In this era, women were pressured to get married after high school and raise a family. For women who decided to seek higher education, it was for the purpose of getting married and being a better companion to her husband.

Lobo was different. She was a single professional in her early 30s when she was elected. The 1940 federal census shows she lived with her parents in their house. She was not bothered by the stereotype of a “lonely old maid” as she would remain single for the rest of her life, nor was she perceived as less successful because of her lack of professional legal training. As a well-liked and fair judicial officer, she held her position for 27 years before her retirement in 1977.

Furthermore, she continued to make great strides in challenging the all-male hierarchy when she became the first elected woman officer in the California Judges, Constables and Marshals Association in 1958, serving as the second vice president. Shortly afterward, she was elected the president of the organization.

Without a doubt, Lobo was a symbol of authority at work and a leader in the community. Many remembered her stern stares from the bench and her smiles at community functions. She was exceptional figure for her time, and her story provides a glimpse of working women of her era in America.

To learn more about our American work culture, the Merced County Courthouse Museum will bring to Merced a new Smithsonian traveling exhibit, “The Way We Worked,” on Thursday. On display for one month, this exhibit is about America’s working people, about where they worked, how they worked, what they wore to work, what conflicts existed at work, as well as the dangers and conditions of the workplace.

The exhibit celebrates stories of hope, strength, dedication, unity and bravery at work. An opening reception is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday. UC Merced labor history professor Mario Sifuentez will give a presentation on “The Making of the Working Class” at 6 p.m.

“The Way We Worked” is an exhibition created by the National Archives and is a Museum on Main Street project organized by the Smithsonian Institution. Support for Museum on Main Street has been provided by Congress. The exhibit has been made possible in California by Exhibit Envoy. For more information, call the Courthouse Museum at (209) 723-2401. The museum is at 21st and N streets in Merced.