A couple of years ago, my husband brought home an old bar association face book from 1978. It featured photographs of all the attorneys in my state for that year. As we flipped through, chuckling at the younger visages of many attorneys we know, my husband professed shock that virtually all the attorneys in our state that year were men, except for a very small handful of women.
I was shocked that he was shocked. After all, he was eleven years old in 1978 so he should remember what it was like. I was only 7 back then but I sure remember it. The near-total male domination of the public realm of our society back then was an awful black cloud over my childhood.
As an only child of ambitious parents, I’d been brought up to aspire to great things. My ambitions at various points included being a spy, a teacher, a trial lawyer, a research scientist, a writer, a detective, and President of the United States of America. But I worried constantly, from very earliest childhood, whether my society or my circumstances would let me do what I wanted to do.
Because the reality around me did not match up with the goals my parents encouraged. All the women I knew were housewives. Other than my great aunt, all the professionals I knew were men (at least until the early ‘80s). There were no women professionals in my father’s organization. We collectively referred to my father’s colleagues’ wives as “the wives.” The wives cooked and cleaned during any social gatherings while the men lolled about and discussed Important Things.
The boys did cool things like play soccer. There were no sports available to me or my female peers until later, when I hit middle school, by which time we were pretty pathetic in terms of our skills. Our gym teachers (always women) seemed to actively despise the little girls -- one told us that we could never, ever, ever be better than the boys no matter how hard we tried, and another divided our class into competing groups with male leaders and female helpers. The Boy Scouts went camping in the woods, while the Girl Scouts had campouts in someone’s backyard. In general, boys got yelled at more but they got Respect, while we girls had to be content with a pat on the head.
Everything I read or saw confirmed what seemed an almost inevitable male dominance. I searched history books for strong female figures and found them all too few and far between. Major American events like Miss America and football, with its cheerleaders smiling inanely on the sidelines, were exercises in the degradation of women. Other major events like Princess Diana’s wedding in 1981 also seemed to be reminders of our lowly status -- in that case we learned that any daughter she might have would automatically be second in line to the throne after any boys. To borrow from a popular schoolyard taunt, everywhere I looked the message I got was, “Men rule, women drool.”
There was some feminist consciousness in our household-- enough that I embraced the word “feminist” very early on -- but for the most part everyone around me seemed frustratingly sanguine about the state of things. Meanwhile, I fretted ALL the time about what all this would mean for me when I grew up. What if I grew up and found myself married? (I never thought of marriage as something I would want to do; it seemed more like an inevitable adult situation.) Would any man really be willing to follow me to all the places my career might take me overseas? What if I had a child? Who would take care of the child? What if the man didn’t want to do any housework or childcare? (After all, I’d never seen a man who did.) Also, wouldn’t employers be afraid to hire someone like me who might end up having a baby? And would employers want to hire me if their clients might think I would be inferior to the male employees? And how could I command respect when women and girls didn’t seem to be respected in general?
I talked to my parents enough to see the issues but not enough to see any solutions. The only responses I got were empty promises of, “You can do anything a boy can if you set your mind to it!” and “Maggie Thatcher did it!” But secretly I thought it seemed hopeless at times -- and I came from a family that was about as supportive as it is possible to be in terms of female ambition.
There were glimmers of hope, of course. I reveled in my discovery of Elizabeth I, whom I still adore. I was vaguely aware of a few women politicians. And in the ‘80s, there seemed to be more and more professional women and high profile female athletes, like my other heroine, Joan Benoit. I hope things were better for the generation ten years younger than I. I suspect, however, that girls still have long conversations in adolescence about how they will go about balancing motherhood and career, while boys just think career.
Fortunately, things have turned out better for me than I could have hoped. I don’t believe that I have encountered any sexism in my professional life, and I have had a rewarding and successful career thus far. (Of course, not having a child could have a lot to do with it.)
But my experience growing up was vastly different than my husband’s. Think of all the fears churning in my head while he was skipping along to Little League, proclaiming that he wanted to be an astronaut, and assuming all structures were in place to aid him in accomplishing that. Dealing with that early sense of doom in my childhood is what made me a feminist and remembering it keeps me one.