My daughters almost didn’t believe me a few years ago when I told them that at their age practically the only respectable professions open to me were secretary, teacher, nurse or possibly social worker. My family thought that even though a Bachelor’s degree was necessary, I should become a nurse because it was a good career for a woman. My brothers were encouraged to be scientists and athletes.
My daughters were astonished to hear that women’s jobs use to have their own section in the newspaper, filled mainly with openings for nurses, secretaries and teachers as well as jobs for child care providers and housekeepers. There were no fire fighters, only firemen. No mail carriers, only mailmen. Lawyers, doctors, pilots, engineers, scientists and the military were always assumed to be men’s professions. Jobs were always manned (versus staffed), and all sorts of employment terminology was otherwise gendered to exclude women. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who graduated third in her class at the Stanford Law School in 1952, was refused even an interview with at least 40 law firms because she was a woman.
There was no Title IX until 1972. The only interscholastic sport girls participated in at my high school was tennis. I was an excellent swimmer, but there was no swim team; I was a good archer as well but was told archery was a “boy’s sport.” Instead of playing sports, girls tried out for cheerleader, song girl, flag girl, majorette or the drill team.
Misogyny, both from within my family and from the outside community, was a constant companion growing up. I was forever being told that I couldn’t do things, or go places my brother could because I was a girl, although I could easy beat up my brother until high school – I was strong! Girls were not allowed to wear pants or jeans at my public high school; we had to wear a ‘uniform’ of a gray or black skirt to cut back on ‘competition.’ There was no uniform for boys though. I remember being called in and ordered to kneel once in front of a ‘jury of my peers’ because someone reported that my skirt was too short (it wasn’t), a humiliating experience. My sister and I were expected at a young age to make our beds every morning and pick up after ourselves because that’s what girls did, while my mother made my brothers’ beds every day and cleaned their room. I was told I needed to learn how to cook and sew and clean in order to “catch a husband,” and women in the community often winked and asked if I was going to college to earn my “M.R.S. degree.”
While I was in college, I worked in a nursing home as an aide, where men were paid more for doing the same work as the female aides; I was threatened with termination when I brought it up to management. Women did end up getting a raise, although we were still paid less than the men and still did the same work. I’ve had friends though who had to sue to receive the same pay men were getting for the same work, or because they were denied a promotion because they were female. At one job I applied for the first question the manager asked another employee when she took back my application was whether or not I was ‘good looking.’ Wearing pants to work? Not allowed until I was in my 30s. I’ve been touched inappropriately at work, called ‘honey’ and ‘babe’ by male co-workers, and informed I didn’t dress ‘sexy enough.’ An instructor told me I could get a better grade if I went out with him; I was reprimanded when I reported the harassment to his (male) superior. The only job I was ever let go from, at age 23, was because I wouldn’t play along with another male employee higher up in the chain.
Brett and I have raised our daughters to believe that they can do anything they set their minds to, that no goal is out of their reach, and no career or path is closed to them. We have never expected them to feel tied to any role, or bound by anyone else’s outdated or misogynistic requirements. I think we’ve done a good job, and I feel sorry for anyone who tries to tell them what to do, how to dress, or heaven forbid, touches them inappropriately because they are women.
Our young daughters are feeling crushed and confused now, and frightened as well about the future. They heard how our President-elect talked about women during the election, from grabbing their private parts to calling his opponent ‘nasty’ to saying he could do what he wanted to women because he was famous. They saw the ugly words on the t-shirts many of his supporters wore, the signs they carried, and heard the slurs that were used to describe women. They watched as the press allowed this behavior to become normalized during the election, how people who shouldn’t have looked the other way did exactly that.
Women have been knocked down, abused, ignored and not taken seriously for far too long, even by other women. We continue on nevertheless because that’s what women do. We’ve always been strong, competent, experienced and fierce even though those qualities haven’t been and still aren’t always appreciated. We are not equal no matter what we do though; misogyny still runs deep through our society and colors our lives and our worlds. If you don’t believe misogyny played a large part in Tuesday’s election results, start by imagining a woman, from either party, running for president with five children from three (still living) husbands, and think about how far she would get with that as part of her background.
I no longer believe a woman will reach the top of the ladder during my life time. I have to continue to hope it will happen in my daughters’.