Monday, July 11, 2011

The Worlds We Knew

Women born in and around the Baby Boom generation -- and that accounts for a lot of us -- grew up in one world, came of age in another and are growing older in yet another. It has been a exhilarating, frustrating, joyous and arduous process.

We grew up in a world of limited options and expectations for women.

Growing up in the Fifties, I saw very few women in our neighborhood working outside their homes, except for Yvonne, the woman across the street, the veteran of several divorces, who worked at the local Fosters Freeze. All of the women had worked through the Depression and the war years -- my mother as a nurse, an American Airlines flight attendant and, finally, as an emergency services nurse who rode the ambulance out to the runways of the testing facilities at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to pick up casualties of plane crashes. Liz had been a night club pianist. Eleanor was a private secretary to a aircraft company executive. Now they were all wives and stay-at-home moms and life wasn't always as portrayed in "Leave It to Beaver."

Sure, they loved their husbands. They loved their kids. They kept life humming along for their families in their cozy suburban homes. But, for some, there was something amiss.  I overhead their complaints when my mother and the neighbor women got together for coffee at our house many mornings. They were bored and felt unappreciated and stuck. Some of them drank too much. Some of them smoked one cigarette after another. Some, like my mother, ate out of frustration. I listened and promised myself that this would not be my life.

It seemed that as invisible as they felt at times, stay-at-home wives and mothers were blamed for everything -- from Vance Packard's best-selling indictment of "Mom-ism" and his dire observation that the nation's mothers were raising "a generation of vipers" to the dreaded "ring-around-the-collar" of detergent commercial fame.  In the commercials, the man was never embarrassed when others noticed his filthy collar. It was the wife who cringed, because, of course, it was her fault that his collar was stained -- or even that he didn't keep his neck clean. It seemed that our mothers just couldn't win.

Even in school, the nuns would tell us our options were to grow up to be good Catholic wives and mothers or, even better, to be a nun.  I started sending for convent literature when I was 12.

About that time, dreaming of independence, I used to play a fantasy game: picking up the newspaper want ads and, pretending that I was twentysomething, would spend an hour, just for fun, pretending to look for a job, an apartment and a car, circling the ads that looked most promising.  But what was frustrating was that all of the most interesting jobs came under the heading "Help Wanted: Men".  Just about all I could find under "Help Wanted: Women" were jobs that were for "Gal Friday!" and "Super Secretary!" and "Easy, Fun Job!" None of those fired my imagination, but I'd pick the best of the worst and go on to find my apartment and car.

Life started changing in college and graduate school. I went to Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism -- and women were taken seriously, to a point.  We were encouraged to major in Magazine -- the worst paying, most female dominated branch of journalism at that time. Women were actively discouraged from a Broadcast Journalism major because, the dean told us, "We don't want to train you for a field where you won't be able to get a job. Women just aren't being hired for broadcast, especially for on-camera jobs."  It was true. My classmate and friend Marie Traina stubbornly insisted on a Broadcast major. After graduation, she was unable to find a broadcasting job -- on camera or off -- and ended up working as a newspaper reporter, winning an award her first year at the paper. The beginning of new opportunities for women as television reporters and anchors came about five years after my class graduated.

But at least there was a nod toward competent women in our class: the few female instructors in the program inspired us. And when an honors seminar was established at the end of freshman year, it was equally divided between men and women. And the women very much held their own in discussions and achievements in school and in life beyond.

When we, the leading edge of the Baby Boomers, graduated from college in the late Sixties, opportunities were opening at a rate that would have astonished our mothers back in the day. But there were still constraints starting out.

In my case, magazine jobs paid so horribly that the expectation was, at least in New York, that indulgent parents would help support their daughters until they married.  In Los Angeles, where I started my magazine career, there was only one consumer magazine publishing group that had editiorial offices in L.A.  The company published a full list of major magazines targeted at men -- Motor Trend, Hot Rod, Photographic, Guns and Ammo -- and one magazine aimed at a female audience - 'TEEN.  It was no secret that the female editors of 'TEEN made less money than the secretaries of the editors of the other magazines. Company honchos told the EEOC that 'TEEN was a separate enterprise, after all.  And, besides, if any of us didn't like working for low wages, we could just leave. The publisher could easily find eager young college grads who would work for those wages.

Because I was the first young editor hired with a Master's degree in journalism from a prestigious school, the publisher offered me a better deal: instead of making $350 a month, I would be starting at $400. Even in 1968 that was a ridiculously low wage. However,  I jumped at the opportunity -- and long term, it was an excellent decision. The experience and exposure I would gain in my nine years at 'TEEN would set the tone and provide the groundwork for the rest of my career.

But before I could start, I -- and all of the other female staffers -- had to endure a grilling from the corporation's Human Resources Director. He was tall, skinny, pallid and socially awkward. He read from a list of prepared questions on a tattered index card -- and one of the questions made my jaw drop: "What form of birth control are you using?"

I stared at him and stammered "Nothing! I mean, I'm a virgin! I don't even have a boyfriend."

He looked over his glasses at me. "You're 23 years old."

I nodded, feeling ashamed and already like a failure. "I know," I said. "Guys don't like me. This guy in college dumped me because I wanted a career and he wanted a wife. I don't know if I'll ever get married."  I could feel my cheeks burning.

"Well," he said. "When we hire girls for editorial positions, we want to make sure they're going to stay at least a year or two. We don't want anyone getting pregnant and leaving after six months."

I stared down at my hands, humiliated. "I won't," I whispered. "I promise I won't."

This unhappy rite of passage at the company persisted into the early Seventies. As time went on, female applicants increasingly confronted him about the question, complaining that it felt intrusive.  But it took a British journalist named Ellen to bring an end to it forever.  A well-known writer and television host in England, with a quick wit and short temper, Ellen stared at him when he asked her the question. Silence.

He asked once more: "What form of birth control do you use?"

She looked him in the eye and answered "Fellatio!"

He never asked the question again.

We came of age at a time when women had more options than ever before.

Times were changing, after all, in the Seventies as feminism captured the imagination of a significant segment of Baby Boomer women. Legislative changes opened more doors. Workplaces began to change. Want ads no longer labeled jobs male or female only.

We were evolving from the constraints we had known growing up to the heady advances of the Seventies and Eighties when we dared to dream, walked the halls in our power suits and learned to multi-task.  We were coming of age in an era where we believed we could have it all: a career, a marriage, children -- just like men.

Only we found out that we couldn't really, at least not all at the same time.

The limitations were evident to me in the personal histories of those ten men and women in the honors seminar at Northwestern: the five men all went on to have high profile careers, enduring marriages and multiple children.  Of the five women, one chose to forgo a career for marriage and children. The remaining four of us opted for high profile careers. Only one of the four was ever a mother -- and her only child was born when she was in her early forties and well established.

Overall, women's lives weren't always in such stark contrast to men's, but there were concessions to the demands of child-raising with years of career-building put on hold or concessions to work with a generation of latch-key kids or various combinations over time. There was the Mommy Track. There were media-fueled "Mommy Wars" and glass ceilings that began to seem unbreakable. We were the most educated and ambitious generation of women ever, coming of age in an era of growing opportunities for women and concurrent tough choices.  Having it all was an incredible challenge.

Perhaps not by accident, inflation and growing wage stagnation made it more difficult for families to enjoy a middle class lifestyle on one salary. Increasingly, women had to work.  For those of us with careers we loved, the situation wasn't as difficult -- except for women who faced the prospect of leaving young babies or small children in the care of another.  For women who would have preferred to stay home with their children, leaving them to go to work could be agonizing.  And, in the Eighties and Nineties, the stay-at-home-with-the-children Mom whom some of us had foolishly scorned as we grew up in the Fifties became an envied lifestyle -- either the option of a parent who was affluent enough not to have to work outside the home or one who, with a partner, had made major financial sacrifices to give the children full-time nurturing.  And we realized, over time, that there were no easy choices or answers in our quest to have it all.  There were times when some of us looked back with a certain nostalgia on the simple certainty of our mothers' lives.

We're growing older in an increasingly uncertain world.

We're growing older in a rapidly changing world of increased uncertainty -- uncertainty about the stability of our careers and earning futures, uncertainty about the possibility or stability of our retirement as controversy swirls about cuts to Social Security and Medicare.  Some Boomers are considering the possibility that they will need to work until they are 70 or beyond --or, perhaps, never retire. At the same time, unemployment is disastrously high and particularly problematic for those in their forties, fifties or early sixties who face particularly steep odds as they search for new jobs.

We're watching and worrying as younger generations face challenges many of us didn't have: the prohibitive cost of college, the crushing burden of student loans, fewer jobs, the prevalence of no-pay or low-pay internships, the daunting cost of getting launched into an independent life.

We're watching as both political parties appear to put the interests of corporations and Wall Street, of political ambitions and strategies above the good of the nation and citizens in the economic lower 98%.
And we wonder what's to become of our country and of us.

We're learning, in a time of diminishing prospects and expectations, to find pleasure where we can, to live in the moment and cherish each day.  In an age where simplification and frugality have become the new standard, we're learning to live with no-frills and are happier than we had ever imagined on less than we planned.

There are times, even now, when we look back with a hint of nostalgia at the simple certainty of our mothers' lives in the Fifties. And then we remember their frustration and paltry options.  There are times when we look back at our own certainty, ambition and optimism in those heady, busy coming of age years -- and then we remember the difficult, sometimes heart-rending choices that had to be made. And, increasingly, there are times when we are grateful for our lives today -- times when we cherish the opportunity to look back on our lives and decide what has mattered most, times when we appreciate anew the value of family, friendships and enduring love. 


  1. This is one of the most important blogs you have penned. I remember those days and how women were so undervalued that it tormented my mother into some of the conditions you described. As an independant working woman, I remember telling my bosses when I was expected to get coffee, "If you wanted someone to do something that they considered immoral, would you still want them to do it?" All the replies were to the extent of, "No! Certainly Not." My reply was, "Good! Then you'll get your own coffee." Their replies were mixed, but all of them expressed embarrassment and shame: "I could use the exercise." "Of course, you're right." "My wife would tend to agree with you." The only person who was upset that I didn't have to get them coffee was the older woman who grew up in the era of women subservance. She tried to intimidate me into getting coffee for her boss as not to feel bad about part in accepting subservance. I was replacing her as she replaced someone else. It was a temp job. I didn't let her do a guilt trip on me that her ex-boss felt bad that I didn't get coffee for him. Because he didn't. He wasn't a neanderthal, he just acted like the rest did until it was pointed out that the behavior was unkind to women. I hope I did my small part to improve the lives of working women ;-) If one of them would just have taken the cue and not gotten coffee for her boss when she returned, since he really saw the light and didn't mind at all not having a woman wait on him hand and foot. NOW, if only the young women of today will not let all of our bra burning go to waste!

  2. Whew! A lot of work went into this post - I have had to skim it because there are so many wonderful blogs to keep up with and not enough time. I was born in 1950, so I relate. Loved the Fellatio bit! Looking forward to reading more of your posts.