From Fascinating Womanhood to Finding Your Voice

September
17th, 2017
Camryn Walton
Categories: Company Culture
September
17th, 2017
Camryn Walton
Categories: Company Culture

An Interview with My Grandmother on Gender Equality

Strawberry salad with a cup of lobster bisque. This has been my order for the past seven years when I head home for long weekends and holidays and enjoy lunch with my grandmother—my “Nana.” During these lunches, we talk about everything from politics to our ancestry to relationships to baby goats to religion. I cherish these lunches dearly and look forward to so many more.

Last month, Joe gave me a platform to write about my take on the current state of gender equality. I presented some research, highlighted a few organizations who I think are doing it right, and concluded with my ideas for how we can continue pushing the conversation forward in a positive direction.

And then I held my breath as I posted it on social media. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with the most compelling comment coming from Nana:

“Very well written, thought provoking, and important topic, Camryn! It is a topic I have long pondered as I think about my paternal grandmother who was married in 1898 and not allowed to vote and my mother who was 14 years old when in 1920 the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. In my Mother’s Day most women were homemakers or teachers or nurses, which were considered acceptable professions in that era. After I became a mother and completed a Master’s Degree the message to women in the 1980’s was that women could have it all – motherhood and a profession. However no one told us that we would have little help parenting and keeping things going at home, so the result was that it could be exhausting. I remember being astounded in 1994 when my female supervisor explained a male counterpart had a higher salary than myself as he was single and I was married, even though we had the same education and work load. What a strange justification for paying women less! Thank you for advancing the conversation about this most important issue. Progress from the earliest suffragettes to your generation has been slow but I am most hopeful equality in pay, representation (i.e., look at the US Congress) and all areas of female experience will advance exponentially in the near future. Keep up the good work! #thefutureisfemale”

Naturally, I had to follow-up with her as I had a million questions after reading that comment. So I interviewed her. We chatted for almost two hours, digging into her life growing up, raising a family, and joining the workforce.

I feel incredibly grateful to not only have Nana, but so many strong women in my life who have taught me how to find my voice. Here’s a snapshot of where my voice has come from:

On growing up in the 1950s…

CW: Tell me about your mom and dad growing up.

Nana: My mother wasn’t married until she was 28, so she was kind of older getting married in that era. The women then always deferred to their husbands when making any decisions. My mother was a farm woman, she worked really hard on the farm, but she didn’t have an income per se, because she was just working at home. So she used to raise chickens and then she would sell the eggs ands he got to keep her egg money. She also milked the cows because my father had rheumatoid arthritis in his hands, and that was diagnosed when they were first married. So they either had to sell the cows or my mother had to take over the milking. So she did. She sold cream from the milk, and she got to keep the cream money. That was how she had a little money of her own.

CW: Did your mom work outside of the farm?

Nana: She was a country school teacher. My father was also a teacher. Back then, you didn’t have to graduate to teach at a country school, so I’m not sure how many years they each went to school. But then once they were married, my mother was no longer to teach school because back in the day, it was expected that a young married woman would become pregnant. They hid pregnancy from children. So there was no way that a women could be a school teacher and be pregnant. So they wouldn’t hire her as a young married woman. That was just normal. If you got married, you quit teaching.

Back then, when I was growing up in the 50s, the only professions of women who worked outside the home that I was aware of, were either nurses or teachers and maybe a secretary. But there wasn’t a wide variety. Most of my friend’s mothers didn’t work, they were homemakers. Women weren’t working outside of the home very much.

CW: What was the conversation around gender equality as you were going through high school around going to college and getting a job?

Nana: A lot of my friends went to college straight out of high school. But many young women were not career oriented and expected at college they would meet their future husbands and be able to  live a comfortable life as a stay at home mom, if that is what they wanted to do. Some who went into teaching (a predominant occupation for women in those days) continued in that profession for several years, as it worked well with raising a family. But I didn’t really have any friends who went into engineering or any of the professions that young women go into now.

Most women deferred to their husbands on making decisions. But my mother differed from my father on how to raise my sister and I. She wanted us to be involved in 4H club, Rainbow Girls, go to school dances. Even though we went to the Baptist Church and the Baptists didn’t believe in dancing or playing cards, my mother bucked it and said that my sister and I could do those things.

My mother thought these things were important to us socially, but my father would have been happy for us to have just stayed on the farm. My mother wouldn’t allow my sister and I to drive the tractor because – and this is funny – she thought it would be too rough and it might mess up our reproductive functions. It would be too hard on a female body to do a lot of farm work. Even though she did it – she worked right alongside my father – she wouldn’t allow us to. She also realized that my father would have turned us into farm boys if he could have. But she wasn’t going to have that. She insisted that we took piano lessons because in this day, all young women took piano lessons and had some sort of refinement going. We weren’t going to be out working in the fields on the tractor.

CW: Do you remember being in high school and making plans after graduation?

Nana: I thought I may go to college, but then I ended up getting married. So then all of the emphasis was on my husband getting an education. So I went to work to help him get his education. I didn’t go to college until I had had five children and your uncle Damon was two years old.

There weren’t many women who were going to chiropractic college at that time. We lived in a trailer court adjacent to the college where a lot of the married students lived. All of the women were out working, while the men were going to school. A couple women had day care services in their home, because some of the women, like myself, had a child while their husbands went to college. There were some women who watched the children while the other women went to work.

I went to work for a company called Chromcraft Corporation in downtown St. Louis when your uncle Rodney was about 4-5 months old. When he was a year old, I went to work for McDonnell Douglas because they would not hire a woman if her child was less than a year old. I guess they felt like the mother would have to stay home with their child more often? But that was their policy and today, that would be discriminatory.

On joining the workforce in the 1960s…

CW: What type of work were you doing?

Nana: I was doing secretarial work. I was in an area where I would be sent out to other offices, so if someone was sick in another office, I would fill in. A lot of the time, I would fill in at the lobby as a receptionist. They would have vendors come in, and I liked that a lot, working in the lobby because a lot of interesting people came in. While I was there, President Kennedy came – I didn’t see him – but he came and visited the facility.

CW: Whenever you think back to that time, how do you remember it?

Nana: I remember it as a stressful time. Having a little one and going to work and your grandpa was busy with his studies so we didn’t have a lot of time together. We were broke all of the time. If we went and got an ice cream cone, that was a treat.

CW: At that point, were you thinking about politics or women’s rights? Was there any talk about that?

Nana: This might sound strange, but I call that my “Dark Days” era. I felt shut off from the world. I had friends at work, but I wasn’t really aware of what was going on in the world. We had a television but didn’t really watch it very much. I was pretty unaware of what was going on. I certainly hadn’t found my own voice as far as speaking up for myself. I think I was still living out what I had seen modeled by my family and my parents. The man was the person who made the decision and I was there to help out and do what I could financially.

CW: Did you vote?

Nana: Nope, I don’t remember voting. Not during that time period.

CW: Where did your parents fall politically?

Nana: My parents were Republican, but I don’t remember a lot of talk of politics in our home – maybe because we didn’t have a television. We got a newspaper every day and my dad was a voracious reader. But I just don’t remember much discussion of politics.

On being a woman in the 1970s…

Nana: Pappy and I used to go to chiropractic seminars, and at these conferences, the men would go to educational classes and they would have separate programming for the women. This programming was something called “Fascinating Womanhood” which was a book written by a lady by the name of Helen Andelin. I googled recently and the book is still available. The whole philosophy was what you could do to make your man happy. When we went to these classes, we put these little pink bows in our hair. So we were walking around the seminar with these little pink bows in our hair showing that we were going to this class and the philosophy was that if you really put your husband first and make him happy, then he will reward you. Women would get up and give testimonials and show a diamond ring that they had gotten because they had been a fascinating woman.

We were told that we should describe ourselves as a “domestic goddess” not a homemaker, but we were domestic goddesses. The entire philosophy was very archaic. I was almost tempted to order the book to read it again. At the time, I quested the whole thing. I can see some good in it – but it was things like “wear a fancy neglige, seduce your husband and he’s going to be really happy with you.” It was manipulative, instead of being honest and finding your own voice and sharing your own opinions and being who you were.

On getting a master’s degree while raising a family in the 1980s…

CW: You mentioned that there was a shift in the 80s to an idea that women could have it all – a profession and a family. Is that when you decided to go back to school?

Nana: Your uncle Damon was two-years-old when I started school and it took five years to get my bachelor’s degree, because I was going part-time. After I got my degree, I started working at the mental health center and started going for my master’s degree part-time. So it took another five years to complete that degree, because I was also working full-time. I was about 43 years old when I got my master’s degree.

CW: Reflecting on the shift from cows and chickens… to going to school to find a husband… to working so your husband can get a degree… to learning how to be a proper wife… to the 80s, when “women could have it all.” Can you speak to living during that shift in the overall narrative? Do you remember what that was like?

Nana: Exhausting. It was exhausting. I say that it was a myth… that you could have it all. Especially if you were single. By that time, I was a single mother so there wasn’t anyone else at home to help out. So it was exhausting. But I don’t regret it for a minute. I remember it as a time where I was very tired, but I was also very proud that I had accomplished what I had always wanted, which was a college degree.

I found it very liberating – the education and the camaraderie with coworkers. Then when I went on to work at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield, I really found my profession just what I wanted it to be. At that point, I worked around a lot of psychiatrists that I learned something from every day. They were willing to share their knowledge. I felt like I had arrived, where I was meant to be. From the woman who was supposedly, “the fascinating woman” and then having a profession and being respected for what I knew and what I could do.

Then when I was working at the hospital… one memorable thing was talking to my female supervisor about the fact that the pay was inequitable between myself and a male therapist. I used to work circles around him because I would stay late to accommodate a family who couldn’t get in until a certain time, and he was out the door at 5 o’clock sharp every day. I carried a much greater case load than he did, and I knew he made more money than I did.

When I talked to my supervisor, her answer was that — and at that time I was remarried — he was a single person so he only had one income and I was a married person and I had two incomes. And that was her justification. Interestingly enough, she was a single person also.

CW: What was the conversation like with your friends, coworkers, family members, media, etc. during this time?

Nana: The articles in the women’s magazines were all about “you can have it all.” I was in bridge club at the time and the majority of the women were college educated and several of them who were teachers. I think the ones who weren’t working outside of the home, somehow weren’t measuring up because the propaganda was that you should get out there and go for it. If they weren’t doing that, I think they felt that they weren’t measuring up somehow.

So that was a downfall for women who opted to stay home because that’s a worthy thing to do, also. I had one friend who only went to a year of college and then got married, so she was a homemaker. But she always felt like she was missing out. Where those of us who were out there “having it all” were pretty tired (laughs).

But at the same time, we were realizing our dreams. So it was worth it.

I always encouraged your Aunt Shawna that she would go to college, just like her brothers would. I thought it was very important for her to have those messages.

On gender rights and equality: where we’ve been and where we’re going…

CW: What is your reaction to the current landscape?

Nana: I think women are more and more finding their voices. I think your generation is finding your voices more so than your mother’s and certainly mine.

CW: What was the conversation like with your friends, coworkers, family members, media, etc. during this time?

Nana: The articles in the women’s magazines were all about “you can have it all.” I was in bridge club at the time and the majority of the women were college educated and several of them who were teachers. I think the ones who weren’t working outside of the home, somehow weren’t measuring up because the propaganda was that you should get out there and go for it. If they weren’t doing that, I think they felt that they weren’t measuring up somehow.

So that was a downfall for women who opted to stay home because that’s a worthy thing to do, also. I had one friend who only went to a year of college and then got married, so she was a homemaker. But she always felt like she was missing out. Where those of us who were out there “having it all” were pretty tired (laughs).

But at the same time, we were realizing our dreams. So it was worth it.

I always encouraged your Aunt Shawna that she would go to college, just like her brothers would. I thought it was very important for her to have those messages.

On gender rights and equality: where we’ve been and where we’re going…

CW: What is your reaction to the current landscape?

Nana: I think women are more and more finding their voices. I think your generation is finding your voices more so than your mother’s and certainly mine.

Pappy and I were divorced in the late 70s and after that, I needed to get a credit card. But I had difficulty getting a credit card because I was a single woman. I think today, a lot of college students have credit cards. But here I was – a woman in my 40s – and I owned a farm, but I had trouble getting a credit card because my name had never been on anything. When I was married, everything was in my husband’s name.

Another story I wanted to share with you is that in the 70s after I had my master’s degree, I went for an interview for the Director of Public Health. I probably wasn’t very qualified for it because I didn’t have that kind of a background – mine was in psych. But they called me for an interview. There were five men on a panel to do the interview, and they didn’t ask me any serious questions. One of them complimented my hair. I came out just shaking my head – I would like to talk about my education and life experience, but they didn’t ask me any pertinent questions. I felt like they were just going through the motions because I was female.

We’ve come a long way from being listed as “his woman” on the ship’s logbook, but I think we still have a long way to go. I think our current president is certainly not helping. But I guess progress is that you take two steps forward and one step back, and eventually you get to where you want to go.

CW: I am a woman in the workforce, who is in a relationship, and who wants to start a family someday. What advice do you have for me?

Nana: To not suppress your own voice. Naturally, in relationships, we need to compromise. But we all need to find our own voice and be true to ourselves. Sometimes that will mean a natural give and take… as long as you aren’t always giving. If you’re always giving, then you aren’t finding your own voice. You need to speak up about how you want things to be, both in a relationship and in the workforce and in the world.

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