I don’t know if it’s possible to explain to young women today just how different the current world is than the world in which I grew up. The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – RBG! – has started me down the path of memories of that world. Despite coming of age in the sixties, I was still a product in many ways of the fifties.
I grew up at a time when women had very limited options in life. Most women accepted that their lives would follow a well-worn path – grow up, maybe work a few years in an acceptable occupation, get married, stay home to raise the children, hope for some time with your husband after he retires and then die. While children and husbands can bring a lot of joy to your life, when it is the only life you can pick, that gets to be not so much fun.
Growing up I knew that there were limited professions acceptable to women until they married – retail, nursing, teaching or secretary. If you were pretty and skinny and could maintain those qualities, you could also be an airline stewardess. But that job timed out when you got old and the first wrinkles showed. Maintaining skinny and pretty was absolutely required. While boys got guidance on their future, girls got to go to home ec to learn how to cook a good meal for their hubby.
I had no idea that women didn’t have to view marriage and children as the only outcome for their lives. My mother certainly never spoke to me of a future that included a career. She wanted me to go to college but the expectation was that I would graduate with my MRS – i.e. a ring on my finger from an acceptable Catholic boy who was graduating from a Catholic college. Since I didn’t have much more than my BS at graduation, I was lost as to what came next.
I don’t really blame my mother for not guiding me. She had little guidance herself. In her first dinner with her new finance at his mother’s house, she found out that the women did not sit down to eat until the men had had all they wanted. Until then, they just served the men.
My generation was on the cusp. The sixties woke us up to the fact that women did, in fact, have all the capabilities of men when it came to all jobs except male stripping. And men could do almost all jobs that were being foisted on women. The only thing they couldn’t do was carry a baby for nine months. Once the baby was out, they had all that was needed to take care of it. But knowing this and acting on it were two different things. While some women may have heard the news and stretched their horizons, other women followed the traditional path. This caused a rift in my generation that is still not healed.
I wish that I had had the role models today’s young women have as they begin their adult lives. The choices offered to them contain a smorgasbord of careers. From the military to space and back, women now have entered almost every profession this country can offer. And while some of those professions are still woefully low on female power, the doors have been pushed open, the light is showing through the cracks and those doors will never be slammed in our faces again.
I couldn’t get a credit card in my name when I turned 21. Women couldn’t get one without their husband or father’s consent. Despite having won the right to vote decades earlier, I still couldn’t own property in my own name. I couldn’t make my own medical decisions. My husband or father was the ultimate arbiter. Everything we did as women was supervised and approved by some male because women were simply considered too delicate for the world and too dumb to survive alone in it.
RBG didn’t just take down walls, she took down mountains in her career. She pulled women into full citizenship and full humanity by sheer dint of her brilliance. Thanks to her there are women now in all rooms where decisions are being made.
Thanks, RBG. You made me whole when I didn’t even know I wasn’t.