Columns 2008

Why I’m on the train till the last stop

So in the end, history this year will be written by an African-American, not a woman. For a lot of women, not just Hillary Clinton, this is a huge disappointment. For those of us of a certain age, Hillary seemed to represent the only chance to see a female president in our lifetime.

There is a reason why this is such an issue for some women, a reason we tend to forget until we watch one of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies in which she prances around in pearls and high heels making him dinner while he laughs at the idea that his little lady could ever wrap her head around a check book and balance it.  Those weren’t just movie and TV fantasies.  Lucille Ball may have been an extremely competent corporate executive at Desilu Productions, but the reality for most women was more likely to be Laura Petrie except they did push their beds together.

As that saying goes, we’ve come a long way. But not so long that we can’t still remember what it used to be like or how hard we had to fight to make it better.

After Hillary finally conceded, I received an e-mail from a friend who asked that her name not be used but gave permission for me to repeat her story. She is a bright, capable woman who ended up both happily married and with a long and productive career. But it wasn’t also easy. Here’s what she remembers.

“In 1958 I built a mock-up of a nuclear reactor for the science fair.  I won in my category.  It was a trip to the Naval Academy.  I couldn’t go because I was a girl.  I got a transistor radio and the second place winner, a boy, got to go.  In 1960, I built a mock-up of a missile launching system.  I once again won in that category.  It was a trip to the Air Force Academy.  I couldn’t go because I was a girl.  The Air Force gave me a certificate of appreciation and the boy who won second place got to go.”

She goes on to relate how, when she was first married in the mid-sixties, she and her husband were both working and they applied for a loan to buy a car. The loan wasn’t approved because her husband didn’t make enough money and they wouldn’t count her income because she could get pregnant and quit. When the women’s movement started, she jumped on the first train leaving the station.  Does that surprise anyone?

Young women today aren’t as frantic as some of us older gals over getting a woman into the White House because they just assume it will happen in their lifetime and they are probably right. And despite the many comments made comparing Michelle Obama to Jacqueline Kennedy, the truth is that she is a high powered, hard charging attorney who probably takes a backseat to no one as her husband’s partner and confidante.  If she becomes First Lady, I doubt her legacy to the nation will be her fashion sense anymore than Hillary Clinton’s was her cookie recipes.

So I understand that I’m merely being impatient. But the young women for whom the future looks so bright and unlimited need to step back and understand just how close they are to the days when the only careers open to them were nursing and teaching.  And even in those fields, they earned less money and got less respect than their male counterparts. The majority of teachers may have been women, but the majority of administrative positions were held by men.

When I became a nurse in the late sixties, there were three male nurses at the hospital where I trained and worked. One of them was the nursing supervisor for evenings and one was the supervisor for days. I think that says it all.

So forgive us for being so impatient to see a woman grab the gold ring. But the bad old days aren’t history to us. They are our memories of growing up female. I’m happy Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee. It gives me incentive to keep exercising and taking my medicine so I can hang around long enough to cast the vote that elects the first woman president. 

I plan to ride this train to the last station.