A Woman’s Education: So, This is the Way It Works

1960 (age 7)

Mom and I take one of our “strolls” down the road and I ask, “When can I start doing dishes myself?” Later that day, she pulls a stool over to the sink. I climb up –and I begin.

1962(age 9)

As my mother bustles around the dinner table, my father regales us children with tales of our Quaker heritage – women ministers, abolitionists. But, on another night he says to me, proudly: “I bet thee can beat any guy thy age at arm wrestling.”

1963 (age 10)

We all have chores: I HATE washing/waxing the kitchen and bathroom floors. I WISH I could mow the lawn instead with my dad and brother.

1964 (age 11)

My father assigns me the chickens as my business project: Soon he will dub me Vice President in Charge of Egg Sales. I am HEADY with competence and responsibility.

1965 (age 12)

From my well-meaning, exasperated brother: “Ok, thee and Allie can play ice hockey with us guys, but ONLY if thee plays goalie.”

1966 (age 13)

From my half-joking dad as I come bounding down from the second floor: “Heavens, what a noise! Can’t thee walk down the stairs more like a lady?” (Grrrrrrr! I think.)

1967 (age 14)

In 4-H Club I dutifully sew & cook & raise strawberries and zinnias – SO dull and boring. But, finally, at the 4-H Fair I can’t contain myself; I sign up for the Greased Pig Contest even though Girls Don’t Do That! Little pig. Covered in Lard. One Minute Time Clock. I scramble after the piglet, reaching and grabbing for its scampering body so I can – supposedly — carry it, wiggling and gooey, to the pole in the center of the ring – all before the one minute bell rings. I FAIL miserably, feel ashamed – and triumphant.

1968 (age 15)

I am photographing my mother with other competent-looking YWCA administrators, for a newspaper story honoring workers for racial integration in the community; she is quiet, pleased; so am I – pleased as much for being a newspaper photographer as for seeing her honored.

1971 (age 18)

Why a women’s college? friends ask. Because I’m comfortable with boys, I say. I want to know what a women’s community is like. What I see: my mother’s close women friends are what carry her through.

 1972 (age 19)

In a new college course called “Women’s Studies,” a student says, “Have you tasted your menstrual blood yet?” She quotes Germaine Greer: To really know your self, accept your body, love yourself, you’ve got to taste your own woman blood. (Yuk, I think. Who are these crazies?)

1973 (age 20)

Dismissive student: Why do we need a Women’s Weekend to celebrate women’s culture when we live at a women’s college? I think, well, 70% of the faculty is still male, the English major is still defined as 90% male British writers….

1974 (age 21)

What Women Writers teach me: I enjoy the logical controls of verse in Keats and Wordworth, the complicated angst of T.S. Eliot, the playful spirit of e. e. cummings. But it’s the women who take hold of me – or at least, the accepted canon of women writers: Sylvia Plath understood – the thrill of creating/expressing/being (heard) and the under-life of daddy-haunted daughter, jilted lover, lonely hungry woman soul that finally just gave up. (This is troubling, and romantic).

Virginia Woolf understood – that room of one’s own, the gift of great books, paintings, light, shape, and silence. (And she committed suicide too. Can I protect myself, my prospects, by saying these women were too fine for this world? – unlike ordinary
me). Charlotte Perkins Gilman found the universal metaphor, the “yellow wallpaper” with the woman trapped behind the writhing vine-like pattern; strangled by men’s diagnoses, isolation, and spiritual starvation. She turned to women. I understand. [/slide]

1975 (age 22)

Katherine Graham, a famous newspaper publisher, comes to speak at our college: I ask, How do you help change the culture of the all-guy news room at the Washington Post? She pauses at the podium. “I — well, I do it by being the woman I am.”
(Years later, I will understand this existential abstraction. But at the time, this doesn’t help those of us feeling the hands pushing us to face news rooms, law schools, medical programs, and business schools where there are four women for every 100 men.)

1977 (age 24)

From my boyfriend’s Marxist/feminist sister: “You can’t really be a feminist unless you’re a lesbian – you have to love women and only women. Really, Beth, you’re too male-identified.” (Oy, I think. Here we are again. So many kinds of orthodoxy/rigidity/narrow exclusion. Isn’t there a contradiction here? Feminism opens doors, widens definitions, offers a broader inclusion of ways of being? Or am I just not getting it?)

1978 (age 25)

I am a struggling writer, barely paying my rent. Dad says: “Why doesn’t thee train as a truck driver? Thee’s a good driver; they make good wages…” I am impressed; he truly believes I can do anything I want.

1983 (age 30)

A friend in graduate school: “I won’t come to your wedding because I don’t believe in the institution of marriage – it’s bondage and socially constructed to treat you unequally – but, sure, I’ll come to dinner sometime.”

1987 (age 34)

So this is the way it works. He really does just work, help a little with babies, expect the woman to do it all and work too, because somehow his work is more important, his bigger bucks are more valued than personal contact with his own kids — that labor-intensive, unpaid doing of raising a child or two. Either he’s a throw-back to 1955 or nothing has changed despite all our hopes.

1989 (age 36)

So this is the way it also works: some marriage counseling, a list of things we will not argue about anymore, a bell to ring if the verbiage gets out of hand, clearer delineation of who does what – split the business of managing family down the middle and realize he might not be everything you wanted, but he offers all he knows how to do (So, compromise; let a lot go. And yes, it is a social construction after all; maybe that’s what saves us in the end: construct, consciously, what we need to make us work, according to who we are/not.)

1990 (age 37)

My sister-in-law: “You’re having a third child?! Nobody I know in Cambridge has three kids!” (The country of Cambridge: Am I supposed to laugh or to feel shame? I see a family as three kids — so it’s not just about me and him, or one of them. We’re a little village unto ourselves, and I feel whole, happy, despite all the work, tensions, re-adjustments.)

1995 (age 42)

My husband cooks and plans interior renovations. I work out every day and maintain the car. One son seems naturally empathetic; another cares a lot about shoes – even as they are ALL BOY, as some would say. A friend says: “It’s a spectrum – probably we’re all more 60/40 than one or the other extreme.”

2000 (age 47)

Busy with job and children, often exhausted. Surprised by Dad’s observation: “In 6 years, thee had three children, got a PhD and a job!” Under the blanket of responsibilities, I appreciate the appreciation. But I understand why more of us don’t try to juggle it all.

2011 (age 58)

Boys grow up; we’re still here. My eternally hopeful mantra:It’s the Serenity Prayer, after all: Accept the things I cannot change. Have the courage to change the things I can. Have the wisdom to know the difference. Knowing the difference is what keeps me awake at night. But daylight brings reprieve.

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