My first experience with overt sex discrimination came when I was 17 years old, a senior in high school. When it came time for the journalism teacher to select the staff for next year’s school newspaper, she asked to see me after school. She explained that while I would be her first choice for the editor, she was going to give the post to Win Koerper, “because we need a boy in that position.”
Usually the advantage routinely given to the male of the species wasn’t so blatantly expressed. Even more damaging were the silent sexist assumptions we all lived by.
I have a distinct memory of the day I realized that no one expected much of us girls—and it came as a great relief! The boys in my class were discussing what they ”wanted to be” and worrying about it. We girls just figured, like Mr.Micawber, that “something will turn up,” that “something” being most likely a husband who would support us.
Most of the girls in my college sorority were majoring in education (teaching being the standard fall-back position if you couldn’t find a husband.) I majored in journalism because one day a darling young reporter from the Kansas City Star named Mitzi visited our high school journalism class and I decided I wanted to be like her.
Once we found our husbands, we were expected to quit whatever job we might have and thereafter devote ourselves to family and home. I did that, but I had neither the training nor the talent to wrest from the happy homemaker role a significant enough accomplishment to satisfy me. Some women could do it. My mother-in-law, Mary Ellen, for instance.
She excelled at every aspect of homemaking, but she was more than wife and mother. Her most significant public accomplishment was that of a respected rosarian, winning trophy after trophy for the beautiful roses she cultivated.
It was she who convinced me early on that I’d never achieve excellence in the happy homemaker role, though that was not her intention, I’m sure. It happened this way:
Elly’s first birthday was approaching. We invited Herb’s parents to dinner to celebrate. Mary Ellen offered to make the cake. As the mother, I had the notion that I should make the cake so I declined her offer. She insisted. Therefore we had two cakes. My cake was the regulation nine-inch square two-layer cake with a candle on top. It had suffered some structural damage coming out of the oven, but with a judicious application of toothpicks and extra frosting, it was, I thought, acceptable.
Mary Ellen’s cake was a work of art: a three-dimensional stand-alone lamb! It wore a coat of shredded coconut, had blue icing eyes, and a little silver bell tied around its neck with a blue silk ribbon. One look at that damn lamb and it hit me that I would never make it as the happy homemaker.
Fortunately, I was married to a teacher and we needed money so I went back to school to become a teacher, too. Yes, it was the fall-back position. Since I would be home during vacation and holidays when my children were home, I figured I could still do right by them. (I should say, however, that if I had the opportunity do it over, I would still choose teaching, for I loved it.).
My husband certainly did not expect me to play the happy homemaker role, and in fact was not pleased when I tried too hard. Nevertheless I felt guilty when I didn’t try and inadequate when I did. Little did I know that it was our career as teachers that would provide me with an escape hatch and liberate me from the constraints of the “feminine mystique.”
Friends who taught in the Panama Canal Zone persuaded us to join them there for two years. As it turned out, we stayed for twenty. It was a great place to raise kids and to teach kids, who were for the most part respectful and willing to learn. The administration was pretty much hands off so we were free to be creative teachers and the pay was good. It was a nearly perfect teaching situation.
But there was another reason we stayed. Domestic help was readily available in Panama and so for 20 years, I was able to have full time help. Judith Vergara was my right hand, doing well all those things I was not very good at, (including beautiful embroidery) as well as those things I didn’t want to do, leaving me the time to concentrate on my career and enjoy my family. I will always be grateful to her.
Of course there was a price to pay. Except for summer vacation when we returned to the states for a visit, we were far from home. I missed my country and my family back home and most of all my own girls when they left the nest. But looking back, I can say it was well worth it. MK