GENERATIONS: A Century of Women
Speak about Their Lives
By Myriam Miedzian & Alisa Malinovich
BY MYRIAM MIEDZIAN
At the beginning of the twentieth century a woman's life expectancy was fifty-one years. Women did not have the right to vote, and if a married woman worked outside of the home (only five percent did), in many states the law awarded her husband complete control over her salary. Sex and pregnancy were considered so embarrassing that they were rarely talked about and many pregnant women never went out in public after they started to show.
As we approach the twenty-first century, it seems fitting to stop and take note of the extraordinary journey women have traveled over the last hundred years. In recent decades, volumes have been written on women's history, and endless polls, questionnaires, and research studies have focused on the contemporary American woman. As a result our knowledge has been greatly enriched. But there are different ways of knowing. Listening to women tell stories of their own lives, uninterrupted by analysis or comment, of what it was like in 1920, 1950, or 1990 to grow up, to go to school, to fall in love, to work and raise children, permits us to capture the detail, emotions, and complexities of life as experienced. The stories compiled here make women's history and the lives of contemporary women come alive in a way that writing about them or compiling statistics cannot.
Never before in human history has change occurred as rapidly as in this century.
The oldest women to tell their stories in the following pages were born at a time when the country was largely rural and agricultural, when electricity was a luxury and movies were silent, and when the desegregation laws of the civil rights movement were still fifty-odd years in the future. To travel twenty miles was a day's journey by horse and buggy. Divorce was scandalous and rare, and many women wore corsets so tight that they sometimes led to fainting spells. Skirts had to cover the ankles, and makeup was worn almost exclusively by prostitutes. Of course, there were always people who broke the rules-for instance, one woman in her eighties tells us that already at the turn of the century her socialist parents and their friends considered marriage bourgeois and simply lived together.
The end of the First World War and the onset of the 1920S brought change on a major scale. Women won the right to vote, and many young women rebelled against Victorian culture. Flappers scandalized their neighbors by wearing short skirts, bobbing their hair, putting on makeup, and smoking. But the enjoyment of these newfound freedoms was soon dampened by the 1928 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression of the 1930S. Now we hear stories of poverty and hardship, and of the hope aroused by Franklin Roosevelt's promises to create jobs for tens of millions of unemployed Americans. The depression is followed by the upheavals and tragic losses of World War II. The war also brings major changes in women's work. In order to replace the men who are off fighting, women in large numbers are recruited for jobs that had previously been closed to them.
As the century progresses, sexual and social mores continue to change, and by the 1940S and '50S a generation of teenage girls is jitterbugging at high school dances and "making out" in the backseats of cars. These young women tend to marry very young and often have children by the time they are twenty. Their daughters' and younger sisters' stories carry us through the social and cultural upheaval of the sixties and seventies -they take us to Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury, to pro-civil rights and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. Many of them and many of their mothers and older sisters are deeply affected by the women's movement and in large numbers embark on careers and lifestyles undreamt of by the oldest women. The youngest group of women to tell their stories grow up during and after these upheavals. Many of them have divorced parents. Marriage and children are no longer their primary life goals. Becoming a doctor, lawyer, or policewoman is normal, and so is teenage sex.
The century-long life span covered by these stories gives us a sense of how deeply each generation takes for granted the social and cultural environment in which it was raised. In the last thirty years, the rate of social and cultural change has been so dramatic that many women have been caught in between, starting out with one set of attitudes and then shifting to a completely different perspective. Take Jane Foley, born in New Orleans in 1919. Jane talks about how it never occurred to her until the civil rights movement that there was anything wrong with African-Americans having to sit in the back of the bus, or not being allowed to sit at the same lunch counters as white people. She comments, "Years later, you look back and think, 'How can I have just accepted this without question when it's so inhuman, so insulting, and so wrong?' It never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with this! ... It was the way things were.
Perhaps in were younger, I would have been perplexed by Foley's blindness, or even suspicious of her sincerity, but I had no trouble relating to what she was saying.
As she spoke, I could see myself back in the early sixties picketing Woolworth's on 109th Street and Broadway in New York City in support of the desegregation of Woolworth's lunch counters in the South. I was picketing against racial injustice, but at the same time I never questioned the fact that I was not allowed to teach at Columbia College solely because I was a woman. I was working on my doctorate in philosophy at the time, and instead of a ten-minute walk to work, I spent close to two hours a day commuting to Brooklyn College, a far less selective and prestigious college than Columbia. How could I with all my philosophical training, with my constant questioning of everything (or so I thought), with my awareness that some of the male graduate students teaching at Columbia were less qualified than I-how could I not have given a thought to this injustice that affected me so deeply. I simply had a different blind spot from Jane Foley's.
Anna Davis also had a blind spot. She tells us that when she first went to work at a printing company in 1966, "a man automatically starred with more pay than a woman. We were programmed at that time that that's the way it was. We didn't think about it."
Just as the civil rights movement made Jane Foley and millions of others realize that it was unfair for African-Americans to have to sit at the back of the bus, the women's movement made me and millions of others question what we had taken for granted. "Why wasn't I allowed to teach at Columbia?" I started to wonder. "Why don't women get paid as much as men for equal or harder work," Anna Davis began to ask. "I don't think any of us could have changed without the women's movement," says Rachel Morgan, who is in her fifties. Like so many women of her generation, Rachel's attitudes toward marriage, family, and work began to change radically after her major life decisions had already been made. She eventually left her very traditional marriage. "I remember marrying him and thinking ... he needed somebody to take care of him, and I could do that." By the early seventies, tired of being his "satellite," she was working full-time and had a "growing sense of autonomy." Many women, especially those born in the 1930S and' 40S, found their lives thus interrupted and were able to begin anew.
Nice Guys And Not-Nice Guys
She is a widow who lives in a rural area in Ulster County, New York. She is African-American and has had a long career as a gospel singer and doing shows. For twenty-one years, she was the vocalist of the Peg Leg Bates Country Club. After her husband's death in IfJ88, she took college classes in order to become a teacher assistant. She now works mainly with mentally handicapped children, She also continues to sing,
“I was born in 1933 in Valdosta, Georgia. My mother and father were gospel singers. J started singing in the church when J was around six years old. After J became a teenager, during the summers, J was on the road with the Gospelite Singers, and we had some of the greatest of singers. I have been gospel singing with Aretha Franklin and her father, Reverend C. M. Franklin, among others."
When I was twelve years old, I became a missy. My period started on me in school. My home-ec teacher, she would tell us girls of becoming a missy; my mom never talked too much to me about it. But, thank God, I got it in school, and my teacher, Mrs. Hadley, gave me a note for my mother and sent one of the girls home with me, and I told my mom. It was on a Friday.
That Sunday my mother with some of her lady friends, and some of the neighbors, had a conference with me. In the living room they came in-"Hi, Mrs. Williams," "Hi"-and my mom called me in. They all tell me, "Now you will get your period every month. Now you have become a young lady. That means you can have a baby. That means you don't play with the little boys anymore. You don't let the little boys feel you or want to feel you or kiss you or anything like that." They had what you would call a church meeting with me that Sunday to let me know the dos and don'ts. I never will forget that. That was a common thing for the ladies to do when a girl in the neighborhood become a young lady.
I knew all the time that you wasn't allowed to do certain things with little boys, because your mother would teach you that. You didn't let a boy feel you or go under your dress. That was a no-no. I also learned that through our teacher, Mrs. Shaw. Yes-I came along in the era where you was taught a little more about sex than it had been in the past.
When I started to see boys, I was sixteen years old. You wasn't allowed to have a boyfriend before you turned sixteen because they just felt like fourteen and fifteen - hey, you had to think about your books. You had to learn.
Growing up, I never believed in having two or three boys hanging around. Just one boy at a time. They had to meet that boy. The boy came to the house, and that boy wasn't allowed no further than the living room. If he wanted a drink of water or whatever, you went to the kitchen and brought him that water. He was sitting there just like a frog sitting on a log. On the weekend, you could go to the movie, and you had to be back home by ten o'clock. The boy felt like, if he didn't want to be run out of the city, he had to have you back by that time because your parents would be sitting there waiting for you. In the summertime, they would be sitting on the porch in the swing or in the rocker. They felt like, "If you are going to stay in my house, you going to go by my rules." In a way, it was good rules, and in a way at times you thought it was the worst rules in the world because it was so strict, but you had rules to go by.
That girl had to be under lock and key. But the boys-well, he's a boy-and that I never really could figure out, never really took to. "So, Dad and Mom, if Charles can do it, why can't I?" "He's a boy, and the boys always have had more leeway than the girls." I really wasn't too happy with that.
As I grew older, I necked and pet, but I didn't come back and tell my mom about it. That was my secret. A respectable young lady didn't do that, as they would put it. But within, I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew how far to go.
I didn't have sex with my high school boyfriend-if you went into the drugstore to get something to protect yourself, half the whole town would have known it before you got it. It was the boy's responsibility for him to inform his father or his oldest brother or whatever, whoever, someone that knew how to go about getting things to protect you. In that era, it was only that the boy could go into the drugstore and ask for a pack of rubbers. My boyfriend was sort of afraid to do that, and I don't know whether he had enough confidence in his father to say, "Dad, I need protection." So it was a good while before I went into the sex bit.
When that happened, I was seventeen or eighteen. I was coming out of high school.
I had changed boyfriends at that point because I liked the older-type boy. I didn't feel guilty about having sex because I felt like this a part of life and my parents shouldn't have told me that you are never to have sex until you're married. I think they should have told me how to protect myself Nature goes on, so I did have sex, but I didn't go back and tell my mom, and I made sure that the boy had protection.
Sometimes me and my best friend would get in the worst argument because she felt like I was a bad person. I'm not a bad person, I say, but you are stupid because you feel like you got to do exactly what your mama say do.
I didn't get married till I was twenty-nine years old simply because I felt like I was doing what I loved to do. Oh, a boy proposed to me. He said, "Will you marry me?" I was around eighteen years old. And I say yes. But one thing he told me, and I say no. He say, "When we get married, I don't want you to sing anymore." That was like telling me to go lay down and die. I wasn't ready to do that, and as he proposed to me, it was broken off at the same time because I felt I was my own woman. Used to be a time that a man would dictate to you what to do, and you felt like you had to do that. But I was coming up in a new generation in which a woman could speak her mind, and you be what you want. Also, I think that strength came from my aunts., ]osephine and Eva, on my mother's side. They didn't let their husband just come in and dictate to them what to do. They felt like, "Hey, this is not slavery time, so we're not going to buckle under you." So I say to this boy, "No, I'm sorry." I felt like this made me stronger in my belief, in saying, "Hey, I'm going to go and do what I wants to do when I want to do it. I'm going to sing forever. I'm going to sing till I die. I'm going to sing till I can't sing anymore." The man I married, he was one hundred percent with me in my singing. Yes. That's the reason I didn't get married until I was twenty-nine.
I met my husband about a month after I came to Connecticut. I went down to the store to buy my brother and his family a TV set, and he waited on me. It was the first time he seen me, and he said, "Are you married?" I say, "No, you?" He say, "No," and he said, "But I'm going to marry you." I thought he was nuts. I did. He had to come to the house to set the TV up. He asked me, "Can I call you?" I say, "Yes, you can call me." And so he would call me, and we would talk on the phone, but it was about a month and half before I went out for dinner with him. He just knew that I was who he wanted, yeah. We met in '62, February, and we got married 5th of July of '63.
Maybe This Is Really What I Am?
She was born in 1950 and is a social worker. She lives in the Midwest with her female partner.
When my mother gets nervous or thoughtful, she'll take her shirt, her blouse, or whatever she has on, and she takes her glasses off and she cleans the lenses of the glasses. This is her little personal habit, so I start telling her I'm a lesbian, and she takes off her glasses. I'm thinking, first, she's going to tell me that I'll go to hell, because I figured this would trip all her Catholic wires. Then I thought, well, maybe she'll just tell me that she doesn't want to see me for a while. It's going to be something! So she cleans her glasses for a while, and she puts them back on, and she looks at me, and I'm like figuring, well, here it comes, and she goes, "You know after being married to your father for forty-five years, I can understand it." And then we never talked about it again because she doesn't talk about sex of any kind.
I Was Nineteen; I Was A Hippie
She was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1948. Her father was a cop, and her mother was a homemaker. After working twenty years in direct services with young people, she is now the director of an upstate New York human service agency.
“I was raised Catholic. My mother is Irish, and my dad is German and English. I had a really send Catholic upbringing."
I was raped when I was twenty-one. It was at the moratorium on the Vietnam War when they had the big march in Washington. We went down to that, like everybody else, with the knapsacks and the sleeping bags, and we'd spent the whole day at all the rallies and we were coming back, and there was supposed to have been a protest at the Vietnam Embassy, or at one of the embassies, and there was a lot of tear gas. It was burning. We were all running. A car stopped, five guys. I don't feel guilty about it now, but at the time I felt guilty about getting in the car.
The police came-we were very lucky. They had driven us to a wooded area, and it was by knife point. It was very violent. They had dragged my roommate out of the car, and I thought she was dead at that point because I didn't know where she was or what had happened. Out of nowhere, a cop pulled up with a police dog. He had apparently seen the car go in there and thought it was a bunch of kids just partying, but luckily he had come back to check. I often think, "What were they going to do to us? What were they going to do?"
I had been raped by two of the guys, and she had been raped by two, also, so we were naked. It took these cops forever to get a blanket to put on us. I mean, it was like rape after rape after rape-that's what the entire night felt like. We finally got in the police car. These guys were black. Maryland was south enough that they hated blacks, so their response was these niggers, they wanted to string 'em up because black men do not rape white women. They took us to the police station; they got us jail clothing. They took us to the hospital first, and it was very cold, insensitive, demeaning. It was horrible.
I had been kicked several times in the ribs, and I was terrified of being examined, and I remember laying on the table. I was so glad to see another woman, the nurse. The cops were men; the doctor was a man. And I said to her, "My ribs, my side, it really, really hurts," and her response was, "You weren't raped there just lay down." It was an exam to prove that we were raped. We were brought back to the police station, and-this is hard-the questioning-it was the sense that these cops were getting off hearing about it. Asking us details, far more than they needed to ask.
We went back to N ew York; they reassured us we would have a lawyer. We never heard anything for nine months, and then we got a letter to come to court because they were going to be tried, and then we were told that we didn't need to go-they had dropped the charges. They had plea-bargained the charges down to attempted rape and sexual assault, and I was determined-I'm going down there.
It was a sham. It was family court. They were big guys, but they were like sixteen, fifteen years old, and all this had been prearranged, and they basically got probation. The judge's comment in the courtroom was that ours was a far worse crime. He went on at length about hippies who were this free-love-and-drugs-and-sex generation who desecrated God and country. What it came down to was "Rape's a bad, horrible crime, guys, but these two probably deserved it-but I have to do something to you." If we were just college coeds walking along the street and we were raped, they would have hung them because they were black males in the South, but it was weighed against protesting the government and being hippies, and that was far worse. The guy with the knife who really assaulted us received three years' probation, and the others received one. So, it makes for a very angry woman. I jumped up in the courtroom. They actually brought a deputy over to escort me out. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that we had been raped, and this was all that was going to happen. There was no trial, there was nothing, there wasn't any testimony. It was devastating, really difficult. I drank to block out a lot of things. I spent a lot of years drinking.
She is fifth-generation Chinese-American and a native of San Francisco. She was forty years old and single when interviewed.
I’m sort of atypical for Asian women. I'm a marketing specialist for computer software. I've been with this company-one of the largest in the country-for fourteen years, and I've been enjoying it. It took me a long time to get to this point. We Asian women are not used to talking about ourselves, promoting the good work that we do, trying to encourage other people to buy our products.
Thirty percent of my company's staff has been cut recently, and another thirty percent will go at the end of this month. Where there's a lot of fat, people can afford to be less mindful of the business and more mindful of themselves and their careers, and that's not going to be the case anymore. In the first two go-arounds, politics played a major part in who stayed and who didn't, so those who were not correctly aligned politically didn't make it, but now the emphasis is on performance. Many Asian people feel that these changes are good for us, and I feel that way.
When I came into the work situation, my gut feeling was I do what's right for the team that I work with and for my boss, and I don't draw as much attention to my accomplishments. In this environment this doesn't get me promoted, and you would often see Asians wondering why we do such great work and everyone says so, but we don't get the big promotion. There are two sayings that symbolize the difference between the Asian and Western way of thinking. Western way of thinking is Squeaky wheel gets the oil. The Asian saying is The nail sticking its head up gets hammered down. And that symbolizes the way we were raised: If you draw attention to yourself, that's a bad thing cause you're forgetting the family and the rest of the people you work with and live with.
We have been putting our energies into the work all along, as opposed to promoting our careers. What the downsizing has done is pulled out those who got along by shmoozing, by hanging around the water cooler and making connections. In the past, people who generated results sometimes didn't get credit. Someone else cleverly stepped in and took credit. That happened a lot. It won't happen anymore, because there's no layers upon layers anymore-you're exposed. For instance, I'm now the only one who does what I do for all of Northern California. This used to be a game. If you knew that a customer was about to buy something, then you would jump on and attach your name so you got credit. You can't do it anymore. Everybody knows that if it's that type of product, that person was running it.
I Didn’t Know Normal Would Be So Tiring
She was thirty-three years old when interviewed. She lives in upstate New York with her husband, who is a car mechanic, and her three children. She works the night shift at postal services.
I think every girl wants to get married and live happily ever after. I wanted a family and the little house with the white picket fence and the whole ball of wax. Now we've been married for fifteen years, and we have our own home, three kids ages fourteen, eight, and seven, and a dog. Our single friends call us the Waltons. So we're just trying to be very normal, if there is such a thing as normal. I didn't know normal would be so tiring.
I work nights. We were in an apartment, and the only way we were going to get in a house is to have two salaries. There was a time when the kids were younger where I was working part-time and taking three or four classes. I had a Brownie troop. I'm not happy unless I'm working. I like to live a hectic lifestyle. If I'm not doing something, I'm bored. I can't go to the beach and sit all day. That makes me absolutely insane.
A typical day for me is I come home from work at eight o'clock in the morning. I get the two younger kids moving and on the school bus, spend about an hour doing housework, laundry. I jump into bed about ten, ten-thirty. I'm up at three because I have to get my shower before they get home. I like to lay down for an hour or so before I go to work. I usually don't really sleep, but I just want to be still. I'm not getting much sleep at all. Four and a half hours on a good day. My children also have many after-school activities, so I spend a lot of my time driving them back and forth, setting up carpools. My older son goes to soccer three days a week, basketball two days a week. My daughter has Cub Scouts once a week. She and my younger son are taking swimming lessons. My younger son takes guitar lessons once a week and is in Little League. My daughter is going to be taking piano lessons in September. Right now the boys are taking tennis lessons over the summer. I wanted them to have something to do. All their friends are going to camp. I couldn't afford it, so I said, "Well, we'll do tennis lessons."
A lot of times I spend two to three hours in the car. There's no way I'm going to come home at seven o'clock and start cooking dinner. I cook a couple days a week, then we get pizza one night, Chinese food another night. We have a bowl of cereal, have a sandwich, open a can of soup. Summer, it's nice-you just throw things on the grill-it's easier. If we're at a ball game, we'll stop at Burger King and get dinner. We'll have dinner together, have barbecues, or visit friends on the weekends. A lot of times, when I cook, I get very upset. By the time I'm done everyone's like, "Oh, I just had ice cream at Bobby's house," or "I'm not really hungry." So it's like you do all this work for nothing.
My husband helps occasionally with the wash, housecleaning, but not on a regular basis. He works eight to four, but he doesn't drive the kids around. He calls me a martyr. I always say, "You need to help me more." I'll nag him, and he'll drive the kids once in a while, but once I let up, then he doesn't do it anymore. It's probably my own fault because I say, "Okay, kids, let's go," and I drive them. I don't say, "Go ask your father to do it."
He takes care of the outside of the house. I take care of the inside. He'll mow the lawn and do the trim work and plant the shrubs, and he likes to do that stuff I've gotten smarter over the years. He tried to teach me how to use the lawn mower, and I was like, "No, no, no, I don't want to do it." He says, "If something happens to me, you should know how to use the lawn mower," so I said all right. So when I used this lawn mower, I just went like all over the yard. He does it where you have to go up and down in straight lines, so he got annoyed with me. He never asked me to mow the lawn again.
I don't really ask the kids to do their own individual wash. I'll usually throw a load of laundry in before I go to bed in the morning, and if there's more down there, I'll ask them to put the load in the dryer. If you don't tell them specifically what to do, they don't. You have to say, "Take the load out of the washing machine and put it in the dryer, turn the dryer on for sixty minutes, take the clothes pile and put that in the washing machine and turn the washer on." If you don't tell them to turn the washer on, they don't turn it on. If you don't tell them to put soap in, they don't put soap in. So I have to write everything out. I can't just say, "Pick up around the house, do the laundry," because it doesn't work that way. They just don't get it.
Sometimes I lose it. Maybe they've been slacking off on the chores, they keep coming to me, "Mom, I need ten dollars; Mom, I need twenty dollars," and I just keep handing out money, and I'm not getting anything in return. Instead of me saying something right away, I let it go until it gets out of control, and then I blow up. They call them my episodes. I run around the house stomping and screaming and throwing people's laundry around. I go on strike for a week. I don't clean, I don't cook, I don't do laundry, I don't drive, and then everybody gets back into what they're supposed to be doing again. And then we start all over again. But for the most part, I think it's all right; it's typical. Everybody I know is like that. I don't know too many husbands that do fifty percent of the work. They just don't make them like that. So maybe my expectations shouldn't be so high. I'm a perfectionist. I can't stand clutter. I have to try to back off a little bit. I'm trying to be understanding.