On Being a Woman - Options

The following was written in the late 1970s or early ‘80s, during which time I was a newly “liberated” woman with a family and a demanding career. I happened upon this essay while sorting through a box of “old writing” looking for something else. Apparently I had submitted it to a couple of magazines, but it wasn’t taken, and it was set aside as I went on to other things, mostly professional work and raising children. I’m now long past of those pursuits, am retired and have teenage grandchildren. Nonetheless, the piece seemed relevant to this blog, if for nothing other than historical interest. I decided to transcribe it and include it here – serialized, of course. The title was obviously relevant: “On Being a Woman: Options.”

I’m in my mid-forties, now, having entered the middle years as a woman whose adult life has spanned the pre- and post-“liberation” era. My experiences during the past quarter century have, in many ways, paralleled the themes and events of the contemporary women’s movement, and I’ve had the urge, lately, to reflect upon that transition from the perspective of one who has lived through it. It seems to me that one of the key features of the cultural reorientation emerging from the women’s movement has been an increase in the scope of life choices now available to women. More particularly, the possibility of coupling career with family has become an option that is now considered both realistic and desirable.

From the time I was quite young, something subconscious, almost instinctive, told me that my life would not be really fulfilled without a mate and children. But something else, perhaps conditioned, but no less powerful, and always conscious, compelled me to do well and generated an unquestioned assumption that I would have a job and career. As a child, I had read Wonder Woman comics and Nancy Drew mystery stories and had appropriated the message that it was possible to be both competent and feminine.

To be sure, having been raised during the forties and early fifties, I could not avoid being exposed to assumptions about female roles and behavior which tended to limit initiative and competence. I remember the injunction in a well-meaning book for blossoming young ladies not to outshine their men for love’s sake. “Let him beat you on the tennis court even if you are a better player.” I remember sitting in the car until my date came around and opened the door. I remember never paying for a date and not even wondering about how the young man obtained the money. I remember thinking that marriage would ensure happiness ever after.

When I entered college, I was enthusiastic, idealistic, and steeped in the then-current mythology of what it meant to be a woman. But I also thought that I could have it both ways, that I could do well academically (prepare for a career) and be socially popular (eventually marry and have children). Thus, I was surprised and offended by the advice of my undergraduate “advisor” (a male history professor) who suggested that I shouldn’t take both biology and chemistry courses the same year because they were too difficult. And besides, I was just going to get married after I graduated, so why take a pre-med course? And I was bewildered and hurt when a boyfriend’s interest cooled rapidly after he discovered that I had made all “A’s” my first semester in college (yes, taking both chemistry and biology courses). “I knew you were smart, but I didn’t know you were that smart.” I also became indignant when a female biology professor counseled me not to get married because any stupid woman could marry and have children.

These are all old stories by now, recounted by thousands of women to therapists, or in consciousness-raising groups, until their power to elicit pain and anger has abated to tolerable levels. Taken together, these stories depict middle-twentieth-century woman drawn simultaneously to—and sometimes paralyzed between—the poles of personal achievement and interpersonal relationships. The responses to this double-bind have ranged from militant rage to tranquilized escape. Many women, however, have been silent pioneers and have taken a poorly charted middle road, neither highly visible, nor yet comfortably safe. In so doing, they have enlarged the potential scope and role-options of all women. I would like to think that I have been among this group…  (to be continued)

A year after graduating from college, I married a man who – in many ways and for many women – would have been an ideal husband. He was dynamic, attractive and pleasant. He seemed, initially, to think it was all right for a wife to have a career, since I was entering graduate school when we met. To be sure, he liked to have things done for him, and he wanted the house run by his standards. But at the time, I was all too happy to accommodate him. I took his last name, adopted his living style, cultivated his interests, and entertained his friends. I received a Master’s degree and had a baby more or less at the same time, then quit graduate school to become a full-time wife and mother.

That lasted for five months when, for financial reasons, I had to return to work as a technician, while at the same time maintaining the household. The double burden was accepted unquestioningly at first. But as time went on, and as I became more and more tired and my nerves became more frayed, symptoms of an underlying malaise began to surface.

That was when things began to crumble – not all at once, but like a plastered wall, first cracking where the strain was too great, then chipping and flaking until soon, whole sections peeled away, exposing an unexpectedly ugly foundation. Once, as my husband lay comfortably on the sofa watching television after dinner while I ironed his shirts, I barely resisted an urge to fling the iron through the television screen. Then there was the time when my husband noticed some dust under a chair in the living room. I suggested that, if it bothered him, he ought to do something about it. And I hadn’t even been in therapy, yet!

It still frightens me to think about the anger that I felt and suppressed then. Finally, I suggested going back to graduate school to work on a Ph.D., and he responded “The most important thing a woman can do is to take care of her home and be a source of support for her husband.” Something in me snapped. I felt like a winter tree, the foliage gone and the life withdrawn from the branches – only the skeletal forma and the potential remained.

I began to be possessed by wild imaginings. I fantasized running off with another man. I imagined slitting my wrists in a warm tub of water and sinking into the swirling redness. I yearned to be lifted out of my desperate existence by some magic. An obvious option eventually occurred to me, and I suggested to my husband that we separate. He was totally uncomprehending, and we spent six months “trying to work it out,” each of us cherishing a different image of what that would be – for him, a return to the old compliance; for me, a shift to a new acceptance and freedom. Neither image became a reality, so we went our separate ways.

I went back to graduate school, mother of a small child and the only female graduate student in the department. Financially, the life was cramped, but the new freedom was exciting – frightening at times, but also exhilarating. I made new friends among people who shared my interests and concerns.

After a while, I began to date, and had a series of affairs about which I initially felt guilty. I eventually came to see these experiences as highly valuable for the insight that intimacy offered for the basic personhood of those with whom I was involved. And I experienced joy and emotional support during the liaisons. I came to understand why men consider sexual experience something of value for its own sake. And I also realized that whether or not I became involved with a man was as much my choice as his. Although I was sometimes accused of being frigid and repressed by disappointed would-be seducers, I chose to become involved only with those men who made me feel good about myself, and I began once again to be glad that I was a woman.

At about the same time, I began to enjoy the company of women. Two other women and I supported each other during difficult times and shared our resources for living arrangements, transportation and child care. One of my friends was in a militant women’s organization. She tried to persuade me to join, but I had neither the time nor the inclination and didn’t feel I had been a victim of discrimination. I once heard Betty Friedan speak, but I had already been through the metamorphosis and had discarded the old mystique – or so I thought – and didn’t feel that she had much to say to me. So the women’s movement and I ran side-by-side for a time, with similar struggles but not much contact…  (to be concluded)

Then it was time to graduate and get a job. I had spent four years working day and night, studying for courses, doing experiments, writing a dissertation, and on the job market as the top student graduating from the department that year. So I was a bit surprised to find that I was interviewing at less prestigious institutions than my fellow graduates, and to realize that half the departments with positions available wouldn’t even consider me. “We had a woman once, but she was a bitch. I wouldn’t look at another one for the job.” “What kind of future do you think you have as a woman in your field?”

I took a post-doctoral position in a good laboratory, postponing the necessity of getting a job for two more years. When I did find a job, it was a glorified post-doctoral position with the title of Assistant Professor. I spent five more years working in the laboratory, basically as a research assistant, and at the end of that time, I was being paid less than the base salary for assistant professors at the institution.

That has changed though. I am now remarried, have two small children, and have been promoted to Associate Professor. During the past decade, I have come to understand and appreciate the importance of support from other women, both in encouraging professional achievement and in allowing me to sustain my professional efforts. My husband, who is also supportive of my career, and my eldest daughter share the housework and cooking tasks with me.

 Even with that, though, events sometimes seem conspire to show that I was wrong after all – that it is not possible to carry on a full-time professional career and be a good mother and wife as well. It’s tough to keep it all together when, for example, one of the children is sick, the plumbing is marginally functional, one of the cars is being repaired, my husband (a musician) is at a rehearsal, and I have to prepare a lecture for the following day. At such times, I might forget that women who don’t work for pay, or who work at different kinds of jobs, also have such compound crises. Indeed, it is the very stuff upon which homemaker-humorists like Erma Bombeck draw for material.

Unless we women believe that it is possible to perform in highly responsible positions – while at the same time leading what may be considered a “normal life,” we will not try to have it both ways. Men take it for granted that they have the option of having both career and family. If women don’t see this double option as realistic, they will be understandably reluctant to vie for high-level positions in industry, business, science, education, and public service. And as a consequence, our nation and its institutions will operate with considerably less talent than would otherwise be available.

The fact is that being a woman with a husband and children as well as a good salary and a respected position is simply another way of being a woman.

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