Saturday, October 27, 2012

Losing Our Past

This post started during a recent interview.  A fellow Cal alumnus is writing a book on people who have changed careers to something they didn't expect.  This includes me, and I agreed to be interviewed.  It was very interesting, but one exchange sticks with me.  I have to give you some background.

We were discussing my college career.  I majored in English with a history minor, and in the middle of my senior year realized that no one was going to pay me to analyze Jonathan Swift, and that whatever I did for a living, it was not going to be teaching.  My mother at that time was a library assistant at the Napa City-County Library, and she suggested I consider applying to Library School, as she thought if I did I could get a summer internship in Napa.  I did both, which was the start of about 17 years in the library and records management field (with a brief interruption during which I ran a small business with my first husband).

During this exchange, the interviewer (who is around 30, based on his college dates) asked me if I hadn't considered other careers.  I explained it was because I was a woman - and he asked, more or less, what did that have to do with it?  I realized he had no clue about gender attitudes and politics in the 1960s and '70s, much less those in the '50s, when I was growing up.  So I gave him a brief summary of what the world was like for educated women in the U.S., before the feminist movement.  In case I have other readers in his cohort, I will recap briefly.  Basically, unless you were a very unusual woman (and there were some), you were expected to attend college to get your "Mrs." degree.  If you didn't get married, there were a small number of "acceptable" careers - teacher, librarian, nurse, secretary. I don't remember knowing about "secretary" as an option - if I don't make a point of investigating something, I may not know about it, then and now.

I also told him that I remembered my aunts, in the late '60s, commiserating with me that it was a good thing I was getting a college degree, since I hadn't been able to get a man.  (They weren't quite that crude.)  He was startled.  And I hadn't even gotten into the rules about divorce and abortion (which was still illegal, not that I ever had to deal with it).

I actually came through the 50's and 60's pretty well. My family was determined that my sister and I should go to college, and we did; and we both got (eventually) pretty good jobs.  But the social environment for women then was bad compared to now - higher education largely optional, no divorce if the husband didn't agree, abortion available only in deadly, illegal back alley "clinics," women barred from most professions, wife beating considered a "private, family affair" that nobody talked about.  Contraception was only just beginning to become available - oral contraceptives first went on sale in 1960.  Which led to a large increase in female college attendance, graduation, and employment.  Also, social conditions for women varied wildly from state to state.

My interviewer is highly educated, with a degree from U.C. Berkeley and an advanced degree from Harvard.  And he didn't know this history, which was an integral part of my life.  Maybe it's because he's Canadian.  But if he doesn't know, there's no hope that people who only attend U.S. public schools know - those schools have stopped teaching anything but "reading" and "arithmetic," because only those get credit on the federal tests.  At least in the 19th century they also taught the 3rd "R", 'riting.

Why does his ignorance bother me?  Because if we don't know where we used to be, and how we got there from here, we can't be sure we won't wander back down the same old paths.  (No, I won't quote Santayana; you all know the statement.)  There are a lot of people in the Republican Party who speak as though they want to go back to "the way it was" in the '50s, when white men were in charge and everyone else (especially women) knew their place.  I refuse to accept that.

1 comment:

  1. I've found myself explaining this kind of thing to my son: why the Perkins school, where Laurie learned to tune pianos, only taught tuning to boys; that in high school we were told that a woman couldn't be a chef because beating all those sauces required more arm strength than we have; and other historical minutiae that don't come to mind at the moment.