By Anne Mayer
Fighting for equal opportunities, and getting them, in the 1940’s and 1950’s was not easy. Anne Mayer talks about her experience.
Born in the 1930's and brought up in the 1940's and 1950's, I would have never heard of Women's Lib nor known what it meant. What women did and men did was a well-known and documented path. Men went out to earn the daily bread and women stayed home to look after the house and children. Women who worked were at the low end of the economic ladder, as a rule. It was all right to do a secretarial course and spend a year or two as a secretary until Mr. Right came along, but it was all about Mr. Right.
From my earliest memories, I was coached in the art of landing that big fish, my future husband. I must not be too bright or too stupid, my virtue had to be irreproachable, and my appearance attractive without cosmetic assistance. "No kissing on the first date, or they will think you are fast," my mother admonished.
When I won a place at one of the top women's colleges in the USA, we spent four years becoming highly educated so that we could be "better wives and mothers." If Mr. Right did not appear on cue, we might teach or be a librarian or a secretary, but being marked out as a spinster was the death knell of hope in young women. And careers did not lead anywhere; they just filled the time before you got married.
It was odd, given how repressive Smith College turned out to be, that the earliest bra burners came from there (after my time). They coined the phrase Women's Lib but it was militant and unattractive and involved angry demonstrations. By then my contemporaries and I were married women with children and this did not seem to have anything to do with us.
But in that period I did, unconsciously, strike a couple of blows. One took place in about 1962, when I was married to an academic and living in a small and boring university town called Appleton, Wisconsin. My then husband rang one morning to say that he was bringing a distinguished British visitor home to dinner. I surveyed the filthy house, the three small children with colds, the shedding dogs and cats, the unwashed breakfast dishes and wondered where to start. Snow drifts were piled high outside as Appleton's climate was comparable to Siberia.
I decided the first step was to hoover the filthy carpet. But the hoover, a very
early cylinder, was so blocked with animal hair it would not work. I put all three children into their all in one snowsuits, piled them and the hoover into the old station wagon and drove to the university. Having unloaded everybody, I marched into the lecture hall where my husband stood at the lectern addressing at least 100 students. I marched down the centre aisle followed by the small girls in snowsuits, banged the hoover down on the lectern and said very loudly: "You deal with this, I have had enough."
Before he could reply, I was on my way out, having turned the little ones around. Once home, I waited for the furious phone call. David was not used to such behaviour. But when it came, he only said mildly, "Don't worry. I will take him out for dinner."
In the same vein but a couple of years earlier, I had been very unhappy when on a rare outing to New York without the children, David had planned every moment with obscure plays by Brecht in off-off-off Broadway venues. At the end of the long weekend, I had said that if I were to come again, I would expect some say in what we did and longed for the bright lights of Broadway. We did come back next year and saw an early preview of West Side Story, one of the most memorable theatre trips of my life.
But when David wanted to rush into marriage and prevented me from taking up a job offer to work with two world famous archaeologists on the ruins of Samothrace (including manning the small museum) for six months after graduation, I was quick to acquiesce and tell them I could not come after all. The Smith graduate who took my place became another world famous archaeologist, often reported in our newspapers to this very day.
I never embraced Women's Lib. But I grew up, developed a thriving career, became my own person and made my own way in life. What else does it mean? And, irony of ironies, the youngest of those snow-suited little girls invented The Women's Equality Party in the UK and is a prominent feminist.
Unlike the early militancy which did not well define actual goals, the WEP works on important issues such as fair pay and conditions for women at work, political freedom and shared responsibilities at home. We haven't got there yet but we are headed in the right direction. I often wonder what my long dead mother, who threw up an important career on Broadway to marry, have children and become an ultra- respectable housewife, she who counselled me so earnestly to be a perfect lady, would think.
She might be sorry that she threw in the towel without a struggle. She might deplore society as it is today and the actions of her granddaughter. Or she may be peeping down from wherever she is shouting a very loud Hurrah!
Photo: by Carole Railton. "Careers did not lead anywhere; they just filled the time before you got married."