My mother at 19.
What if you had not been afraid to go down that street, go into that bar alone, wear that outfit, be there at night, apply for that job, sit alone at that movie, ask for that favor, drive through that neighborhood, take that creepy prof’s class, knock on that stranger’s door, sit in that seat on the bus, take that trip alone…how different might your life have been? What was lost because you were-are-forced to wear the cold shackles of fear?
Mad Men is one of my all-time favorite shows. I have one friend who didn’t like it for how it portrayed women. She’s 10 years younger than I am, so she missed the era in which it takes place.
Mad Men accurately portrays the culture of the 60s—a culture that was emerging from the emotional fallout from the Depression and World War II. One of Lily Tomlin’s characters referred to the 50s as 10 years of foreplay. By the time the 60s arrived, there was, shall we say, a lot of pent up frustration, along with the Pill. One could have sex, it seemed, without consequences.
I turned 20 at the end of 1969. A whole lot hadn’t changed. Help wanted adds were categorized as “Help Wanted Men” and “Help Wanted Women.” At the University of California San Francisco in 1972, one secretarial position requirements included being multilingual, knowing medical terminology, and having a college degree. That was in the women column. A janitorial position, in the men’s column, required a high school diploma. The janitorial position paid more—because it was assumed that men had a family to support while the woman was just marking time until she got married.
I overheard one of the doctors say that the best secretary you could get was a single mother. She would stick around no matter what because she had a child (or children) to support, and was less likely to get married because what man would want to take on a woman with a child (children)?
Fast forward to 1987. I worked at American President Companies, a company steeped in nautical tradition, including a submission to hierarchy. When you’re aboard a ship, you want the Captain to be in charge. But the hierarchy always had men in charge. So, what cascaded down was an unspoken but firmly embedded sympathy for men and what they had to endure.
I had already proven myself as more than capable. I had taken my assignments and run with them, raising the quality of the publications that were coming out of the department to a level that caught the attention of Corporate Communications. The company was leading the way information technology was changing the shipping industry. Corporate Communications wanted to make sure that internal communications helped shape the cultural change that resulted. They recognized that I had given the Information Technology newsletters a higher profile.
After my success, my supervisor told me that if I learned new technology, I might be promoted. Not I would be. I might be. He told my coworker, a man who was less technically skilled than I, that if he started coming in on time he would be promoted. They both were married with children.
When my mother entered the workforce, she thought there were the “front-office girls” and the “not-front-office girls.” Front office-girls were hired because they were eye candy for whoever walked into the office. Cheered the place up.
My mother thought of herself as a “not-front-office girl.” She had to rely on her skills to make her way in the world. And she resented it. She thought that held her back from realizing whatever dreams she might have had. She thought I was one of the front-office girls. She considered me to be pretty, so thought the way would be paved for me.
That was very confusing for me. I thought I had to choose. I could not be both pretty and smart—a truism reinforced by the culture. I definitely didn’t choose the paved path, but I also didn’t choose the path of embracing being smart. Off and on throughout our lives together, my mother resented me for not choosing to have my way paved as well as for what she thought was an option for me.
I had kept a lid on my smart. Lesson learned not just because of my relationship with my mother, but from the culture. It wasn’t until I was 60, after my mother had died, that I finally made the choice, when I finally embraced that I was smart and talented and was entitled to those gifts. It happened when I directed and produced a production of The Vagina Monologues. Sadly, my mother had died by then. I think she would have enjoyed it. And, may I say, if you look at the photo of my mother at the top of this blog, one would wonder why she didn’t think she was attractive. She was Lauren Bacall-sultry attractive.
I say this not to diss my mother. Or to whine. I say this because I feel like my decision not to choose came from a lack of courage. I was afraid that I would somehow diminish my mother if I showed her that the point was not to be the front-office girl, but to be a woman who is not afraid of her own power. And if I diminished her, I would lose her. I know that last sentence is true because I am on the verge of tears as I write it.
On Mad Men, Joanie was one of my favorite characters. She personified what my mother thought of as the front-office girls. They were the beauties, the women who brought men to their knees with their beauty. They had it made in the world. They would be taken care of. They were safe. They were paid for their beauty.
Joanie’s reality was, of course, far different, as was the reality for all those front-office girls my mother longed to be. Joanie, however, persisted and she prevailed. She found the success she thought was only available to men.
But what a price she had to pay.
Which is why #metoo happened this week in response to Harvey Weinstein.
This is not about Hollywood. Harvey Weinstein does not just happen in Hollywood—Hollywood just reflects the culture that casts women aside once they reach their 30s.
This is not about men. I am married to a man who cherishes me for being smart and tells me every day that I am beautiful and he worries that I don’t know that I am.
This is not about alpha men. Alpha men are leaders. And by leader, I mean one who has the best interest of the pack in their heart. They are the Mufasas. The Trumps, Weinsteins, Cosbys, Iagos, and so on down the road are the Scars—aware enough to know they don’t have what it takes to be an alpha, but simmering with resentment because they don’t.
This is about a culture that has become so poisoned by the fear of beautiful smart women that it enforces a code of silence when women are brutalized, raped, and emotionally bullied to humiliate them. To put them in their place—rob them of the dignity of their life spirit. And, by beautiful women, I don’t mean the front-office girls. I mean the beauty of a soul that has not been brutalized into submission.
I’ve been angry for a long time about my choice to not choose. I own that. But now, I’m choosing. And I’m mad. I’m mad because we are allowing a sick, festering culture of meanness to prevail.
I’m a Mad Woman. And it’s time for Mad Women to rise and rid our culture of the festering meanness.
Wonder Women, indeed.