Raging, Aging Sisters Prove It's Good to Be a Woman
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
BRYN MAWR, Pa. -- Class reunion! We straggle onto the lush campus of Gothic buildings and giant old trees. It's been 45 years since we graduated from this small women's college with its emphasis on academic success, the Quaker tradition of public service and the oft-repeated quote from the founding president: "Only our failures marry!" Or was it: "Our failures only marry"?
We laughed at that! Imbued with the Annie-Get-Your-Gun spirit that anything a man could do, we could do better, we set out to be Women in Full -- in love and in work. Now we are grannies and neurosurgeons, widows and poets, newlyweds and entrepreneurs. As we lounge around in the dorm, attend panel discussions and linger over dinner, we flesh out the narrative of living a long life.
We belong to the Fault Line Generation, a narrow cohort of women born in the war years. We came of age with one foot planted in the old rules of the '50s, the other foot thrust into the social turmoil of the '60s.
We arrived on campus with tea sets, to follow in the tradition of educated ladies having afternoon tea. But we were also following the beat of Jerry Lee Lewis and his hint of the future with a "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." The year before, nine students had desegregated the schools in Little Rock. Before we left, President Kennedy challenged us to ask what we could do for our country.
Our personal lives tell the story of historic transformation. Some of them are described by a classmate, Alison Baker, in her new book, "It's Good to Be a Woman: Voices From Bryn Mawr, Class of '62" (PublishingWorks). Baker calls us "a little-known 'in-between' generation, neither hippies nor housewives, difficult to define, more reticent than the boomers who followed, less angry, more confused, perhaps more thoughtful." As a fault line between old and new, we opened the way for our younger, noisier siblings.
For many of us, our beginnings were in female-headed households with the men off at war. We saw mothers and grandmothers in charge at home, just as we would see female deans and many women professors in charge at Bryn Mawr, just as we would come to see ourselves in charge in the workplace and in public life.
The arc of our social imprinting started with Sputnik in 1957, which cracked the complacency of the postwar years. It ended with the assassination of Kennedy in 1963.
I look around the room as we gather for a class discussion. We seem to have kept our can-do optimism. Many of us became First and Onlys: the first or only woman in male-dominated fields. Frances Krauskopf Conley became the first full professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University School of Medicine. Barbara Paul Robinson was the first woman to make partner in the New York law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton and the first to head the city's bar association.
When we started out, sexism was rampant and discrimination against women was obvious. (Often I was the only female reporter at news conferences in Houston on the Apollo space program -- and behind my back, I learned later, I was referred to by a sexist term for a part of my anatomy.)
Some of us were also the first members in our families to break social conventions: to live with a man without being married, to claim a lesbian life. We got divorced in significant numbers. The drive for equality and "self-actualization" put pressure on relationships. Ellen Zetzel Lambert, an author and teacher, explained it this way to Baker: "We stuck it out for a long time and tried very hard to redefine our marriages, to create a more equal kind of partnership, sharing child care and things like that. But the men we were married to just didn't have that flexibility."
That's not the whole story of divorce, of course, and many couples were able to keep it together. Most of us have cherished the men in our lives and can look back and see how they have changed, too.
But there is a price to breaking new ground -- of being too early in an occupation and getting squashed, or too late because of taking time out to raise children and getting blocked. We've bumped up against the glass ceiling. We have confronted the inevitable failures that can occur in a full life: not getting hired, not getting tenure, getting shoved to the side, getting eased out. And there's a price to changing the rules of personal engagement; at times we've stumbled on the rocks in our relationships with our mates, our children, our families.
Yet there is strength in this raging sisterhood. As Lambert continued in Baker's book: "I think that in a sense we're lucky, as women, in that failure just isn't humiliating in quite the same way as for men. We're much more able to make something out of these failures."
I walk into the dorm bathroom. One classmate has a scar down her chest; she'd recently had open heart surgery. Another has lost a breast. We talk, we become friends. This is the glue of reunion. Our faces have story lines; our bodies are little museums of experience, from lust and childbirth to the assaults of illness and the habits of fitness.
At our class meeting, we put on our glasses and share photos of grandchildren. We remember classmates who have died.
And then we turn to the future. We're likely to live two or more decades. A few may show up at our 70th reunion, and our 75th. What do we do with this unprecedented gift of time? There's a sense of "Here we go again." We've already been through the civil rights movement and the women's movement, and now we're first up for the longevity movement.
We talk about what to let go of in our lives and how to move forward. We want to find the courage to do the things we've put off doing. To love more deeply. To leave the world a better place. We laugh together. We swap e-mail addresses and phone numbers. It's good to be connected like this, good to be a woman.