IN FRONT of Nancy Ford are six rows of teen-agers, their attention divided between paperback books and shopping bags. Behind her is a chart of how to behave during job interviews, how to sit, where to look and what not to say.
"Don't use street slang, whisper or mumble," she coaches; then, "Don't give negative opinions of your previous supervisor or company. You never know who your interviewer might know," and an iron code: "Don't nod in response to a question."
Ford, a management consultant, is trying to help the teen-agers make the leap from unemploymentinto the job market. Her purple suit and white lace blouse are a vivid contrast to their rumpled jeans. She tugs at her crystal earring and asks, "How many of you have a five-year plan?" Confused faces look up.
On a blissfully sunny Monday morning, Ford rushes past the glass doors of her downtown office, her lavender heels clicking on the marble floor and a leather briefcase tucked under her arm. She stops to chat with the receptionist, ignores the waiting mail and within three minutes is proofreading a test-score chart. Her first cup of coffee waits untouched until the chart is sent to the printer.
That's the pattern of her days, the routine of one black professional single woman, part of a group more visible in Washington than in any other city. This is the story of one of those women and how she succeeds. Like Ford, the black professional single woman is highly mobile and energetic. Yet, like Ford and the thousands of her well-dressed peers at the Washington crossroads of Connecticut Avenue and L Street NW or Pennsylvania and 12th Street NW, these women are rarely allowed to move beyond the meeting room to be distinct and powerful individuals in Washington. They share that collective quarantine, and other problems, with young professional white women. But both groups, because of their size, have an impact of their own.
The black professional single woman represents a special vanguard. At 33, Ford belongs to the first generation of black women who have entered the work force in any significant number in jobs other than domestics, clerk-typists and teachers, and who have been encouraged to test the unknown as unmarried women.
Her world is the world of the possible; she and others like her are writing the rules -- with pizazz.
In Washington, the black woman's pattern is often to move from job to job, accumulating a range of new experiences. With her sheer numbers, she also influences the political, social and cultural axes of the city, not only by joining traditional activist groups but by starting her own.
Recently an uncertain economy and fading affirmative action commitments have injected an uneasiness into this comfortable group. Now a frequently discussed issue is:Will the progress of the late 1970s and early 1980s stop?
Ford, 15 years away from her Ohioadolescence, solidly immersed in the professional world, doesn't think so. "Definitely not," she said, sitting in her office, crowded with plants, calendars and telephone message slips. A short, attractive woman, her brown curls sheared by her own hand, Ford has a disposition that erupts into an echoing laugh and whirlwind gestures. She is a self-described optimist.
"More and more black women are coming into the employment pool because we are aware of more things," said Ford, discussing how the increasing opportunities and the resultant sophistication have helped the group grow. Intra-competitiveness has become an undeniable trait but it's underscored by both energy and skepticism because of the limits imposed by white society on black success. "The competition is good for black women as a people, but it's sad because people still don't judge us on our merits," offered Ford.
Like many young black professionals, Ford does not sit around looking for a target to blame for any setbacks. The vulnerability of singleness and the precariousness of the black professional woman in the 1980s do not blind her to the benefits of her life style. "My philosophy is life is what you make of it," said Ford.
If anything, Ford swears by a take-charge attitude. At work she moves rapidly from conference management, job training and proposal writing to projects such as career counseling. This year she has also been working with two womens groups -- the Hook-Up of Black Women and the Cooperative Connection -- helping to get cable television into her condominium complex, and planning a building expansion at her church in Baltimore. She is also planning to move from Columbia, Md., to the District. Last year she earned about $30,000, including her incomefrom a side venture of selling perfume.
"I'm free to do whatever I want to do," said Ford, speaking of her current lack of family responsibility.
"You don't have to worry about anyone but yourself. You don't have to put yourself through emotional stress. That goes for the job too. If something happened I didn't like, I would leave."
Washington has the highest proportion of working women of the 10 major metropolitan areas in the country, according to the Greater Washington Research Center. The increase in the female labor force between 1960 and 1979 here was 104 percent among white females and 128 percent among nonwhite women. And the percentages of women in clerical jobs and professional jobs narrowed in those decades to 41 percent and 35 percent respectively. Nonwhite women, according to the U.S. Labor Department, still are clustered in the less-skilled and lower-paying jobs.
In Washington white and black professional women are moving closer to an equal footing than in other cities. Yet there is still a chasm between the two worlds. Ford, for instance, has very little interaction with white women. Since she has more concerns about racism than sexism, she has had what white women might consider a provincial view of their problems.
"Work-wise, you always feel it's easy for white women, not that they are more capable, but they are in the decision-making arena. And I always thought that sexual harassment was the only adversity they might experience on the job," said Ford. Upward mobility, she continued, was guaranteed because the white male was more comfortable with the white female. "A lot of times there's a lot of family connections, nepotism, and again, we are not in a lot of high positions to develop that kind of network. So we have to make it on our own."
Other black single women point out that black women have different rules, or as they like to say, drill, for success. "Many of us are not in a position to be socializing with the boss' son," said Ford. "We are limited because we really have to watch ourselves. Going out with a white man, you have to be on your p's and q's."
Recently Ford has read some articles about the lives of white single women that have made her more sympathetic about their problems with sexual discrimination and employment stresses. "Another thing," said Ford, laughing. "I used to think white folks never have any dating problems, and I got a new perspective on that. It is just as difficult to find a companion."
Washington is known among black men around the country as ideal hunting ground. The myth is that the women outnumber men 7 to 1. The reality, according to Census data, indicates the pool of married and singles contains 1.2 black females for every black male between the ages of 20 to 39. "If you consider the pool of available men, who are single and straight . . . in Washington you have more of the casual relationship than a serious one. So you have the strong, independent woman laying down the ground rules," says Audrey Chapman, a counselor at Howard University, who also conducts human growth workshops for women. In an informal survey Chapman conducted last year she found black professional women in their twenties "dependent, looking for a rescue, the knight on the white horse," and her over-35 counterpart putting more emphasis on friendships and professional contacts. "She also has multiple relationships, related to older and younger men, and a number were open to men in other races," said Chapman. "She had a sense of control and choice."
But the notion of the mythological male/female ratio, plus the yet unformulated etiquette between the new independent woman and her male friends and lovers, has added another layer of tension. Because many black men feel a woman's success has been at their expense, the Washington black professional single woman has the reputation of being conniving, mercenary and competitive.
On dating, Ford has her own code of open-mindedness, citing her cousin, a personnel manager, whose boyfriend (whom she later married) chose to earn his income by driving a cab. "I think the problem a lot of us have is being very narrow-minded about what we will accept." The whole dilemma of the dangers of the dating hunt and the stigma of single women out alone brings one long sigh from Ford. "I have very little social life because the guys are just as busy as the women," she said. But she does have one special male friend she dates.
It's the weekend of Ford's birthday. About 2 dozen friends have piled into the town house she has owned for the past seven years. She is wearing a white silk blouse, turquoise slacks, gold belt and shoes. The music is Chaka Khan, Al Jarreau and Smokey Robinson, and on the buffet table is a hearty selection of turkey salad, peanuts and Amaretto cookies. Someone has baked a cake and trickled green and yellow icing all over the "Nancy." While the newest steps are painstakingly learned in the small living room, Ford sits on the steps and laughs loudly.
Here the old -- the traditional Saturday night jam complete with flirting and dancing -- and the neo-new initiative of women, reflected vividly in advertisements such as "just asking a man out used to be considered too forward, but asking him over for Harvey Bristol's Cream is downright upright" -- are comfortably meshed.
So for Ford, and other black professional single women, life tilts between Essence and Everywoman. The Essence woman, detailed in the pages of the black monthly magazine of that name, helps define their worlds, and the worlds they aspire to: what lunches, parties and contacts are adding up to; how the successful wields her power; how she balances her power on the job with authority in her personal relationships. Some of the Essence woman is pure fantasy.But these women do talk about the feminization of poverty (the unemployment rate for nonwhite women in Washington is double that of white women), research the statistics and often publicly represent the interests oftheir sisters, Everywoman.
One Saturday morning, Ford is up at 5:30, armed with her corporate capability statements, driving 30 miles through a pouring rain for a procurement fair in Montgomery County. She joined 400 other consultants, food service executives and word-processor sales representatives in wooing the county's dwindling dollars. "Everyone is hungry," said Ford. She was successful. "We were able to set up a meeting with the minority purchasing officer for the county. Minorities now get 5 percent of the contracts and the county wants to raise that to 10 percent."
On Monday, back in her tiny office at the Center for Systems and Program Development Inc., a downtown Washington firm owned by a black woman, Ford reviewed contacts she and three staff people had made and set up meetings to explain their equal employment, communication skills and personnel services. "We have to go whenever there is marketing potential." A few weeks later she is on the road again, this time to Petersburg, Va., for a bidders' conference for the management of a training unit at Ft. Lee.
Ford's career is resting comfortably on the middle rungs. Her consulting workload this year has included monitoring an Environmental Protection Agency contract mainly by phone with staff in Ann Arbor; tracking the progress of a Department of Education Office of Civil Rights contract that got bogged down in the Small Business Administration; and counseling teen-agers as part of a contract with the D.C. government. When things slow down, Ford spends some time surveying hotel facilities for future conventions the firm will plan.
"Actually the classroom work is kind of scary," said Ford, who gives the students her office number for private sessions. "I like to work with them one on one. I don't like to waste time on people who don't want it." But she is extremely aware of the need for role models.
"I remember being that age and you think the world owes you something. This age group is less disciplined, they have no idea of what they want to do. I simply say I am here to help you if you want to be helped."
Ford'shad a comfortable childhood in Cincinnati. Her parents, who divorced when she was a child but remained friends, placed the highest priority on school. "Education has always been a way to everything," said Ford, explaining the values of her father, a postal worker and real estate salesman and her mother, a department-store saleswoman. "If now I say I don't have any money, they say it's impossible, you have been to all these schools."
An only child, Ford also received ample doting from her maternal grandmother. "She's a retired nurse who has always been a grande dame type. She really pushed me. Now she says I am too independent, though no one encouraged me to hang on to any apron strings. I guess they also gave me crossed messages, I didn't do much of anything around the house," said Ford. "Their main thing was to prepare yourself for future life, they said you can't stay here all your life, as long as you are here we will take care of you, but you have to realize you have to go out on your own."
In Cincinnati her early world was black. Her first experience with integration was watching all the white families leave as hers and other black families moved into a tidy section of multi-family town houses. Integration increased the competitiveness of her high school. "It was more buckling down," she said. But a race riot forced the cancellation of her high school graduation in 1967. Her counselors encouraged her legal career ambitions but encouraged her to attend white schools, such as Ohio State or Michigan State, over Howard University.
"My dreams then were typical of 18-year-old girls. I wanted to get married," said Ford. "I met my ex-husband my sophomore year at Howard and I started living my life through him. That was a big mistake." But she feels she received a sharpened political sense and self-pride through her participation in the campus' sit-ins and demonstrations of the turbulent 1967-68 semester. In 1971 she earned her political science degree.
Five years later she was divorced. "We just grew apart," explained Ford. Instead of law school, she concentrated on a series of jobs: two years in personnel for a court reporting firm, then two years as a manpower specialist with the State of Maryland; then personnel recruitment for 1 1/2 years with Howard County General Hospital.
At the women-managed firm, where she has worked for the last 3 1/2 years, she says she is protected from stereotyping. Said one woman, "you are always psychologically slotted, you will have your title, you will do your assigned task but you are still expected to get coffee." The black professional woman, said Audrey Chapman, "is constantly confronted with the fact that she is black, female and alone at that level."
In college Ford shied away from women's organizations, like sororities. "When I first got my divorce everybody said, 'How are you going to keep this house, why don't you get a roommate?,' and I said, 'No way, I don't want any woman living with me, it's out of the question.' "
But now women's groups are an important part of her life, as they are for hundreds of black women. Washington has seen a dramatic growth in the number of civic and support groups aimed at women in recent years. In addition to the established sororities and social groups, groups such as the Black Women's Agenda, a local chapter of the Coalition of One Hundred Black Women, and Black Women in Sisterhood for Action, which has a monthly newsletter, have been formed.
But where does she go from here? Does the confidence she receives from her support groups make her think that today's success is a given?
Not at this point. Ford is preparing for any mishap on the job or externally caused reversal of her status with her own five-year plan. Later in the year she plans to start working on her masters in business administration. "I am not someone who mopes," she said.