Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Gerda Lerner Evocative, Part 2

News of the death of pioneer women's scholar Gerda Lerner continues to evoke personal memories.  They spring up from a well of disjointed stories that compose the life of an ordinary woman who grew up in the 1950s and confronted head-on the passions of the 1960s and 1970s.  Many women like me stood on the cusp of the social changes of the time, more bewildering sometimes than we let on, caught in the disjunction between the glory days of "the feminine mystique" and the glory days of the new feminism.    

From early on, I dreamed of being a college professor, like the ones I had known at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, the impassioned teachers who motivated and inspired me:  Professors Jane Ruby, Nancy Norton, Carolyn Clewes, to name a few.  

Only later did I realize, much later, that they were pioneers, women scholars who had studied in the 1930s, on the heels of the suffrage victory and before the post-WWII era wiped out lots of gains. They taught at historic all-women colleges in part because many couldn’t get jobs elsewhere.  They taught at the colleges that had been created by women, for women, when women were not allowed any higher education at all.    

Wheaton College, my undergraduate alma mater, was among them.  It was founded in the late 1830s by the persevering Mary Lyons, who had also established Mount Holyoke.  How much I took for granted!  Just like women in the workplace and in the professions do today. 

Wheaton is now co-ed, but it continues in the tradition of those early believers in, and fighters for, women’s education, among them Catherine Beecher, Mary Lyon, Emma Willard (a pioneer in the area of “teacher training” for women, which became the first profession open to them), Sophia Smith (benefactor of Smith College), and M. Carey Thomas, early woman PhD and first president of Bryn Mawr.  

After I decided during my Senior year at Wheaton to go to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, at a time when relatively few women were taking that path, I had high hopes that my dream of college teaching was just around the corner.

My Wheaton College professors hoped so, too; they had modeled a life of higher learning and scholarship, quietly encouraging their students, all bright and talented, to follow in their footsteps. 

They must have wondered at our anxiety to become engaged, get married and start having families.  They must have wondered when women of my generation would wake up and achieve their full potential as human beings. 


They never preached to us, just showed us. They must have welcomed the resurgence of a new women’s rights movement in the mid-1960s to 1970s. 

I had trouble turning the corner.  I tried to do it all: have a family, take care of my daughters, keep everyone happy, spend time on pressing, even critical I believed, anti-war and civil rights issues.  

The new woman’s movement stormed onto the public agenda as well, inspired by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the founding of NOW (the National Organization for Women), and renewed efforts to secure an Equal Rights Amendment, which Alice Paul had begun in 1923.  

Gloria Steinem’s MS magazine, along with other new journals, blazoned the work and opened new paths.  At universities, women’s studies scholarship emerged, took off and blossomed, forcing revisions of the American story and the role of women.    Like millions of others, my consciousness was raised. I did what I could for the cause. 

The dissertation beckoned, a nagging piece of unfinished business. Sometimes I woke at 5:00 a.m. to get in a few hours of research; sometimes I wrote after midnight. Sometimes I almost gave up. My dad’s refrain hit me in the pit of my stomach from time to time:  “How’s the dissertation coming?” 

It finally occurred to me that if I really wanted to get the PhD, I had to let some things go.  It took a while to admit I couldn't do everything. I pulled back from the political causes that had taken up so much of my time, to which I had been fully committed.  I felt guilty about it, even selfish, and some of my social justice friends rubbed it in, but I told myself over and over, it’s the only way.  

My timing was off, as it turned out.  Way off.  By the time I got my degree, in the mid-1970s, teaching jobs in academe, especially in fields like history, were drying up.  Younger PhDs stood in line for the few job openings available, and they were harder and harder to get. I had a family and was not as mobile as new PhDs, or at least I didn’t see how I could be. After working so long and hard to finish my dissertation, I hit a brick wall.

In retrospect, through years of counseling and reflection, I came to realize it was my responsibility to take action; it was my decision or indecision that made the difference.  I had held myself back. I didn’t think I could have it all: the family I loved and the work I loved. I didn't seem to know the difference between being assertive and being aggressive, being selfish and being self-fulfilling, being dependent and being responsible and self-sufficient in a positive way. 

I see it now as the 'vise of ages,' that disjunction between historic eras that crept silently into the recesses of a brain wired from a different time. 

I still had the dream: to teach at the university level, get on a tenure track, become a professor.  But that didn't happen. 


I taught women’s history part-time, published a few articles,  found exciting new research interests, and had some twists and turns that others found distasteful, including an affirmative action case at the University, which I lost.  

I found other part-time work, but I had to dumb down my resume to get it.  “You have to take off that PhD degree, and that Master’s too,” more than one adviser told me.  I did. It pained me at a level I didn't fully grasp. After working so hard to attain them, I had to delete the graduate degrees from my life.    

I rationalized it, intellectualized it, justified it, put one foot in front of the other, and went on.  There were many bright spots and good times, as well as some of the worst of times.  Along the way, a fog of uncertainty enveloped me, issues buried deep and unconscious.  That fog didn’t lift until I left Toledo for Washington, DC in 1985 and forged a purposeful life. 

I would find a new way, new challenges, new adventures. I began a new chapter. I began to pick up the pieces of an unconscious life and put them together, going forward from where I had left off when I graduated from Wheaton College with such high hopes.    
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