100 years ago, women couldn’t vote. Not only couldn’t we vote, we couldn’t own property- we were property.
I remember one memorable car ride with my aunt and her aging mother- in – law, Libby, when I was in my thirties. We were discussing Libby’s upcoming 100th birthday party when my Aunt suddenly volunteered, out of the blue, “Did you know she’s going to be 100 and she’s never had an orgasm in 50 years of marriage?” I thought that sweet, soft spoken lady was going to die of embarrassment right then and there. Instead, she admitted it was true. In that day and age it wasn’t a priority for even the most loving of spouses, let alone something you talked about.
My Aunt kept insisting it wasn’t too late, and being a physician, maybe I could offer some advice. She was adamant no one should go to their grave without at least experiencing one.
I couldn’t have agreed more.
Yet the bitter, sweet, truth was shocking. In that car, we represented three entirely different generations. Each with experiences the others could never relate to. Yet, it was the very struggles and foundations they stood for that gave me the opportunities I have today.
My mother raised five children. That was her job. Something I can’t fathom even after raising my own breathtaking daughter. But one versus five increases the challenges exponentially. Her and my father’s responsibilities were very clear. She ruled the children, my Dad, the purse strings. Back then, the value of a housewife was zero. A phenomenally difficult and precious role was a duty given little acknowledgement, let alone respect.
I’ll never forget an article that later came out estimating the earning potential of a housewife, showing her position was a compilation of 10 jobs. The breadth of Mom’s duties is beyond what most workers could ever experience day-to-day. Imagine if you had to attract and retain a candidate to fill this role? The typical stay-at-home mom works almost 97 hours a week, spending 13.2 hours as a day-care teacher; 3.9 hours as household CEO; 7.6 hours as a psychologist; 14.1 hours as a chef; 15.4 as a housekeeper; 6.6 hours doing laundry; 9.5 hours as a PC-or-Mac operator; 10.7 hours as a facilities manager; 7.8 hours as a janitor and 7.8 hours driving the family car. For 10 titles, a nearly 100-hour work-week and a six-figure annual rate, moms may be the most valuable workers in the country. With all this knowledge, we still undervalue stay-at-home moms and housewives.
Growing up, there was a time when my father, a real estate investment broker, acquired a failing wig store that had been collateral on a building. With no clue how to sell wigs, let alone deal with female buyers, he asked my mother to help. For the first time in their relationship she was encouraged to step outside their normal boundaries and join the business world as an equal. She excelled and shined, turning it into a thriving, prosperous endeavor. Loving the dichotomy of work and home life, she wanted to continue but my father’s need to stay within social norms prohibited it. Those were his words, not mine. Words he never seemed to see for the slight they were. The store was sold and it was never discussed again. I think the loss was so hurtful my mother chose to push her two daughters into fields that would always provide a level of independence she never knew.
My sister was ten years my senior – a small statured, beautiful woman with red, short, curly hair. She had the sweetest temperament combined with the tenacity to achieve whatever she set her sights on. At 4’8”, her character, grace, and intelligence made her a force to be reckoned with. All she ever wanted was to become an attorney and then a judge. An aspiration unlikely when the acceptance rate for each class was a mere handful of women. I remember the stories she shared depicting what is was like to make law review and graduate top of her class amidst an ocean of men who literally looked down at her as nothing more than a woman “stealing a man’s spot, preventing him from feeding his family.” Undaunted, she succeeded in becoming an assistant district attorney, then a referee – a type of judge. Gender and size were never issues in her mind, only others. That was her special gift. She was the living personification of the serenity prayer:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference
She understood how those each impacted her life, and lived accordingly. Fighting for what she could change and learning to adapt to, and embrace what she couldn’t. She had an inner light that shined regardless of other’s perceptions and a sense of humor that got her through the awkward moments. Like the phone books her staff had to stack on her chair so she could be seen over her desk when passing down decisions.
My challenges were far less because she and others were willing to ignore the “glass ceiling” and push through to higher heights. My daughter and successive generations will benefit and continue the fight, adding their share to the process. I think back on these wonderful women and all they taught me- nothing worth having comes easy. We may have come a long way, baby, but it’s still just the beginning.