Growing Up Female

Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about gender issues. My Smith College alumnae discussion group has decided to discuss what our perceptions of our roles as women were when we were undergraduates all those decades ago, and how things have changed (or not) in our lives and the lives of succeeding generations of women.

Of course, so much is different. Why did I go to Smith, a women’s college? Because my dad, who’d grown up in abject poverty, was determined to give his daughters the best possible education, and Ivy League colleges like Harvard or Yale weren’t admitting undergraduate women at the time.

In retrospect, I’m really glad I went to an all-women’s college. Our professors took us seriously, and we weren’t worried about our appearance or how we might come across to male students in our classes if we spoke up. There was a lovely kind of freedom and opportunity in that.

But looking back, I received so many conflicting messages about my future life as an adult woman. My dad hoped that by providing his daughters with elite educations, we’d marry well and become great wives and mothers.

At the same time, I came of age at the cusp of the second wave of feminism, and my college studies in sociology had been inspiring. So, when I got a full fellowship to Harvard to pursue graduate work in the sociology of education, I wanted to take it.

No way, I was told by my parents. My fiancé would only be in Cambridge for another year, and I needed to follow him as he began his military duty. My prospective mother-in-law informed me that my “duties” as a wife would keep me very busy—much too busy to pursue graduate work.

Being a pleaser, I acquiesced, just as I’d gotten engaged in the first place to please my dad. At least I could continue to pursue my other passion, dance, wherever I lived once I was married.

But here’s the thing. I resented the assumption that any of my goals and dreams should automatically be less important than my future husband’s.

And I remember feeling so envious of my Smith friends who went on to grad school or law school with no one informing them it wouldn’t be acceptable for them to continue with their academic pursuits.

Today, there are hopefully many fewer parents pushing their daughters into early marriages and away from getting the best possible education.

But I know we still have a long way to go. The other day, I was in an orthopedic surgeon’s office when I saw a sign prominently displayed on the door: “Please be sure to give the girls the disk of your X-ray before the doctor comes in.”


The nursing assistants were all adult women! If the assistants had been male, would they have been referred to as “the boys”? I don’t think so!

My hope is that my granddaughters will never experience that kind of condescension and disrespect.

Equal pay would be most welcome as well.

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