Before the Ceiling Broke

My mother holding me 24 years after women were guaranteed the right to vote.
My mother holds me in front of our row house. Girls in the 1940's grew up in a society with gender bias.
I was born twenty-four years after the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, granting women the right to vote. To witness a woman nominated today for the top position in our country, in our world, is amazing. It has taken a long time to get to this place. My world as a female has gradually changed over the years.

Some of my personal memories reveal this:

* As a little girl, I grew up playing the Old Maid card game. It wasn’t merely a game but was a reflection on attitudes at that time. For their birthday and other holidays, little girls were given gifts for their hope chest, real silver place settings — spoons, knives, forks — with patterns these little girls had chosen for their future marriage. Hope chest was an appropriate name because if they didn’t marry, they would be old maids, and every little girl hoped that would not be her fate.

* When I was ten, I announced that I wanted to be a doctor — a brain surgeon. As a result, my parents had a serious talk with me about how girls didn’t grow up to become doctors. They suggested that I might want to be a nurse or a teacher. They probably wanted their daughter to choose something that would be attainable.

* Often when girls asked serious questions, they heard this answer, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.” This was usually followed with a paternalistic pat on the head.

* When I turned 12, my mother said I was old enough to wear thin, three-inch heels and I was ecstatic. I didn’t understand that for this power of standing taller and exuding an attitude, women give up comfort, damage their knees, hurt leg and foot muscles, risk sciatica, strain the neck and cause bone damage.

* When and if they did marry, in the wedding ceremony fathers gave daughters away to their soon-to-be husbands. Although most fathers did not think of their daughters as chattel, that attitude persisted in tradition. I remember going to a wedding and hearing the bride repeat that she would “honor and obey” her husband. I waited for the same words from the groom but they never came.

* Women then, and many today, gave up their last names to take their husband’s. They also gave up their first names in formal address. When I was a teenager, many girls wrote their boyfriends’ names on their school notebook covers, Mr. & Mrs. John Jenkins — over and over.

* When I went to college, there were special rules for girls but not boys, curfews for girls but not boys. We had a dorm mother who was responsible for making sure we followed the rules checked off by our parents: can walk into town, can visit friends off campus, etc. Girls also had a dress code for eating in the dining hall — only skirts or dresses, no pants. This was a college in a cold mountain area.

* After I started teaching, I played with the idea of going into the photography profession. In one interview, the business owner told me that there were some jobs he wouldn’t send a woman to photograph. I seem to remember it was about going up in a cherry picker to take photos from high up. He didn’t know he was talking to a woman who would jump out of a plane a few years later.

* When I left teaching to open a camera shop with a partner, I remember a female customer standing in front of me, ignoring me and looking all around. When I asked if I could help her, she responded, “I was hoping the man would be here to help me with my camera problem.” I tried to communicate what she had just done as I returned her camera that I had fixed.

Different Attitudes Then

* When I was five years old, polls were asking: “Do you think married women whose husbands make enough to support them should or should not be allowed to hold jobs if they want to?” The results: Should be allowed 24%, Should not be allowed 60%, Depends 13%.” (Roper)

* When I was six, another poll asked: “Do you think a married woman who has no children under sixteen and whose husband makes enough to support her should or should not be allowed to take a job if she wants to? Answers: Should be allowed 39%, Should not be allowed 43%, Depends 16%” (Roper)

At that time, it was okay for women to head a school’s PTA or a local Red Cross chapter, but it was not okay for her to enter politics. A woman’s place was in the home and not in the workplace in the 40’s. In this country, during my lifetime, women have been seen as weak creatures who need to be taken care of. Political office was too brutal. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.” Because of a cultural division of labor, one’s gender predetermined one’s path in life.

Although it continues today, unequal pay for women who did jobs equal to men was especially prevalent. And, although it continues today, the rape culture was more of a problem then. Today, it is illegal for a husband to rape his wife but it was accepted years ago. Today we understand that rape has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power.


When Obama was elected, I naively breathed a sigh of relief and truly believed that was the end of racial bias. It was a huge moment. My husband and I wanted to go a local bar to be in the middle of this exciting time in history. However, all we found was business as usual. Instead of watching the celebration on the bar TV, we found the usual chitchat and patrons playing video games. Silly me to expect anything different. Until I was nine years old, schools were segregated. Although some things have changed, we still have a long way to go.

Today I’m not so na├»ve. Yes, we have a presidential candidate who was born 27 years after woman were guaranteed the right to vote. She grew up in the same world I did and she’s running for the highest office. If a woman is elected president this year, I understand that it won’t be the end of female bias. But it would be a huge leap forward.

When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit. ~ Hillary Clinton, July 28, 2016 at the Democratic National Convention.

Mount Hope Cemetery: photo appears on City of Rochester, NY – Mayor’s Office Facebook page


For further reading...

Roper polls:

Women political leaders worldwide:
Despite years at attempts to pass the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), the issue died in 1982.
Interesting different leadership styles:
“Gender is also thought to impact the decision-making process. Scholars contend that male and female officials have uniquely different behavioral patterns when approaching group decision-making (Kathlene 1994; Kennedy 2003; Hannagan and Larimer 2010). Research finds that female leadership styles are more democratic, cooperative and more likely to produce outcomes close to the median group preference. Male leadership styles, by contrast, favor a more autocratic approach, seeking competitive individual gains from group decision-making (Eagly and Johnson 1990; Rosenthal 2000; Hannagan and Larimer 2010”

Some gender expectations dictate public perception of women in politics.

“Hillary Clinton, poised to become the world’s most powerful woman, stands out for not subjecting herself to such painful footwear. She mostly wears flats or close-to flats while campaigning. (And I should add that Arianna Huffington, my boss, is a self-proclaimed ‘flat shoe advocate.)”

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