My teen years were in the early 70s. It seems hard to believe now, but it was commonplace to tell jokes about how stupid women (especially blondes) were. I was blonde, with blue eyes.
If you grow up around men who denigrate women, however mildly and socially acceptable at the time, you absorb the idea that you are less than. Not worthy of much. I did.
In my forties, I began examining my past to understand why I was so insecure. I’d never connected the dots I laid out for you above. Once I started, more long-repressed memories surfaced, and it became clearer and clearer why I had no confidence in my abilities.
There were two exceptions to my insecurities. The first was—I was, and knew I was, a good mom. I was/am a good cook, hostess, and housekeeper, too. These things I know as solidly as I know that I breathe. It’s not a wonderment that these were my only confidence categories. I was raised to be a good mom, cook, and housekeeper. That was the expectation placed on me since toddlerhood. It was what I was taught at home. I make meals and desserts from scratch. I can sew draperies and clothing. I was taught to embroider, knit, and crochet. I read Emily Post and other columns about etiquette and hostessing hints, ever determined to excel at those things.
One of the jokes that, as I look back was typical of the time, now makes me cringe. As I stood listening to it, I remember clearly laughing along—far too insecure to challenge the basic notion or how I did or did not fit into that description.
So, here’s the scenario. And, remember, this is but one small, isolated incident out of a lifetime of programming and denigration. Not a purposely-done-by-my-parents programming, though. They were products of their upbringing and the societal norms of the time. They were (Mom still is) good people. Amazing people, actually, considering where they came from. They did the best they knew how.
My father and my high school boyfriend—who would become my first husband—were standing in the kitchen with me, just the three of us. I don’t recall what else was discussed, but somehow this joke happened.
Dad said to the boyfriend, “Do you know why educating a beautiful woman is like pouring molasses into a fine Swiss watch? Because everything stops.”
Boyfriend laughed uproariously with my dad. I laughed along, and I remember the glum feeling that went along. It wasn’t outrage or upset on my part. No, I believed the joke was correct. The glum feeling was a tired acceptance—I realize now—that the joke truly did describe my life and all I couldn’t hope for.
It takes a lot of hard work and diligence to dredge up old memories, counter them, and finally understand why and how the deep, deep insecurities were imbedded. Thank God, I did.
About four years ago, I was on a plane seated next to a twenty-two year-old woman. We struck up a conversation. She was bright and funny, and her self-confidence just illuminated her whole being. I was both envious and joyous. Envious, because I so wished I could go back in time—knowing what I know now—and redo some major life choices, so I could be more like her. Joyous, because I knew this woman would never have to go through what I did.
She spoke about her mother , and how frustrated she was with her, because her mother would never stand up for herself, wouldn’t speak out if wronged. I tried to explain it might have to do with how her mom was raised and to find out what she could about that.
As we talked on, she asked about my life, too, and it occurred to me that she might not be aware of what life was like for so many women when her mother and I grew up. I kept it brief, merely saying that I was strongly encouraged to be a wife, mother, and happy housekeeper. And it was impressed upon me that I wasn’t smart enough to do anything else. She looked horrified. I suppose her mother or the women of her family never discussed such things. Mine didn’t.
So, I thought I’d horrify her further by plucking an old fact from my recesses. I told her about the dawn of credit cards. Until 1974, credit card companies denied single women access to the cards. They were reserved for men and married women—who had to have their husbands cosign for them. I remember my parents discussing whether or not my mom should have one for his account.
Well, you’d have thought I told her I ate my children. She just shook her head and said, “No way.”
I went a step further, hoping I wouldn’t insult her, and asked if she knew what women in this country went through to get the right to vote. That it didn’t happen until 1920. Again, she looked shocked. I guess American history wasn’t her strong suit in school?
When we deplaned, I asked her to do something for me—please read up on women’s history and do her part to inform others her age? Only by doing that will they not take what they have for granted.
Why review an award-winning book that's been out since 2000? Because the story & its characters have stayed with me that long. I've reread it since, and I still love it. I'm sure my assessment will fair poorly in comparison to the others who've reviewed it all these years. You should read it, if you haven't already.
Here's the first paragraph of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood:
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.
The story is set in Southern Ontario and spans the life of Iris Chase Griffen in the twentieth century, with most of the action happening in the 1930s and 40s. With her family's affluence and standing diminishing rapidly, her father seems to have zero interest in interrupting the decline, and his subsequent decisions are devastating to his daughters.
What I love about this book: The characters are human - quite flawed - but not overdone. The girls' father is horrible with how he lets them down, but Atwood makes you feel his despair and depression. It's an examination of human tendencies and faults - the truth of how people react to situations, and it hits us where it should. I think because we all have family members who have not risen to the occasion. We get it.
The story is layered, revealed little by little. The Blind Assassin story inside the main story is done so well, the reader is also eager for the respite it provides, along with the characters.
Atwood's use of similes and metaphors is wonderful. The comparisons aren't forced and used only when it truly helps to further convey the mood or situation. 'The leaves of the maples hang from their branches like limp gloves . . .' is one example. There are many.
It's a great read.
Before you complain—please understand I know there are many exceptions, I (and my guests) are speaking of what a large number of women experienced, and we know they are not universal experiences.
I so admire young women today. They’re strong and confident. Traits I wish I had at their age. It’s important for today’s young women to understand what went before and what shaped our lives. Women born in the 50s/early 60s and before were roundly discouraged in so many ways. The blog entries in this category are meant to help us understand each other better.
I was born in the late 50s and grew up in a tiny New Jersey town, where most the moms stayed home with their children. I remember, and can count on one hand, the moms who worked outside the home. Few subjects were ever tackled head-on in my world. I learned what my place in the world should be by inference.
A mom who worked at a paid job got whispered about. Her mom has to work. It was a scandalous thing. The unmistakable inference was they were too poor, the husband didn’t make enough money to support them, and wasn’t that a shame? Clearly, the kid gossip was created by the overheard conversations of our mothers.
One of my friends had a mom who worked. Her parents were clearly way smarter than any others I knew. Her mom actually went to college and had some sort of important job. So did her dad. I felt intimidated when I went to her house. They had a beautiful home, drove way nicer cars, and the level of discourse at their dinner table was light years above ours.
It all confused me. I was supposed to feel sorry for my friend, because her mother worked. But she had really nice clothes (new, not hand-me-downs like mine.) They went on great vacations—even to other countries! My family never went out to dinner. We couldn’t afford it. I can recall maybe three times we went to dinner as a family. Maybe. And we didn’t take family vacations. Ever. Not until I was older and out of the house did my parents take the family/younger siblings anywhere.
But my friend’s mother got whispered about? Looking back, I understand the subliminal—and constant—messages hammered into my brain and how they influenced my (truly awful) decision making as a young woman.
I was encouraged/prodded/expected to marry early, have children, stay at home, clean the house, become a thrifty and clever wife and mother, a great cook, and a perfect hostess. As a teenager, I read etiquette columns with the best hostess-ing hints. My father firmly believed that educating women was a waste of time and money. I grew up believing that was the way it was. When I entered high school, I still harbored a dim hope of becoming an architect. By the time I was a junior, I’d given that up. My dreams and ambitions were finally drilled out of me. All I expected in life was to hopefully marry someone who would take care of me.
Gaining approval was everything to me. I was so needy for acceptance. So, I did what I was told. That did not work out well, but that’s fodder for a lot more stories.
I believe the only way to get through the slings and arrows life throws at all of us is to find the humor.