This Woman’s Experience is a series of blog posts about what growing up and life in general was like for women who were born before 1965. It’s intended to show the young women of today how it used to be. They need to know this.
The Old Maid
Hard to believe now, but when I was a teenager in the early 1970s, it was still very common to call a woman who hadn’t married by her early twenties an old maid.
So prevalent was the idea that a woman staying single was a social pariah, that there was a popular card game called Old Maid. The loser of the game was the old maid. We played it all the time as kids—it was on the shelf right next to Monopoly, Parcheesi, and the checkers set—and thought nothing of it.
It was believed a woman who wasn’t married was either ugly, stupid, had an objectionable personality, or didn’t bathe regularly—or all the above. Something clearly had to be wrong with her, and she got whispered about.
The name given an older woman who’d never married was spinster. The word just sounds awful, doesn’t it? The name for a single man was and is bachelor. No stigma to that—ever—not now, not then. In fact, he was quite sought after, instead of shamed like the women.
In the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life (which I love and watch every Christmas eve), in George Bailey’s alternate reality, where he was never born, he asks the angel Clarence to show him what became of his wife, Mary Hatch. Clarence said to him, “You’re not going to like it, George. She’s an old maid.” And he said like it was worse than being a convicted murderer on death row. George reacts with abject horror, as though it was indeed much worse. Mary is shown all buttoned up in ugly clothes and wearing severe black-framed glasses (although she didn’t wear glasses as an adult in her life with George?), and she’s a librarian—which was known as the signature loser job for a woman who couldn’t attract a husband back then.
There was a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon (and I loved and still love all those Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons) that had a scrawny, desperate old maid chicken (woman) who was easily seduced by Leghorn. He was fooling her, didn’t mean it, and we laughed at his deception and at her gullible reaction.
So when I tell you it was prevalent, it was PREVALENT! It was everywhere. TV shows routinely made fun of single women and suggested they were desperate to the point of panic. Married women on TV and in movies were always trying to fix up their poor and unfortunate single friends. Mary Tyler Moore’s best friend Rhoda made more disparaging comments about herself and being single than the others did on the show.
It all worked really, really well. The last thing a brainwashed girl like me wanted was to go through life being thought of as a misfit. The social pressure to be a good girl and a good wife was enormous. But it’s only in looking back I realize that pressure was an influence on me. It was just the way things were.
The women who, beginning in the late 1960s, started to organize for women’s rights were disparaged in my little world. They were unfeminine. Probably disgruntled. Mad because a man dumped them—undoubtedly because of their objectionable qualities. In small towns like mine, that was the way everyone thought. Decent women turned up their noses at the very idea of protesting. Apparently, the bloody efforts to give them the hard-won right to vote by their forbears were totally forgotten. How the hell had those women been received? Not well, either.
The 60s & 70s women’s libbers were very brave to speak up at a time when most other women thought they were vulgar and mannish for daring to upset the apple cart. I didn’t admire them or think they were brave at the time, of course, being the perfect little robot. Is it any wonder I married at twenty? I had no business doing that, but I remember thinking it was my only option, and I was strongly encouraged to do so.
Now I thank God for the courage of those feminists. I can’t imagine going back to how things were. We still have a ways to go, and I do hope we soon have women representing us in government and business in the same percentages as our presence in the population. Over fifty percent, please.
I’ve had some amazing and surprisingly prescient ideas over the years. I’ve had some truly boneheaded ones, too, to be sure. But the good ones stayed with me. They were solid, marketable ideas with the potential to make serious money.
In my early twenties, I’d finally mustered the courage to leave my first husband after three years of his cheating on me with anything in a skirt and daily dressing downs about how stupid and ugly I was. (Low self-esteem issues. Read my previous posts in this category.)
I had no money. No savings. I made close to minimum wage. I didn’t even own a car when I first left the husband. (We were broke—he came from a poor family as well.) I knew no one, not even my nuclear family, with any influence, money, or power. No one took me seriously anyway, as I was a pretty blonde who didn’t go to college. So therefore, I was easily dismissed as fluffy and flighty. (The why no college is another story to tell.)
Twice I dared to write up business and marketing plans and got up the courage to broach the subject with an acquaintance I’d met through work. The first time I was laughed at and utterly humiliated by comments like, “What would you know about it?” and “You can’t do that.” The inference being that someone else could, just not me.
A couple years later, I worked as a bookkeeper for a mom & pop lumber yard and hardware store in Honolulu. The owner was a portly white man in his sixties. He and his wife seemed to be good people who treated me like I had some brains, which I so appreciated.
I had a brilliant idea for a store. Yes, it was brilliant. The idea still holds up today. I’ll tell you why in a little bit. I mustered the courage to talk to my boss about it, telling him just the basics at first.
He appeared to give it some thought, then acknowledged it might be something. I was jumping for joy inside my head. He suggested we have dinner after work one night to talk about it more. Now, I wasn’t put off by that, because I knew for a fact he did dinners with business associates, vendors, etc., all the time.
A few nights later, we met for dinner in a well-lit, well-known restaurant, so I was under the impression he was taking me seriously. I showed him a few things I’d drawn up and written in regards to the store’s concepts, why it was different, and why I thought it would really take off.
He listened to all of it. Then he put his hand on my thigh and said the things you hear creepy old guys say in the movies. “You know, I’d be more inclined to get involved with this, if you wanted to do something for me.” “I’d love to help you, but the business world is made of tit-for-tat.” Finally, he just came out and asked me. “Do you think we could, you know, do it?” Then he leaned in and planted a gross wet one on my lips. I escaped as fast as I could.
The next day, his wife was giving me stink eye. I felt guilty for some stupid reason. I hadn’t done anything wrong. Hadn’t flirted, hadn’t said anything that would make him believe I’d sleep with him. Had he told her I did? Maybe it was an offensive move on his part, thinking I might show up the next day and rat him out?
I quit that job soon after. Couldn’t stand to be looked at like that. Couldn’t stand feeling guilty for something I hadn’t done.
A couple years later, guess what opened? My store. Well, someone's store. It was almost exactly what I'd laid out and it was a hit. Made a ton of money. I don't know if my former boss had a hand in it or not. But it proved to me my idea was indeed a good and sound one.
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.
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.