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 forebears 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.
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.
It seems a bit silly to write a review of a book that already has too many to read, but here's my two cents. I also know I'm bucking the popular trend by not raving about it.
I did love the premise & how it showed the parallel lives of two children all the way to the end of WWII. Each from very different circumstances. There have been soooo many books about the war, so this was a very fresh perspective to see it from.
The author did a fantastic job of showing life for the average French and German citizens during the build up to war and during - the ongoing terror of being involved just because you were alive.
What I didn't love was the ending. I won't spoil it, but after all the sadness, tragedy, and ever-grinding stress the characters go through, I think they (and the reader) deserved a little bit happier ending. It didn't need to be sparkles and rainbows, but yikes.
I'm also not so fond of the colons, semicolons, and the endless loose and run on sentences. Yes, I am aware this is 'literary', but 100-150 word sentences that comprise their own entire paragraphs are annoying to read. (IMHO, of course.) I had to keep going back over them, to be sure I understood the author's intent/implication with that sentence. They took me out of the story more times than I can count.
The bottom line is it is worth reading - for the unique perspective alone.
I’ll start with this:
Joanie was sitting on the bus and looking out the window when the truck hit George.
It’s not a compelling sentence, much less a great first sentence. It doesn’t tell us if Joanie actually saw the truck hit George, does it? It uses the boring ‘was sitting’ and ‘looking’ verbs, too.
So—I’ll begin with what I’m trying to say. Here are the facts the author knows, but so far, the reader does not:
Joanie’s on a bus. What kind? School bus. Where is it? Boca Raton, Florida. Where was she seated? Second row behind the driver—window seat.
Who is she? A public school attendee. How old? Fourteen. Where is she going & why? She’s headed home after school, presumably to have a snack & do her homework.
Who is George? A young man from Texas. How old? Twenty-five. Was he in a car or in the street when he was hit? He was running and darted into the street. Does Joanie know him? No.
What kind of truck was it? An F150, black. Who was driving it? An old man. Did Joanie see the accident? Yes.
Where were they when the accident happened? On Palmetto Park Road heading west.
That’s enough facts to get me started with a better opening. I don’t have to use all those facts in the first sentence (or in the first paragraph), of course, but I do want to pique the reader’s interest.
So, second attempt:
Yawning, Joanie shifted in her seat as the school bus jolted over the train tracks and returned to staring out the window.
Okay, it’s better—way better—especially the verb choices, but is it compelling? Starting a book with a yawn may not be the best thing to do, either. Unless the sentence becomes overly long, the action involving George (and other details) now has to happen in subsequent sentences. And that’s okay. But if I want a power-packed first line, this won’t do it.
As Joanie relieved her boredom by staring out the school bus window, a dark-haired man ran from the sidewalk into oncoming traffic, and a huge black pick up slammed into him.
Still ‘eh’. Also starts with an ‘as’. And it sounds ‘passive’—like the storyteller is bored telling it. It doesn’t put the reader into the scene. The reader is merely watching from afar.
Stop for a moment and assess—what are the most important facts to establish?
Joanie’s young. George gets hit. Joanie witnesses it.
I’ll try again:
Bored and tired, Joanie switched her gaze from her phone to out the school bus window just as a dark-haired man darted from the sidewalk into traffic, and a huge black pick up slammed him into the air.
I’m getting close. We know Joanie’s a kid, because it’s a school bus. We know George gets hit. We know Joanie doesn’t know him, or the sentence would use his name—being in Joanie’s POV.
I’m going to add ‘screaming’ to George’s description—to show he wasn’t simply careless. Something was terribly wrong that made him think his only option was going into the street. I’m taking out ‘out’ because it’s an extra word that doesn’t need to be there. We can assume when she switches her gaze to the window that she’s looking out of it. I’m taking out ‘just.’ It’s a word that almost never needs to be there. ‘As’ tells us the action happens at that exact moment.
Bored and tired, Joanie switched her gaze from her phone to the school bus window as a screaming dark-haired man darted from the sidewalk into traffic, and a huge black pickup slammed him into the air.
This works for me. It tells me it’s a normal day. Whether Joanie’s either on her way to school or on the way back (morning or afternoon) will be established soon. She looks out the window in time to see a crazed man running into traffic and get hit by a truck.
To assess, we have to put ourselves in the reader’s head. What questions come to their mind immediately? What question comes first?
I think the first is—what was so wrong that a man would risk running in front of a truck? Then—because of the word ‘slammed’, not ‘hit’—oh, my God, where did he land? Is he alive? The reader is seeing the carnage in their head without my having written a word about it. What was he running from? Was someone/something chasing him?
Next is concern for Joanie, the school girl. No one ever wants a kid to witness that. Did any of the other kids see it? What about the driver? Does the driver stop the bus?
It’s safe to say by re-writing it the way I did, I’ve piqued the reader’s interest, yes? I’ve gotten them involved in the story from the first sentence.
Let’s look at the verb usage. Switched, darted, and slammed. No ‘was watching’, ‘ran’, ‘looked’, ‘changed’ or ‘sat.’ The verbs are dynamic, not boring.
Notice I didn’t say ‘up into the air?’ Directional words are extras that aren’t needed and slow down your writing. There is no other way but ‘up’ if you’re tossed into the air (from Earth, that is), so it’s not necessary.
I used ‘huge black pickup’ instead of F150 because we’re in Joanie’s POV, and most fourteen-year-old girls don’t know or care about truck models. (Your character might, but mine doesn’t.)
I didn’t use the word ‘crazed’ in the sentence, because that’s a judgment call on Joanie’s part, and that’s also telling, not showing. By saying a screaming man darted into traffic, I’m showing that he’s crazed.
Also notice I didn’t describe how anything looked, other than George’s dark hair and the fact the truck was black. We have to put tiny bits of detail into the sentence, or the reader can’t create as full a picture. I picked dark-haired, because Joanie’s fourteen, and she’d most likely notice his hair, as his face might have been a blur, since it happened so fast. The truck’s color is black, because it paints a more ominous picture than a red or white truck, or no color mentioned at all. We don’t really care what anyone’s wearing at that moment, or whether Joanie is black, white, purple, blonde, brunette, or a redhead. Keeping the description to a bare minimum keeps the action going. Details of all sorts can be added in subsequent sentences.
And voila! I have a first sentence. Next time, I’ll work on what comes after.
If you haven't read Kling's Seychelle Sullivan series, you should. Seychelle, besides having the best first name ever (she and her siblings were named for islands, how cool is that?), is a smart and clever woman who can't stand injustice. That last part is probably why I like her so much.
I'll tell you the worst I can about these books:
Seychelle can take a licking and keep on ticking - sometimes to excess, and I have to suspend my disbelief at those times. (Happy to do it, BTW.) And - there are plot points that seem a might too convenient. That's it.
But!! Kling's writing is so clean. She gets you rooting for the underdog. She makes you love her characters. And she always has a good, solid mystery.
Mourning Tide is the 5th in the series, and yes, you can read it without having first read the others - it will stand alone very nicely. Seychelle owns a tugboat, so Kling takes us to places we'd never see or know about because of it, and that is a big draw, in my mind. Seychelle's efforts to find a friend's missing sister & who was responsible leads her into the world of a smarmy money-grubbing 'preacher' and his cult-like followers. Things are even slimier than they first look, and Seychelle inadvertently endangers her sweet little family - boyfriend B.J. Moana & their adopted, adorable son, Nestor.
Kling herself is a life-long sailor, has a zillion stories to tell, and I hope she keeps doing so. Check out her other series, too - The Shipwreck Adventures - featuring another great female lead character, Maggie Riley.
That’s what my older sister, my dear departed Stephanie, labeled the weird phenomenon of always—as the old knight in the Indiana Jones movie said—choosing poorly.
You walk into a bar with a few friends. There are enough vacant stools, all looking perfectly fine. You choose one. While the others in your party take their seats, you hang your purse on the hook under the counter, then boost yourself up on your stool. And it’s the one with a leg shorter than the other three. It’s the tippy barstool. Every bar has one, and you’ve picked it. Again.
My family excels at this. Welcome to our world. A world where your brand new package of three pairs of socks has a sock missing. You have five socks, not six. The package hadn’t been opened—it was simply a freak from the factory. Or your seat on the plane is in front of the only kicking toddler on board. You get the idea.
Nowhere does Tippy Barstool Syndrome kick in as hard or as often than at the grocery store. First you select a cart. So many to choose from, yet you take the one with the sticky wheel. The next has loud, squeaky wheels. A third has gum stuck to the underside of the handle. Around you, other shoppers are putting no thought at all into cart selection. They simply grab one, and off they go happily—on silent and gliding wheels.
As you peruse the store, placing items in the cart, Tippy hovers like Eeyore’s dark cloud. The first bag of flour you lift has a rip on the bottom that you don’t notice until it leaves a trail of white powder and the floor feels slippery. You glance down to notice your new shoes are dusted white. The first jar of jam you select has its little safety bubble already popped. The yogurt container’s sealed top has a slit in it. The bag of M&Ms was opened via the bottom seam by somebody sneaking some out, and they spill everywhere when you pick it up.
You’ve completed your list. Now you scout out the shortest or fastest line. You zip past all open lanes. For each line of customers, your brain is calculating, rapid-fire, what types of people are in that lane and how much they’ve got in their carts. A line may have fewer people with fewer items, but experienced shoppers know if more than one of those waiting are elderly, skip that queue. You don’t want to be smiling politely while grandpa can’t figure out the debit card or granny endlessly searches for her checkbook, then takes five excruciating minutes to write the check. Are there any harried moms with screaming toddlers? Does the cashier look new? Does the bagger pack slower than sludge? So many factors, and your brain calculates them brilliantly.
The analysis from your logical quadrant reports in, and you get in a line. Two people soon stand behind you. And this is when TBS kicks in. The customer at the register realizes she bought a wrong thing. She panics, says “I’ll be right back,” dashes out of line, and disappears down an aisle. The rest of you make small talk about the drivel on the gossip magazines’ covers in the checkout rack. Which, I have to say, are so unfair. Either the celebrities are too skinny or they’re too fat. Whatever the starlet weighs, it’s never good enough for the tabloids. Alien babies and people selling their grilled cheese sandwiches that look like Jesus, however, are never criticized on those covers.
I’m digressing. After a few minutes of us showing incredible patience and restraint in resisting eye rolls and sighs, the lady scoots back, apologizing. Those who can’t fake a nice reply merely nod. She pays and vamooses. The next person does everything right, but the register runs out of receipt paper.
It continues like that as the lanes on either side flow effortlessly along. I often tell people I meet in line to memorize my face. If they ever see me in line again, they’d be smart to get in a different one.
A Note: My beautiful sister Stephanie passed away from a particularly ugly and aggressive throat cancer, 4 years ago this week. She was so flipping fun and funny.
I begged her for years to quit smoking. She always said, "I'm going to. I promise." She never did. Please, if you smoke, quit now. Find a way. If you could see the pain it caused all of us, but especially our mother, you'd do it. Maybe you'll beat the odds, but why take that chance? We want you here - with us.
I believe the only way to get through the slings and arrows life throws at all of us is to find the humor.