My lifetime (so far) of learning how to behave like a lady
It is recess on a warm, spring day, and my elementary-school class is outside on the playground for a welcome break. We girls are gathered together near the paved area that holds the basketball hoop. The boys dribble a basketball below the net. We are not invited or encouraged to do the same. There is a jungle gym, but we can’t climb on it because it is 1966 and we are required to wear skirts and dresses and it would be unthinkable, a bunch of girls hanging upside down, our Carters 100% cotton underpants exposed to the world. So we squat down on the edge of the playground, talking, doodling with chalk on the asphalt. Or we jump rope, a respectable, right-side-up activity.
We like hopscotch, but what we really want to do is run up the hillside in the grass like the boys, and roll or run back down the hill screaming. Some of us start to head off in that direction, but the teacher quickly stops us, explaining that it’s not a good idea as the boys might pull up our skirts, push us or otherwise make life difficult for us. It’s much safer to just stay here together, in well-supervised territory.
Sometimes, when we get on the schoolbus in the morning, some of the boys have pins that they stick in our legs or through our clothing as we pass by to find a seat. If it is a warm day and the windows are open, they will stand up and spit out the window so that it comes back into a window behind them, hitting us in the face. It’s an extension of the spitball assaults that were popular in the ‘6os (are they today?), where little pieces of paper are wadded up, sucked on and spit through a straw, in my day, generally at unsuspecting girls in the rows ahead of the perpetrator. I’ve always wondered what it is with boys and saliva.
As I scrub the day’s residue off of the steel grill in the tiny truckstop restaurant where I am working during the summer of 1976, I am wearing my scratchy, sweaty, undeniably ugly, white nylon waitress uniform, bought at a nearby K-Mart. I am the only employee – the cook, waitress and dishwasher, but at least I am busy and the day passes quickly. My boss is a small, balding man, with a scrawny moustache and huge, wire-framed aviator glasses. He is definitely not imposing – today I would describe him as that unremarkable character from an episode of Law & Order who eventually turns out to be the perpetrator. After I’ve worked there for a few days, whenever there are no customers and the important tasks are done, he invites me to take a short break at the old-fashioned diner counter on vinyl-covered stools that spin around. Then he talks about sex. He asks me if I have ever seen a horse penis (I have a horse and he knows this). I politely answer Yes while trying to seem disinterested in continuing the conversation. He goes on to describe how they collect sperm from stallions by sticking an electric cylinder up their anus to make them ejaculate. He employs less scientific terms than I am using here, however. I mumble something and escape as quickly as possible to peel potatoes for tomorrow’s hashbrowns. Another day, he tells me how every time he starts to have sex with his wife, she claims to hear one of their kids driving into the driveway and jumps up to go look out the window, putting an end to their afternoon delight. After a few weeks of enduring these stories, he approaches me as I cook breakfast for customers who are sitting in a booth not far away. “You know, you could earn more than the minimum wage if you wanted to”, he whispers in my ear. I don’t respond, so he continues on. “If you don’t wear underwear I would be give you two dollars an hour more.” What he doesn’t know is that I am already bra-less since I haven’t got much that needs restraining. I politely decline and he grumbles as he walks off, shaking his head as if he can’t believe I would pass up such a lucrative deal. A few days after the offer is made, while I am sweeping the storage room, he stops me and stuffs four dollars into my apron. I ask him what it is for and he tells me that while I was bent over the sink scrubbing out the large pots we cook potatoes in he looked over my shoulder and down my shirt where he could see my bare breasts. I am living for the summer at the home of my boyfriend’s parents and they don’t understand why I suddenly begin calling in sick and eventually quit my job there. They just think I’m lazy and irresponsible but I am too embarrassed and intimidated to explain this to my future in-laws.
After graduating college, I move to Atlanta, Georgia, where for four years I work at a company that makes blueprints and sells architectural supplies as well as what would now be called “quick printing”, in those days referred to as photocopying (i.e. Xerox). I end up working in the supply sales department but I am trained in every area of the company, including running the warehouse and operating the forklift. I am the only woman in sales, sharing a space with a guy slightly older than me who eventually becomes a great friend and confidant. The accounting department is made up almost exclusively of black women (managed, of course, by a self-important white man) and the blueprint area staff includes a gang of good ol’ boys from the surrounding rural towns, as well as a handful of ex-cons, all men except for one very young, attractive female who acts really tough and won’t give me the time of day. My immediate boss is a wonderful person, a retired Air Force colonel who likes to tell me stories about when he was stationed in Japan post-WWII, flying bombers. He is very open-minded, feminist, even, and the first – and to date, the last – older white male of this kind whom I’ve ever met on the job. It is he who decides that I need to learn how to do everything from running the Diazo machines that spit out blueprints, to calibrating surveying tools, to filling in for the warehouse manager when he is on vacation. The president of the company is another story, a Texan who refers to all women as gals and has an offhand, uninterested demeanor when interacting with his employees, as if we were forever wasting his valuable time. One morning, I find a memo on my desk stating that, from now on, all female employees must wear a bra. The memo goes on to explain that going bra-less is a distraction to the men working in the plant. I can’t imagine just how they are going to verify and enforce this rule. I know from firsthand experience that bra or not, simply being female is enough of a distraction to most of the men working here. Walking from my sales desk to the warehouse, which I do frequently throughout the day, is guaranteed to provoke catcalls, whistles and comments. I blush, grit my teeth and play along, willing myself to be “one of the guys”, a good sport, so that they will like me. When we are one-on-one, I actually do like most of the offenders (including the actual ones), but despite that, I never get over my discomfort. These men seem to believe that it’s their birthright to be able to harass any female passing by. About once a month, the heads of the various departments get together for lunch at a local strip joint, inviting along their favorite subordinates. My boss never attends these lunches, but my sales colleague is under pressure to go – I am the only woman in the company with a job at this level so I am not invited, which is just fine with me. The first time my colleague comes back from one of these lunches, he tells me how shocked he was when a topless waitress served him his beer, leaning over and brushing against him with her bare, dangling breasts. The others make jokes about his innocence, this gentle guy happily married to his childhood sweetheart, with two kids and a home he built on his Daddy’s farm. After they finish their hamburgers, the waitress comes back and sits on his lap, while the other men laugh uproariously at his obvious discomfort.
After four years of marriage, my husband abruptly leaves me for an older woman. The same night he announces that he wants a divorce, he also suggests that we can still sleep together on occasion because don’t I agree that the sex has always been good? Following the divorce, I decide that it is time to change jobs, as well – I will need a bigger salary to survive on my own. In the state of Georgia at this time, a married woman’s property is legally 100% the property of her husband, which means that he is able to cash my checks at our joint account but I cannot cash his. Even though we applied together for our credit card, it is I who have to reapply for a new one and open a new bank account – his changed financial situation isn’t even a consideration although mine is clearly worrisome. I scour the classifieds and apply for a sales job at an offset printing company that specializes in packaging, passing the first interview with flying colors. On the advice of all the guides out there about how to interview and what to disclose, I have decided not to mention that I am in the midst of a divorce (albeit an uncomplicated one as we have no kids or property to argue over). I don’t want them to think that I will be emotional or unbalanced, characteristics regularly attributed to women and traits that might make me appear a bad risk. I am excited to be invited to a second interview where they tell me that it is now between me and a man. They tell me about the program they are developing to get more printing contracts with fast-food and large-scale retailers. It will be my job to travel to the west coast about once a month to help get things up and running with these new clients. I am excited and have my fingers crossed as I leave the second-round meeting. A few days later, I receive a call asking me to come in a third time. Yes! Things are looking good. The salary is nearly double what I had been earning and I’m excited about the job. When I arrive in the office of the Vice President, the man I’ve been interviewing with all along, he seats me and then informs me that, unfortunately, they have decided not to hire me. When I ask why, he gently explains that he doesn’t think that my husband will be happy about the amount of travel involved – he doesn’t want to be responsible for creating marital stress. I don’t dare tell him about the divorce now because it will look like I was hiding something important during earlier meetings.
I finally give up trying to find a job in Atlanta and move back North where I eventually end up working for a major monthly magazine based in Boston. I am one of two mid-level advertising managers and have my own office. The man who has the “sister” job to mine is younger than me. He has an office right next to mine and all of his written communications are typed up by a staff secretary. I am required to type up all of my own work, in addition to taking and typing up regular dictation from our mutual boss, who despite being an Ivy League alumnus of the company’s owners, must have flunked English because he is incapable of putting together a comprehensible sentence. He becomes angry when I correct his syntax as I type up his correspondence, and forces me to restore his letters to their original, illiterate state.
Several years later, I am now a freelance designer and have just completed the design of an album cover for a local band. The lead singer comes over to my home office to pay me for my work. He turns to my husband and asks how he would like the check to be made out.
I am also a musician, and it is the kazillionth time in a 25+ year career that during a soundcheck, the soundman asks my male bandmates what we need, despite the fact that I am the band leader, its manager and booked the gig. He spends fifteen to twenty minutes minimum on each male player, getting their instruments to sound the way they want. When it is my turn, he grudgingly gives me about three minutes and argues with or growls at me when I ask for something different.
As a child, a teenager, a woman, a mother, I am subtly – or not so subtly – reminded that I must not lead, command, insist, resist, protest, remind, correct, debate, win or object, activities that are frequently revered in men.
While the sadly-popular saying-of-the-moment seems to be, “I wish I had half the confidence of a mediocre white man”, I think I would change the word “confidence” for “respect”.
As a child, a teenager, a woman, a mother, I have been subtly — or not so subtly — reminded that I must not lead, command, insist, resist, protest, remind, correct, debate, win or object, activities that are frequently revered in men. Despite my at-times best efforts to remain ladylike, I have rarely succeeded.
Sometimes it nearly makes me wish I were a man.
Photo : Ussama Azam / Unsplash