Friday, October 27, 2006

Being Female

As a child, I played with other neighborhood children without regard for who was a boy and who was a girl. I didn’t really seem to matter, and we all liked the same things – playing in the woods (a vacant lot), playing cowboys and Indians, building things with bricks and, as we got older, roller skating. My best friend, Mary Jane, and I did play dolls, but not when the boys were around.

Once, when I was about four, I was playing with my friend, Butch, (who lived in the house behind us). It was a hot Alabama summer day, and he took his t-shirt off. That seemed like a fine idea to me, as well, so I took off mine. When my mother saw me running about without a top, she got very upset with me. She told me that I had to put my top on “right this minute” and that I was never to do it again. Meanwhile, Butch was standing there with his bare chest for all the world to see. I looked at his chest and then at my chest --- as far as I could see they looked exactly the same. My response was, you guessed it, “That’s not fair.” But I put my top back on and got on with life, never to remove my blouse in public ever again!

About the same time, another of my little male friends and I were playing in cardboard boxes, scooting ourselves across the carpet by sliding the boxes. For some reason, he felt compelled to show “himself” to me. Of course, I was interested. I knew that boys were different, but the details were unclear. His mother caught him, and he got in loads of trouble. I suspect he never did that again with a girl until he was MUCH older.

The whole time I was in grammar school, the differences between boys and girls and how they were treated were really not noticeable that I can recall. We were all friends, and played together at recess. The boys wore pants and we wore dresses. They had short hair and we had long hair.

In that same time frame, the early ‘50s, it was clear that what was expected for women was very different from what was expected of men. Mothers stayed home; they cooked and cleaned and sewed. When they went out, they went out to shop. Some days it was to the local shopping center or corner grocery. Some days, it was downtown to the big department stores. My mother drove, but my grandmother never learned how. So, my grandmother either rode along as a passenger or stayed home and gardened (which I think she preferred).

As a child, I wondered what my life would be like as a grown-up woman. I wasn’t really all that interested in the “domestic” things my mother and grandmother did. I was fascinated that my aunt worked in a law office. That was, of course, because she never married and had to “support herself.”

By the time I got to junior high, especially 9th grade, things started to change. We started looking at boys not as friends, but as boyfriends. In those days, it wasn’t really possible to be “friends” with a boy. Friendships with boys had to be dating-type friendships. That was a definite change, but one I accepted with—that is just the way it is.

By high school, this was even more pronounced. Some boys became more or less “gods” because they were good football players. Some girls fell into the goddess role as beauty queens. The rest of us, both boys and girls, tried to find our way. We all wanted to go to college, and about 98% of our graduating class DID go on to college. The boys were looking for careers. We girls were not sure what we were looking for.

In high school, I was told to study hard so I could get into college. Actually, I think the girls in my high school did better academically than the boys. Mothers were pushing college (remember, this was the South in the mid ‘60s) on their female daughters as a way to find a “man,” and to learn how to do something in case the unthinkable happens and you have to support yourself. You could get unlucky and not ever find a man, or the one you find may die or, heaven-forbid, divorce you. Or you could pick a real loser who was not a “good-provider.”

The summer before college, I spent time with my girlfriends talking about the future. We all wanted to do something with our lives other than just be wives and mothers. “It’s not fair” kept coming up in conversation. One friend was going to one of the “seven sisters” girls’ schools. She had to read a book called the Feminine Mystique. She asked me if I wanted to read it, but I never got around to it until years later. I wonder…would it have changed me back then?

Upon arrival at college, it was clear the landscape had changed. This was Auburn University in 1964. There was many more boys that girls (something mothers, including mine, had mentioned repeatedly during the college selection process). And it was immediately clear that the boys got considerably more freedom than we girls. Not that we were exactly looking for freedom. Just living in a dorm and not having parents telling us what to do was a big change.

Girls HAD to live in the dormitory; there was one large dormitory for boys, but boys could live wherever they liked. There as a legal doctrine of “in loco parentis” that gave the university the right to control the lives of its female students – known in those days as “co-eds.” Since boys typically come with parents as well, we were always a bit puzzled as to why they didn’t have to have rules, too. “It’s not fair” was heard a lot around the campus.

State law at that time was quite clear on the subject of drinking. You had to be 21. At Auburn, this was interpreted as “girls had to be 21.” Boys could drink, and did drink – to great excess! The beer and bourbon flowed freely in apartments and frat houses. Obviously, the boys weren’t doing all the drinking, but the girls (who typically mixed bourbon with Coca-Cola) could be kicked out of school. In my dorm, we had to take turns standing at the desk and smelling our fellow students’ breath at the desk. My sorority sisters made a pact – if they caught a sister with alcohol on her breath, she would first be reported internally to the “standards committee” before being reported to the school. Meanwhile, the boys drank and drank and drank and nobody cared. “It’s not fair” was our only response, but we did as we were told (at least I did).

We co-eds had other rules that didn’t apply to the boys. We had to be in the dorm by 11 p.m. on weekends; and even earlier on weeknights. We couldn’t go out in public with our hair in rollers. Slacks were banned, except within the quadrangle (the area formed by the “women’s” dormitories). Shorts were totally banned except in the dorm. Auburn girls, in those days, wore raincoats a lot, even on the sunniest of days in the summer time. Meanwhile, the boys could wear whatever they wanted.

I decided to major in education, although I would have much preferred to major in journalism. My mother thought I would do much better as an English major in education because with a teacher’s certificate I would never be without work.

I did meet my husband at Auburn, and I got my degree in education. In fact, I then went on and got a master’s degree, also in education. Then what? I had played by all the rules and did all the right things.

That was the point at which the REAL issue started to come into focus. I had the degrees, and I didn’t want to save them for the unlikely event that my healthy young husband would die an untimely death. He was an air force officer, but he was not going to Viet Nam – so I felt the odds of him dying were pretty slim. Besides, we could use the extra money we would get if I worked. Also, in college the they told us that if you didn’t use your degree, you would quickly go stale (the world was changing so fast --little did they know) and never be able to work.

Once married, I became a military dependent. I hated that term. I was a wife – a position with special provisions. I got an orange colored ID card. I joined the Officers’ Wives' Club and tried to play my role as best I could, although I wrestled with it a bit. They brought in luncheon speakers to keep our minds occupied. I had the pleasure of meeting and photographing Maureen Reagan, Erma Bombeck, Tom Snyder, Blackstone the Magician and other famous people.

What I noticed about the other officers’ wives was that they were bright, capable women. Most didn’t work, but most had college degree or even advanced degrees. The ones who did work, took part-time jobs just to keep involved in their professions. I enjoyed getting to meet them and made some great friendships.

I worked full-time for the first two years of our marriage and I enjoyed working. We saved the money I made. In time, our son came along and I worked a bit as a part-time college instructor. I kept my hand in, and I enjoyed the deviation from a life of diaper changing and, later, preschool.

In these years, the country was in an uproar over the rights of women. I didn’t (maybe I should have) take the time to be involved then. I was too busy doing my own thing and making my own way. In my field, being education, there really wasn’t much of a problem with how women were treated. There were WAY more of us than men, and women often rose to the rank of school principal.

As time went on and our son started school, I tried working a full-time job and leaving our son in daycare afterschool. It didn’t work very well; he hated the daycare. Meanwhile, the company I was working for closed, and I could do something different.

I ended up accepting a part-time job in an independent school and my son could go to school there for free. It was a great deal for both of us and our hours coincided.

But it was not to last, and the school closed. With three other women, I started another independent school and through eighth grade my son and I had schedules that meshed. But, truth is, I often stayed after regular school hours – something he didn’t really appreciate.

The years went by, our son went to high school and onto college. Meanwhile I became an entrepreneur and started my own business.

I have typically hired women who are very capable and talented, but can’t stand the “stay at home wife” thing. That has worked well for me, and has led us to flexible scheduling and even now, virtual offices. Ironically, I now have the best of both worlds.

When I became executive director of a women’s professional association, I became more in tune with the history of women’s rights, and it became crystal clear to me that there really was (and still is a problem) with how women are treated, particularly in some professions.

At age 60, I feel I can do whatever I want to, and nobody is going to tell me I can’t do that because I am a “woman.” (With the exception of taking my shirt off in public – that would still get me in trouble!). But, what I have to say, in retrospect, is that I could have approached being in business much differently – more like a man would. But that is not who I am, and I have to do it my way!

I hope the young women out there appreciate just how far we have come as women. Looking back, I can thank my “bra-burning” contemporaries for forcing society to re-think how women are treated. I can’t imagine a state university today imposing special rules on female students or enforcing state law selectively on women-only. But are there still things that happen that make us say “It’s not fair.” You bet! There is still much work to be done.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


There are times in your life when you know things will never be the same. The longer I live, the more of those times I have experienced. And it gets to be a more familiar feeling, but I am not sure it gets any easier.

The first time for me was when our next door neighbor had a heart attack. Uncle Leonard, as I called him, was a very special family friend. The day I heard of his heart attack, it was February 14, 1951. I was just five years old, but I knew he was going to die. I crawled behind the rocking chair and wept. Two weeks later, he was gone, but I knew it instantly and I grieved.

My grandmother died suddenly in 1957 of a massive heart attack. My life was blown away. Nanny lived with us and I loved her deeply. It all happened so fast; it was so unfair. A few years later, my grandfather was gone and I missed him very much.

We moved on December 1, 1958. I would have been contented to stay in our house in Bush Hills forever, but my parents wanted to be “over the mountain.” At the tender age of twelve, I didn’t understand the need to “have a new house” in the suburbs. The first week or so in the new house, I had nightmares. I wanted to go back to the old house; I missed my friends from grammar school. The new school was so different, and so were the kids. They all knew each other and they wore lipstick and listened to rock music. Life was so very different, and I hated it!

Weeks later, on Christmas Eve, my beloved cocker spaniel, Twink, hung herself. I had left her with her leash on in the full open basement of the new house. She had caught the leash under the door molding, fallen off the stairs, and was hanging by her collar. It was awful! The dog I loved so much was dead and it was my fault.

But life went on, and gradually I became accustomed to the new house, the new school, the new kids, the new dog and more. But my body was changing and I hated that too! Why did everything have to always keep changing?

Soon I found myself graduating from high school and off to college. I chose a big state university, Auburn University. There was a side of me that wanted a private, woman’s college, but the pragmatist in me won out. I felt it made more sense to experience the big university – to live in the “real” world and that was more important than challenging myself intellectually. Also, Auburn was a lot cheaper for my parents. My parents drove me to Auburn on a bright September morning in 1964. Several times along the way, I had to stop and throw up. I was scared to death.

The first few weeks at college were awful, starting with sorority rush. I was rejected by my mother’s sorority and that was so very painful. I ended up pledging another very fine sorority, which was actually a better fit for me, but at the time I was not so sure. I really just wanted more than anything in the world to go home.

But I stayed at Auburn, and four years later I graduated. By June of 1969, I had my master’s degree, also from Auburn. I hated to leave Auburn behind, but my time there was done.

Two weeks after getting my master’s, I got married to Steve. I wept the night before. I wasn’t sure I could go through with it. I would have to leave Birmingham and live in Illinois, a place I had never even been. I would have to leave my parents. Life would never be the same.

I remember the day we left our apartment in Illinois. I had come to love our apartment, not to mention my job at McKendree College and Lebanon, the little town where we lived. I could have stayed right there for the rest of my life. But the air force had other plans for us.

We moved to California is September of 1971. We bought a house and a car the same day, and the baby was due in December. I really didn’t enjoy our time in San Bernardino very much, although I met some great folks. Mostly, I hated the weather, the lack of seasons and the smog. But five years later when we left, I felt a sense of loss and remembered those things I had come to love – the sweet scent of orange blossoms, Big Bear Lake in the winter and Oak Glen and its apples in the fall.

When we left San Bernardino, Steve also left active duty with the air force. We spent our last night in town on base and stayed in the VOQ. Early that morning, Steve took my military ID to turn it in. The air force had been part of my life for seven years. I didn’t especially enjoy the officers’ wife role, but I played it well and I grieved when it ended. That morning I looked at the empty place in my wallet where the ID had been and realized that life would never be the same.

We moved to Maryland in 1976 and we bought a house where we lived for 16 years. I never really loved that house, but it worked for us. Gradually, we improved and expanded it and the more we did to it, the more we liked it. We raised our son in that house. It was a bit quirky and bit noisy (due to the high school right behind it).

Change was hitting me on another front. Within three years of each other, both of my parents were gone. My mother had lung cancer and died within a year of diagnosis. My father died on congestive heart failure two years later. I think his heart was broken.

After my mother died, my father sold the house. They lived in that house for 30 years and the years had taken their toll. My father still saw the house just as it was the day they moved in. He didn’t take it well when the real estate lady suggested refinishing the floors, putting down beige carpet and painting everything white. He had made the decision all by himself that it was time to sell the house and for him to moving to assisted living. Still, the process of cleaning out the house was too painful for him to watch. He became ill and had to be hospitalized. I did what I had to do and the house got cleaned out and sold. My father moved to assisted living. And I grieved for a life that would never again be the same. And it wasn’t!

We sold the house we lived in since 1976 in 1992, as we built a wonderful new house on the water. The day I turned out the lights in that house, the memories flooded back. The new house was better in almost every way, but it wasn’t the same.

Professionally, I have had to deal with change as well. When I worked at Wroxeter-on-Severn School from 1978-1980, I felt I had finally arrived. The place was like working in a castle. My office had antique furniture, oriental rugs, a stained glass window overlooking the Severn River. But it wasn’t destined to last. By 1980, the school was gone; it ran out of money. Packing up my materials to go home was tough!

The items that went home with me from Wroxeter soon found their way to the new school four of us from Wroxeter founded in 1980. I worked at Chesapeake Academy from 1980 – 1989 and it became a major focus of my life. But in 1989, it was time to stop working there, so I packed up my things and took them home. The school is still a part of my life as a member of the board of trustees, but it will never be the same.

In 1989, I started Bay Media and worked from my home. Within five years, I knew the time had come to get real office space and hire employees. The challenges were many, but we persisted and stayed in the first location for six years. Our rented space was sold to a tile distributor who intended to gut our unit and use it for warehouse space. Walking out of that unit was tough, but it had to be done.

We moved to a new office location in a nice professional center. I debated at that time whether I really still needed office space or not. I decided that I still required it, so for another six years, to 2006, we maintained physical office space. But the way we do our business kept changing and by Spring of 2006 I was convinced that we needed to go virtual.

Tonight I went to my office for the last time. We worked all day yesterday cleaning up everything spic and span; we spackled nail holes and painted over the logo on the wall. It all went back to white paint. For the last two months, we have been moving stuff out of the office. Everything is out now and I can breathe a sign of relief. But I am grieving tonight because I know things will never be the same.

The promise of a virtual business is invigorating and exciting, but is anything but comfortable. Many changes await, and I know each day will hold new surprises and challenges. But I will do what I always have done – embrace the changes, enjoy them, and eventually grieve for them when it is time for the next change --- the next chapter awaits!