Our second installment from “What We Talk About,” a book of memories and anecdotes from women over 60 by Coastal Connecticut’s Sherri Daley and her college roommate, Linda Hughes.
I’m the man in the family. I wasn’t born that way. It just happened.
My father wanted a house full of children—boys and girls. Instead he and my mother raised three daughters. Although we were a great joy to my father, we were an incomplete family without sons. At least that was what my mother said. Even the dogs were female.
I must have felt the lack very early in life because I remember clinging to my father’s knee (At 6’3,” he was a giant to me) and begging to go everywhere with him: hunting, fishing, and—he was a builder—his construction sites. I imagined that every time my father left the house, he went on a great adventure.
I was so excited when my father took my sister and me on his Saturday trips to the lumberyard to choose the building materials for his next project. My fondest memories are the earthy aromas of freshly cut maple and oak, concrete mix, and paint. Carefully chosen paintbrushes, saws, planes, and drafting supplies were my greatest source of entertainment. I kept treasure boxes of #2H pencils, slide rules, and compasses to assist my father in perfecting the angles and straight lines of his craft.
Being girls did not deter my father from encouraging intelligence, athletics, and self-confidence in his family. Dinner table conversation centered on history, politics, and social justice. Leisure time focused on the batting averages of the Boston Red Sox and practicing our pitches across home plate, hitting home runs, and catching pop flies. We grew healthy and strong to please him. He taught us to be proud of our accomplishments, especially our schoolwork. So my sisters and I returned his confidence in us with straight A’s, awards, and leadership roles. He was quietly known for his leftist thinking but expected us to examine all points of view.
But one of us had to step up and be the boy.
Cultural pressures of the ’50s deterred my older sister from making the break from traditional female roles, and after much protest on her part to buck the mainstream of marriage and family, she relented and got married.
My younger sister was the tomboy, but this didn’t stop her from realizing her dreams of being a mother, and she cooperated by producing a granddaughter and grandson for my doting father.
So there I was, a child of the ’60, radicalized by The Movement, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and my father. And thank the Goddess for that. These influences provided the impetus for what was to come.
In spite of the mixed messages that all women were getting in those days— join the revolution, but march behind the men—I used my youth and optimism to struggle through the challenges of social change. I remember being 14 years old and visiting my father’s philosopher friend, John Gregory, owner of the local saw mill. They were discussing the future generation and what could be expected from them. On the way home, my father told me that I could do whatever I wanted with my life, even if it did not include marriage or a family. I was so relieved! I was free! I now had a chance at a real career, but what was it?
I aspired to be my father’s only son. I was not to be outdone by any x chromosomes. I ate like my father—heaping plates of meat and potatoes; I fished like my father—casting perfect handmade lures off the Sasco Beach jetty; and I thought like him—a leftist through and through. The natural progression of my life led to the study of architecture, because my Dad was a builder and engineer.
Of course, he discouraged me because such professions led to a life of hardship and isolation. Besides, I would be the only girl in the class, and I was! Even my guidance counselor in high school wouldn’t let me enroll in a drafting class because the class was for boys! It was one of the first battles I didn’t win, but I kept trying.
The close-minded conservative society of Connecticut in the ’60 was one of the last to change during the cultural revolution, so straight out of undergraduate school, I made tracks for the West Coast. It was time for my first real adventure and I was determined to prove to my father that I could survive on my own. I was both afraid and excited to step in to the breach.
At first the breach wasn’t exactly as big as I thought. I followed my East Coast boyfriend to Los Angeles because he wanted to explore the alternative lifestyles so appealing to the hippie generation. I pushed my Waspy school girl conventions aside and chose any adventure that came my way. I applied to graduate school at The California Institute of the Arts—the new Ivy League college for the arts—and I majored in architecture, finally achieving my childhood dream.
It was a marvelous new world, full of free-thinking professors, unfettered by east coast conventions. I was in heaven and I thrived, and supported by my mentors, I had new hopes and dreams that promised a future of professional accomplishments equal to any man’s. I was armed with a master’s degree and financial independence from men-my father and boyfriend.
I was ready to make my own decisions. The Women’s Movement was also in full force and I became an integral part of The Feminist Art Project in Los Angeles, raising funds for the founding of an independent Woman’s Art College in downtown Los Angeles—The Woman’s Building. It was a hotbed of radical change for women and I was proud to be a part of it. Once again, I stepped into the breach of change and found a new source of strength in the solidarity of women. It was a slippery slope trying to navigate my new direction, integrating my architectural aspirations with radical feminism, but I charted a course and set sail.
Men were a part of my life, but permanent relationships seemed to fall by the wayside. I had live-in boyfriends and they were fulfilling the need for social and intimate liaisons, but I could not succumb to marriage just yet. I knew that I was on my way to bigger and better things. I viewed marriage as an impediment to my career and I was afraid that motherhood would hinder my chances of success in a man’s world. I was soon to find out that these weren’t the only potential hurdles.
I entered a competitive high-powered workforce in New York City during the ’70s and ’80s where I was the only woman in the room. Men humored me and thought I was attractive, but they were also impressed by my intelligence and strong work ethic, so they let me stay. I rose to a level in a corporate world where only men were in the boardroom and I struggled to advance and achieve the financial rewards that I deserved.
Part of what seemed so daunting during this period was the constant battle for recognition. When a man completed a project and did a good job, he expected a promotion and got it, including more income. If I did the same project, I was a good team player. If I asked for a promotion, a bonus, or a company car, I was either expected to sleep with the boss or step aside for a family man who had children to support. My hopes and dreams were beginning to dim.
I bought a boat. This seemed like an appropriate reward for myself. I could navigate my personal life for a change, fish with my father, and entertain my friends. Of course, I was the only female boat owner in the marina, and it was one of the crowning achievements of my life.
I had to make some more adjustments. I had to get tougher. Men alienated each other, so I figured why not me, too? I was so male-identified, I didn’t see the difference between them and me, so I proceeded to act like them. My strategy got more complicated and I left some wounded in my wake, but I thought the sacrifice was worth it. I was determined to be successful and I pushed even harder.
I lost track of time and the years slipped by. I became an executive in an entrepreneurial world; and although I was proud of my progress, I was struggling to survive. Mergers and acquisitions were profitable, but outsourcing became a way of life. Women executives were the first casualties of the corporate world during lay-offs, and it became increasingly difficult to replace my high-paying jobs.
Because I was pioneer in my field, I was one of the senior women at my level and I needed a woman mentor. They were hard to find. So instead of connecting with one mentor, I found other women and we supported one another.
The struggle that women had then, and still have now, however, is how to balance their roles as mothers and wives with their professional lives. I was never able to take that plunge because I never found a man I could trust to share half the domestic burden. I looked around and saw all those women who thought they could do both, and they either lost their careers or lost their husbands. I was not about to lose my career for a man. I was already the man in my life.
And I became the man in my family’s life.
My younger sister was very accommodating to my strange and irregular career plans. She married and had two children. I was so relieved that one of my immediate family members was willing to fulfill another one of my father’s dreams. Now I didn’t have to do that, either. Being the man was challenging enough.
I wanted to be an example to my niece and nephew, and I suppose I was, but I have learned some very valuable lessons from them. Once when my niece was 10 years old and we were taking a bicycle ride one Sunday afternoon, she told me that it would have been nice if I had children for her to play with, but then she and I wouldn’t be able to spend so much time together. I have never forgotten those words. The women from my generations were torn.
My niece is from a new generation.
She is confident that she will be able to have her medical career as a doctor, her marriage to an engineer and raise children, without sacrificing her aspirations to be director of the Center for Disease Control.
Her whole generation is focused and comfortable with their expectations. I fought the war of the sexes, but I am hopeful that my niece will not have to. She will have professional battles to fight and she should be free to do so without social battles, too.
My niece doesn’t have to be the man! She can be a woman, a career woman, a wife and a mother without compromising her gender roles. She will realize her dreams and achieve them all in the context of her marriage and family. I am pleased to be a part of her life and to have played a part in her accomplishments. I know that she benefited from seeing me go to an office every day, pay the bills, and reach my career goals. I often check in with her on these matters just to be sure that I did the right thing.
I know my mother had career goals, too. She wanted to be a nurse, but her father did not think that it was an appropriate profession for a “nice” young woman. My mother became a reluctant wife and mother because she fell in love with my father. It would have been much more fulfilling for her entire family if she could have done it all, been a nurse, wife, and mother.
So I became the man in the family. I gave up a dual role of wife and mother to achieve career goals. I paired my mother’s disappointment with my father’s encouragement to be independent and came up with my own plan.
To be the Man.