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Eugene L. Meyer

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The Gender and Generation Gap, 1960-2010
11/27/2010 1:40:51 PM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

From the era of Mad Men and Mad Comics, a 50th anniversary high school reunion inspires this look at some remarkable women who overcame pervasive sexism and low expectations to achieve great things for themselves and society.
By Eugene L. Meyer
Among the missing was “Big Mike” Crichton, our tallest (at 6 foot 7 inches), class writer and most likely to succeed, who would go onto fame and fortune as best-selling author, movie and television producer and director before succumbing to cancer in November 2008. Among the present at our half-century reunion was Alan, voted most brilliant, who went to MIT and recently retired as head of the math department at Berkeley.
Nice, but no surprises there. In 1960, when we graduated from Roslyn High School on Long Island’s North Shore in the era of Mad Men and Mad Comics, it was, after all, a man’s world. Several other men had become successful doctors, lawyers, college administrators, and businessmen.
In our mostly upper-middle class suburb, which included a quaint New England-like village with an inlet and, rising above it, the magnificent Harbor Hill estate of Gilded Age industrialist Clarence W. Mackay, it was a man’s world. All those postwar developments with grandiose and aspirational names--Nob Hill, Roslyn Estates, Country Estate, Norgate, Strathmore—didn’t change that.
The success of the men was, if not guaranteed, expected. Smarts mattered, but often gender mattered more. So the big story of our milestone reunion was not the guys but the gals, the women who had overcome pervasive sexism to do remarkable things. In 1960, civil rights, Vietnam, women’s liberation were yet to transform our country and our lives. But somehow the women had managed to transform themselves.
Hard to fathom, but our class of 235 came of age at a time when even their mothers tried to dampen their ambitions, promoting marriage and the limited choice of jobs open to women. Many of the fathers were downright hostile to the notion that daughters should become lawyers or even go to college or obtain an advanced degree.
But here was Carol, whose parents told her to forget about law school because “Girls didn’t do that,” she wrote in our reunion book. So she went to work as a legal secretary and took out loans to graduate from NYU Law School in under three years. She opened a women’s law firm in 1974 and wound up a judge on New York County’s Supreme Court.
Joan went to Columbia Law School, where men resented her presence because, she was told, she was filling a slot that would otherwise be filled by a draft-eligible male. After working for a federal civil rights agency, she co-founded a women’s rights nonprofit law office and litigated issues of gender equality in the workplace. She now presides over a Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in the San Francisco Bay area.
Harriett was a go-go dancer in Las Vegas, San Antonio and New York until she fell out of a cage and went back to school to become a speech pathologist. She worked with special needs students and started a private practice focusing on accent reduction, voice and diction, dialect coaching and tongue thrust therapy. Elaine, our class diva, had a successful career in opera, facilitated in part by her husband, who found a job in Europe so she could have a second act there. She sang at Carnegie Hall and with the San Diego Opera, and managed to raise a son, who is a filmmaker, while she continues to teach singing.
Pat, who came from a blue-collar Italian neighborhood, is assistant treasurer of a theatrical company in New York. Christa built “a multi-million dollar business on a shoe string” as a home decorator and reported that she is “now traveling the world on my yacht.”
Jaynie worked her way through school and spent many years as a corporate executive. Nancy was a rural public health nurse and is now in a family practice as a nurse practitioner, an occupation that didn’t exist in 1960. The other Nancy went to college in Colorado, was an antiwar activist, worked as a secretary, married and divorced, twice, studied computer science, raised and trained horses, and became a long-haul truck driver, traveling through every state in the continental United States, including Alaska, and most of the Canadian provinces,. Now she’s a short-haul driver, delivering construction material.
Ellen graduated from college, “although my mother didn’t think it was necessary, as long as I got married,” she wrote. She got and stayed married but also had several careers and now has her own business importing textiles hand-woven by women in Ethopia, Mali, and Afghanistan. Liz, jailed in Mississippi and at Berkeley in 1964, has “not been arrested since 1972 at an antiwar demonstration.” She was elected to her town board in Vermont, where she “fell in love with neurology” and became an occupational therapist. I could go on and on.
There have been many divorces, along with countless children and grandchildren. Some are still on their first spouse. Income, education, location—none seem to matter much in relation to marital longevity. Nor did the gender gap. But professionally, gender mattered a great deal. It was a man’s world, but that world was changing, and our class stories reflected that.
Sure, the guys did okay. But hats off to the women of Roslyn High School’s Class of 1960 who surmounted incredible obstacles to achieve and contribute to society in ways once hardly imagined . Back then, women used to be known, but only jokingly and rather condescendingly, as the “better half.” Well, perhaps, indeed they were.

Copyright 2010, Eugene L. Meyer

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More Blogs by Eugene L. Meyer
•  The Gender and Generation Gap, 1960-2010 - Saturday, November 27, 2010  
• The Future of Print Journalism - Thursday, October 15, 2009
• William Zantzinger - Echoes of the Old South - Monday, January 12, 2009
• Hope, Harmony and Goodwill - Thursday, January 08, 2009
• Why are all the moms female? - Tuesday, March 06, 2007

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