25 March 2016

The Evolution of the Modern Woman -- in my Mind and in Society

Woman in a long white coat, carrying a black purse with a hat on and pearls around her neck. Her dress in dark green and ends below her knees. The small hat sits lightly on her hair which is blonde though maybe dyed. Her nails are painted fire engine red. Her lipstick is a lighter shade of red. She is wearing white gloves. The woman could be anywhere from her mid thirties to forties. The time is in  early or mid 1960s. She accompanies a man and says very little. She smokes. Women like her seemed to be everywhere when I was a child, just as they are in films from the years before and around my childhood. They can also be seen  in vintage ads.

They always seem to be with a man. Sometimes they are a wife, at other times a girlfriend or a mistress. They are polite though often sullen. They favor martinis and steaks. There is never anything distinguishing or interesting about them. They are usually above average height and slender. When I was a child these women never seemed to be mothers or to have careers or to come from anywhere. In fact their sole function seemed to be as attachments to men. You never knew what they were thinking or if indeed they ever thought anything. Their contributions to conversations were minimal and banal. They would, however, speak freely to other women of long acquaintance though it might as well have been in another language to boys and men and it was of no consequence to us.

A lot of these women you only ever saw once. Maybe because they had broken up with the man they were with or you never saw the man again or maybe they’d taken a new persona as a doughty married woman, maybe with a child in tow. Sometimes they slipped comfortably into their role as a wife and looked much the same.

To me as a boy they were utterly unappealing. Those few who were still about after I became interested in the fairer sex had no more sensuality to me than a barbie doll — and much the same personality.

These women were products of their time. It was an era when, in mixed company, women took on a subsidiary role. Women were supposed to be seen and not heard and they were supposed to look good for the benefit of their husbands. At family gatherings and among close friends women could literally and figuratively let their hair down and many chose to do so. Although the genders were often segregated after meals or even before, it was also likely, particularly at parties and celebrations, for men and women to intermingle.

My mother fit this description to a degree. Unlike most women about she had not only a college education but an advanced degree. Still, she “knew her place.” While my father’s education ended before high school, she deferred to his opinion on most matters. It was what women did. Fortunately he was a very intelligent man, self taught and knowledgable and sensitive to women. Many, many other women were not so lucky. Of course in a lot of relationships the public display of the obedient woman was merely for show and at home the woman was more vocal, perhaps an equal partner and perhaps even “wearing the pants in the family.”

As feminism became more and more a fact of life women started being more part of the scene than the scenery. I think this has relieved enormous pressure off of men — not to mention women. Forced gender roles ultimately hurt both parties as they require each person to conform to what society expects rather than what is natural. Women have taken off the gloves (literally and figuratively) and many have gotten out of uncomfortable high heels and other accoutrements. Better still women are not just part of the conversation but initiating it.

Sadly there are segments of our culture which still keep women in a secondary role. These are often in “traditional” or “family values” communities which in most cases are slaves to religious dogma. These are people who are generally intolerant of homosexuality and only barely repress their inherit racism. There is a false sense of comfort in clinging to the old ways. It is less complicated and helps maintain a long standing — if, in truth, tenuous — structure. In reality accepting gender equality and people with different sexual preferences and identities, is freeing. To not be bound by prejudice and repressive norms is infinitely more natural to the human spirit.

I close now with a story from my youth. One day my father took me along on a visit to some friends. I did not know the people well, if at all, and don’t remember who they were. I was about ten years old. There were no other children there and really nothing for me to do. I sat quietly and bored while the adults prattled on. There was a woman there, similar to the type mentioned at the beginning of this writing who took it upon herself to come talk to me. This was unusual in my experience as unfamiliar adult women didn’t chat with a small boys other than a greeting or perhaps offering a beverage. She knelt next to me and asked me questions. I was reticent at first but she was so nice I couldn’t help but respond. Ultimately she got out of me the fact that I wanted to someday be a famous writer. She was most impressed with my ambition and doubtless found me to be a cute little kid as most adults did. I remember feeling validated by her merely based on her having spoken to me. But more than that she was interested and encouraging. This made me feel proud and happy. She subsequently returned to her seat and told my father — in front of everyone — how impressed she was with me and my unusual desire — for a ten year old — to be, of all things, a writer. My father was always proud of me and particularly so on this occasion and let all who were present know it. I smiled shyly but inside I was positively beaming.

The memory has stuck me with many decades on. Not just because I had been made to feel so good but because of the manner in which this woman had shattered a stereotype. She’d broken away from her “man” and of all things chatted with a boy and more than that publicly praised him. I realized then there was more to people than met the eye.

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