My greatest role model was my mother, a true woman of the 1950s. She was, and remains for me, the smartest person I’ve ever known. She was college educated, well traveled, cultured, the only child of a high profile, socially and politically active local power couple. But when she expressed her desire to become a lawyer, her father, the judge, encouraged her to become a teacher. Much more appropriate for a woman, he told her. Women lawyers at the time were considered, in her words, “mannish,” and not attractive as wives and mothers. And so she became a teacher, married, raised a family, cared for elderly parents, volunteered and eventually, re-entered her profession. She was a voracious reader and encouraged discourse during family dinners. No topic was off limits.
During my childhood in the 1960s and ‘70s I had a front row seat to watch the women’s movement unfold, although I was too young to be an active participant. Sometimes I feel like I fell between the cracks; too young to claim the struggle and too old to be a real beneficiary of my older sisters’ fight. And so I began my adult life without a template, my bra a bit singed but still intact, my mother’s encouragement that I could be anything I wanted ringing in my ears, but still unsure of how to carve out a path.
Over the years, I’ve managed to raise kids, own a business, return to grad school twice and become a community leader. I’ve watched my daughter grow into a strong, independent, free thinker whose life choices so far are very different from my own. She and her generation are the real legacy of those that fought the good fight.
And yet, there is still work to be done. A few years ago we were shopping for a family car. At the time, I was a stay-at-home mom and the car was for me to drive while schlepping kids around. At the dealership, the salesman continually addressed my husband with details about the car, despite the fact that I was the one asking the questions. At one point my husband, God love him, looked the salesman straight in the eye and said, “You should talk to her. She’s the one who will be driving the car and she’s making the decision.”
I am now about to open a new business and on a recent afternoon, meeting with a leasing agent for a space, my business partner and I were encouraged to “work our feminine wiles,” to get a good deal. My partner, who is much younger than I am, blew it off. I, however, am still seething. This man, about my own age, objectified us and when I called him out for his sexist stereotyping of us, he defaulted to the old, “I’m just kidding,” response. It was not funny to me.
So what’s next? At this time in our nation’s history, I fear the progress my older sisters fought for will be rolled back. A journalism professor of mine, who’d been a wartime reporter in Vietnam, wrote about the influence of birth control on women entering the workforce. Armed with the ability to choose when, and if, to start a family, women had more control over their lives. So, too, with Roe v. Wade, women can control their own health care decisions. Will this all disappear? The public discourse today sounds to me like an old newsreel from my childhood. Sadly, it’s not.
The Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And while it’s easy these days to give in to despair and fear, I am determined to remain hopeful and heartened. I remind myself that everything changes and I can be a catalyst for positive change. I also take heart as I watch my daughter embark on a career once reserved only for men, in the world of sports. She has found a place in which to express her passion and talents and I hope she will also reach back into her history and know she stands on some very strong shoulders.
Barbara Dab is a journalist, broadcast radio personality, producer and award-winning public relations consultant. She is the creator of The Peretz Project: Stories from the Shoah: Next Generation. The Peretz Project, named for her late father-in-law who was a Holocaust survivor, is collecting testimony from children of survivors. Check it out at http://www.theperetzproject.com. If you are, or someone you know is, the child of survivors of the Shoah, The Holocaust, and you would like to tell your story please leave a comment and Barbara will contact you.
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