College, Everyone, Anyone?

I had just arrived home from high school toting a schoolbag full of papers for my parents to fill out, signing me up to September admission to Hunter, New York City’s excellent, free college for women (now in 2018 co-ed).

“Elizabeth, you’re out of your mind!” I heard Mrs. O’Dowd, one of our neighbors, scolding my mother.  Mrs. O’Dowd went on, “Why would you want to send Elsie to college?  She’s a girl!  She’s smart enough to get a good office job.  Help you pay the bills.”

My mother was the only non-Irish descent, non-American-born woman in our entire five story upper Manhattan tenement building.  She usually listened but rarely spoke when confronted by our neighbors.  She understood the message but was embarrassed by her Hungarian accent, albeit slight.  As usual, Mother limited her response to such confrontations by offering a terse but honest reply.  “She wants to teach school and has to go to college for that.”

“That’s for the rich kids down on Park Avenue.  They don’t have to work.  They can spend their time playing around at college.  Besides that, your daughter is a nice looking girl.  She’ll be married before you know it,” Mrs. O’Dowd smiled.  “I just love being a grandmother.  I bet you would too!”

Variations on this theme had been foisted on my mother before, but this was the first time I had witnessed it, rather than have it reported to me by her.  Serendipitously,      This particular sidewalk encounter, one of many, between my mother and two or three neighbors from our building took place in the spring of 1941.  I would turn sixteen in a month and a month after that would graduate from high school.  The summer would be spent at a factory job I had lined up, which would give me enough money to buy my college wardrobe.  I remember feeling so tingly when I heard myself thinking the words “my college”.  I learned later that I was the only child, among literally over hundreds of kids on my block, to go to college…and I was a girl.

My first job, at 16, the summer before starting college, was in a factory—one that made paper party goods.  My task was to attach paper flowers onto party hats using a stapling mechanism, foot-operated from a standing position.  It was tiring work even for a teenager, but I was happy fantasizing about the pretty clothes I would be able to buy and the excitement of being a college student in the fall.  I made 40 cents an hour.

The most important thing I learned in that summer of 1941 was how fortunate I was to be allowed to receive a college education.  Mary, the supervisor of my paper hats department looked to be about my mother’s age, mid-forties.  She had started work at the age I was then and at the same machine.  After some thirty years she had risen as far as she could go as a woman in that company.  She was the supervisor of my department and made 55 cents an hour more than I did.  Her husband drove a truck cross-country, and her mother lived with Mary and her family so that she could take care of the three children while both parents worked.

Seven years later, as a college graduate and a new bride, I moved with my husband, Walter, to Flint, Michigan, where he taught aeronautical engineering at General Motors Institute of Technology.  Neither of us was especially fond of Fling, but we figured with two of us working and saving we could stay there long enough to amass sufficient money to move to the West Coast, buy a house and start a family.

“The best laid plans???  It never occurred to either of us that I would have trouble finding a job.  For six months I combed and answered job-related classifieds, registered with employment agencies, to no avail.  Interviews but no job offer!  My father, knowing the limitations placed on women with no degree or with a college degree but no profession, had insisted that I take a secretarial course as soon as I finished school.  Since I had decided that I didn’t wat to be a teacher or a nurse, there were always ads for office workers:  stenos, secretaries, file clerks, typists.  I aced the typing and shorthand tests and, I believed, the interview.  Obviously, I did not ace the interview, but why?

I discussed these many disappointing experiences with Walter.  Of course, he loved his bride and was befuddled that potential employers weren’t beguiled by me!  At one of our discussions he asked me to describe a typical interview—everything I could remember.  Brilliant!  Typical questions and comments:  “You’re recently married?”; “You are far away from your New York family.”; and the killer:  “You are twenty-three years old.  You’ll be wanting to start a family soon, won’t you?” Such indignities are illegal today, but I suspect there are employers who find ways to circumvent the laws.

I am writing this on the eve of my 89th birthday.  It’s May of 2014.  I have just finished reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In”, subtitled “Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.“  The leaning seems directed principally to women’s struggles as professionals in the business world:  the glass ceiling, unequal pay, balancing family and work, workplace competition among men and women for upward mobility.

I am grateful to Dr. Sandberg for unwittingly making me look back and see how women my age were treated in the business/professional.  My first reaction to the book was, “This isn’t my life.  My career has been as a half-time university psychology professor.  The other half time was spent as a private-practice psychotherapist.  I did just fine.”  And then I remembered that scene on the stoop of my building some 73 years earlier, where the idea of my attending college as a female was derided—anathema to what the mothers in our apartment building sincerely believed to be the right course to follow for me or any girl in the neighborhood.  We’re not there yet, but today is a helluva lot better.

I know there is competition in campus departments—one of my reasons for only teaching part time.  In therapy group practices, therapists may compete for clients, for the largest office, for the best parking space—all reasons for working part-time or in your home office, if possible.

The latter is a business, and a few of Dr. Sandberg’s observations do apply.  The longer you work on any given day, week, month, the more money you’ll make.  However, most of the psychologists, counselors, and social workers that I have known over these many years counted their success less in money earned and more in significant changes they have helped clients make:  marriages saved or successfully ended, healthier/happier parenting, more fulfilling lives, increased self-confidence.

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