Teach Your Children by
(303 Stories)

Prompted By Gender Roles

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

1959 – women in the front seat

For my parents, the gender roles were clear. My mother was in charge of the house and the family, my father dealt with the outside world and earned the money to support us. He might have disagreed with some of the decisions she made regarding us kids, but he would have no more told her how to raise the children than she would have told him how to practice medicine. She did all the cooking and shopping — even bought his clothes for him — and he paid the bills, managed the investments, filed the tax returns. Pretty traditional arrangement back in the fifties. Yet surprisingly, their three daughters were NEVER told to follow this pattern. It was made clear to us from an early age that we should have careers that we were passionate about, and whether we married and had children was almost incidental. I think they were truly ahead of their time in this regard.

In college I began to think about gender roles and expectations. With my high school boyfriend, I had expected him to pay for everything on our dates, and also to open the car door for me when I got in or out. I can remember sitting in the car after he got out, waiting for him to come around to my side to open the door, and not budging if he forgot to do it. It seems ridiculous now. Once I got to college, I began to realize that there was no reason for this behavior. Indeed, once sex became part of the equation, it was preferable NOT to have the guy pay for the date, because he then expected sex in return. It was much easier to say no if I had paid my own way — or to say yes if I wanted to, but not out of a sense of obligation.

I joined SDS at Harvard, but never really felt comfortable there. It was only later that I realized it was because all those big deal student radical guys were incredibly sexist. They didn’t want ideas from the women, they wanted sandwiches. Gender roles in the revolution! And worse, there is the famous quote from Stokely Carmichael that the only position for women in the movement is prone. He later claimed that it was a joke, but I doubt it. And thus the women’s movement was born, out of the sexism of the civil rights and antiwar movements. But that’s another story. . . .

In law school I was part of a class that was 48% women. Everyone treated each other as equals and there were no gender roles in the classroom. I remember learning that one of my male classmates, who was married, had his wife type up all his class notes and his briefs. I was horrified! Fortunately, that was the exception rather than the rule, at least in Davis.

When I went to work at the Attorney General’s Office, I was certainly not the first woman they hired, but I was the first one to make a big deal about being treated equally. I did not want men to hold the door for me, or to wait for me to get on or off the elevator first. They didn’t know what to make of me. Also, I didn’t shave my legs or armpits. That was only visible in the summertime, but they couldn’t understand that either. And when I got married, I didn’t take my husband’s name. I came back to work after my honeymoon and everyone asked me “What’s your name now?” I said that it was the same as it had always been. By this time, 1983, women keeping their own names was not that unusual, but it still seemed to astonish my co-workers.

In both of my marriages, the division of tasks has been based on ability or interest, not on gender. Except for the fact that I nursed the babies. I suppose I could have pumped my breast milk and had my husband give it to the baby in a bottle, but that seemed like way more work than just giving the baby my nipple. So there was a real biological reason for that gender role, I was the one with the lactation equipment. In contrast, I did not have the cooking skills, so both husbands did most of the cooking. I think I was traumatized by the two years of Home Ec classes the girls at my school were required to take in seventh and eighth grade. (The boys had one semester of Nutrition and three semesters of a free period! Talk about unfair gender roles!)

When my children were small, I always made a point of dressing them in gender-neutral clothes. I would have none of those pink outfits with ballerinas or blue outfits with trucks. I once got chastised by a clerk in Mervyn’s Department Store when she found out my baby in the little gray velour onesie was a girl. “You can’t dress a girl in gray,” she said. Oh yeah? Just watch me!

I feel good about modeling relationships of gender equality for my children. I expect that if either of my daughters ever gets married, she will keep her own name. And I think all three of my children take it for granted that gender does not determine who does what in any kind of relationship, whether business or romantic.

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy

Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Kit says:

    What a great description of the fifties family! I think I was also encouraged to have a career (but then my mother went back to school when I was 12), but I was never as good as you seemed to be at insisting that nothing in the work place (even opening doors) be sexist. Right on! (I’m with you on the cooking, though.)

  2. Great post! Just love your reflective style that you intertwine with descriptive narration. Eminently readable. I particularly enjoyed the ‘graphs you wrote about who paid for dinner, the a-hole revolutionaries in SDS and elsewhere… many of whom have [un]evolved into sexist curmudgeons. I was illuminated also by the notion of roles being decided by ability and interest. Oh! And the amazed co-workers who, even in 1983 couldn’t grok keeping your name. Very funny image!

  3. John Shutkin says:

    A terrific story in all respects! It is, as usual, incredibly thoughtful and well written. But, beyond that, it really speaks to the enlightened values of both the family that you were raised in and the family that you raised. Even if your parents didn’t “walk the walk” (hardly surprising back in the day), they certainly “talked the talk” — and you have clearly done both at all times. And in both your professional and personal life.

    Just a footnote, but I particularly liked the reminder of how sexist SDS was. As I recall, the status of women was determined not by any roles they played in SDS (they weren’t supposed to play any), but only by the status of their boyfriends in the organization.

    That is also a great family picture. As I recall, in the 50’s the AMA required all doctors to own Cadillacs. (Please don’t tell me that’s a Buick.)

    • Suzy says:

      We did have a Cadillac (as you say, required by the AMA), but I’m pretty sure the car in the picture is an Oldsmobile. Glad you could tell that it was a family picture, not just a stock photo of a ’50s family. You probably recognized cute little me in the back seat. πŸ™‚

  4. John Zussman says:

    Your story gives us such a panorama of gender roles across the decades. You seemed always to be one step ahead of your dates, radical co-conspirators, and colleagues, fortunate not to be burdened by traditional parental expectations. And I recognized you in the photo instantly!

    In my junior high school, while girls were taking home ec, boys had to take wood shop and metal shop. I was as out of my element there as I would have been in sewing class. But I made a lamp that we used for years!

    • Suzy says:

      I hope I didn’t give the impression that I thought I was one step ahead of everyone else. There were certainly plenty of other people who were fighting the good fight along with me, or even ahead of me. But there were so many people who needed to be educated.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, what an evolution/revolution you describe. I well-remember those days of dates opening the car door for me. It feels so antiquated now. You are fortunate in your law school and work experience, but I suspect that part of that was your self-confident bearing and your upbringing. Being in sales (a real “man’s world” in the late 1970s, early ’80s), I was hit on all the time, was usually the only professional woman in the room and once was in a dinner meeting where my boss kept telling dirty jokes to all the prospects he was entertaining, then said, “beg pardon, Betsy”! YIKES! I swear like a sailor (can’t drink like one and, of course, am petite and sweet-looking). At the end of the dinner I pulled the guy aside and told him I didn’t want to be singled out or made to feel different and NEVER DO THAT AGAIN! He was trying to be a “gentleman”, but I didn’t appreciate the double standard. Just treat me like a human, with RESPECT!

    Sounds like you were always treated with respect because you earned it! Good for you!

    • Suzy says:

      Your comment and JZ’s make me worry that I misrepresented myself. It wasn’t always perfect for me, and I didn’t always get treated with respect. My first boss asked me to get coffee for him, as I related in another story, and there were plenty of times when other (male) lawyers assumed I was a secretary or court reporter. I probably should have included more of those incidents. But I do think being tall helped me get more respect than it sounds like you did. I always wore two- or three-inch heels when I went to court so that I would be as tall as, or taller than, opposing counsel!

      Good for you for saying “never do that again” to your boss!

  6. Jim Willis says:

    I enjoyed reading your story, Suzy.

  7. Good for you Suzy! In neither of my marriages do I even remember discussing or arguing about gender roles.

    My mom had been a teacher with time after work to do the marketing and cooking, and she always had a housekeeper do the housecleaning and laundry. I also became a teacher and followed suit, and can’t say I ever felt put upon by my spouse.

    But I do regret I never had that gender conversation nor ever made any sort of house rules. Maybe then my husband would have learned to make more than scrambled eggs!

  8. Jeff Gerken says:

    I loved your observation of the treatment of women in SDS – “They didn’t want ideas from the women, they wanted sandwiches.”

    In my high school, I don’t think they would have allowed a guy to take Home Ec, any more than the shop teacher would have allowed a woman in the door. I think that it would have been a good idea, however, for me to have taken a course in shorthand, another exclusively female course at that time.

Leave a Reply