Some Women's History from My Family
Patriarchy and loss
Welcome back Chaise Lounge readers! It’s always nice to have you here. As always, please make sure to like and share this post if you find it valuable.
Some big news
This week I am sharing a brief outline of three women in my family and how the patriarchy impacted their lives. I am working on a historical fiction book about these women, and as I get into the deep work involved with book writing, I will be reducing the frequency of Chaise Lounge posts. I am finding that with my attention divided, I am unable to publish a newsletter that I am satisfied with on a weekly basis. I am not quite sure what this means for the newsletter, so stay tuned, but do know that you will no longer receive CL weekly. I suspect it will be every two weeks but time will tell. This is a huge step for me personally, but I think that it will be well worth it.
How the Patriarchy Affected Women’s Lives in my Family
I had several different ideas of what to write about this week as we are in the middle of Women’s History month, but as I lay in bed last night, I realized that the story I want to tell you is about some of the women in my family. My mother, Jayne, my aunt, Beth, and their first cousin, Ruth were all women who became adults in the mid-1950s and ‘60s. As I have pondered their lives, I cannot help but notice the ways that patriarchal culture shaped every part of their lives from their employment choices to their clothing. For each of these women, their inability to transcend patriarchal culture led to grave disappointments and even death.
Born in 1930, Jayne Davis was my mother. Unlike her sister and cousin, Jayne lived a long life until she passed away in 2012 at the age of 82. Jayne worked as a secretary or administrative assistant from the time she graduated from Boston University until her retirement. When Jayne graduated college, she dreamt of traveling and possibly becoming a French translator. She was married at 27 and had four children over 8 years. Unfortunately for Jayne, her husband was one of those men who could not hold a job and always had some crazy money-making scheme in the works that just never seemed to pan out. Jayne tried to keep the family afloat financially, but her secretarial/AA salary was not enough for a family of six. Jayne never got to Paris or had the opportunity for any travel or translation duties. Although she was very smart, her status as a woman kept her in secretarial positions. She was never able to dig herself out of the financial hole that supporting a family of six created. Her own dreams were subjugated to those of her family. I wish that my mom had been able to achieve at least some of her goals, but the deck was stacked against her from the beginning.
Beth Davis was my aunt, although I never met her because she died before I was born. From letters saved and memories that have been shared, it is clear that Beth was a bubbly and kind young woman with a strong sense of morality. Upon graduating from William and Mary College, Beth found work in Washington, D.C. in a government office, but she found the secretarial work to be deadly dull. She knew that she needed to get out of government work and had few options as a young woman in the early 1950s. But she did not have a clear idea of what she wanted to do since her choices were so limited. On a whim, she applied to TransWorld Airlines (TWA) for an airline hostess position. While her parents were not fans of her working on airplanes (her mother was deathly scared of flying), Beth was looking for a way out of secretarial work. She worked for TWA for a couple of years and then decided to apply to graduate school to obtain a teaching degree. She was accepted to Cornell School of Education’s Masters in Education degree program. Unfortunately, before she could start school in September, Beth was flying one of her last flights on June 30, 1956, when the TWA plane collided with another commercial plane over the Grand Canyon. All of the passengers and crew on both planes died and the wreckage is still in the canyon. It was an immense tragedy that affected families from across the country and changed aviation history. If Beth had had more career options, she never would have been on that plane, it was just due to a lack of choices.
Ruth Davis, Jayne and Beth’s cousin, attended Georgetown University where she majored in Geology. When she graduated, she obtained a clerical position working in the Geology department office at the university. While she appreciated the position, she was not sure what her next step would be. She wanted to attend graduate school, but she was not sure if that was the best next step. After all, teaching at the college level was primarily a man’s job. It was there that she met Geza Teleki. After about a year of dating, Geza obtained a position as a field scientist for Jane Goodall’s Gombe chimpanzee project. Once he arrived, Geza found that Jane needed a typist and a babysitter for her toddler. With Jane’s blessing, he invited Ruth to come to Gombe for the job. She did, and it did not take long for her to also become a field researcher. Part of the job of field research involved following chimps into the jungle to observe their behavior in the wild. The researchers followed the chimps alone. One day Ruth followed her regular group of chimps, but she never returned. By dinner time, the other researchers noticed her absence, but by then it was dark and they could not search for her. First thing in the morning, they set out looking for her, but it took days before they found her body. It appeared that she had fallen from the top of a waterfall and cracked her skull. While we will never know exactly what happened to her, we do know that she never would have been in Gombe if she had had other career options.
As I think about all three of these smart, educated women, I am saddened that not one of them was able to come even close to achieving their dreams. While some might say that both Beth and Ruth had some adventure and travel in their short lives, it does not mitigate the fact that neither one of them was particularly interested in pursuing those fields. They were just jobs that were available to them from limited possibilities. Two of them died such tragic deaths while still in their 20s bringing even more sadness to their memories. Of course, you might say that these women were not creative in their thinking and could have reached their goals. But they were regular women with college educations just trying to make it in a world where the odds of success were stacked against them.
It makes me wonder about all of the women throughout history who were limited by patriarchal concerns. We know of the many ways that some of the more famous women like Marie Curie and Katherine Johnson were overlooked. But what about women’s daily lives throughout history? What about all of the missed opportunities for creativity, invention, and mere daily life satisfaction?
While I have grown up during a different era with more choices available to women career-wise, we still have the vestiges of patriarchy continuing to control women’s access to employment opportunities, especially those at the top. I do not know when we will ever achieve full equality, but what I do know is that continuing to fight for that equality before the law is a major step in the process. I hope that one day my own daughter will be able to look back at her own life and have the ability to report that it was one of equal access to employment at all levels.