My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 5, #19,
November 22, 1999


I was just reading a book about my life. The authors didn't know that, and didn't interview me for it, but it IS my life. It's called The Women Who Broke All the Rules,* the result of a series of interviews with women born during World War II and the early years of the baby boom. We were supposed to become June Cleaver, and were trained for a way of life that would be incomprehensible to men or to any person under 30. Said one woman, "I remember going to politeness classes where they taught us to eat potato chips with a spoon. I was conditioned for a life which I am not living."

Raised to be nothing but good girls, ladies, and loving wives and mothers, we were aimless. As one woman said, "I really never wanted to be anything. I just wanted to fall in love, get married and have a family." There was no point in setting goals because our lives would be determined by the successes and failures of the men we married. We didn't have careers, just jobs to support us until we found a man. One woman's mother constantly told her to wait until she was married to buy things or do things she wanted, as if life was something dispensed in measured amounts by husbands; she couldn't stand it, because she "wasn't willing to sit around waiting for [her] life to begin."

But in the sixties and seventies, both the protections and the limits of the old way of life began to crumble. My generation learned that having a man was not a guarantee, because he might die, ditch us, or abuse us. As we came to understand that our only guarantee was US, we had to figure out how to fend for ourselves, how to BE ourselves. But there were no guidelines; mom hadn't been where we were going, and her advice was useless.

Making it up as you go along is not a job for the timid, and freedom can be terrifying for the caged -- as one of the women said plaintively, "I had answers when I was a kid. Now I'm not even sure what the questions are."

With no clear idea of what we wanted to do or be, some women lost a few years to drugs, sex, and men who were bad for them, while others drifted casually from job to job, or from one man to another. But at some point, all of us realized we didn't want to live that way, and that we had the power to walk away and change ourselves.

We didn't wallow in our failures, maybe because, since people expected so little of us, a failure or a wrong turn didn't matter that much. Because we weren't afraid to fail, we learned from our mistakes and kept going. If anything, we reveled in the challenge of taking big risks; as one woman said, "I'm not afraid to do something that's never been done before. The older I get, the more confident I am." We came to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

Many of the women interviewed here were the "First Woman" in their fields -- the first female vice-president, the first to bring in a million dollar account -- but they don't see themselves as pioneers. They underrate their accomplishments because they were simply doing what needed to be done, or because they knew how short they had fallen of their goals, or because they fell into their new lives and careers by accident or luck.

A lot of us transitional women did, in fact, succeed because of happy accidents -- we were lucky to be the best-educated generation of women ever, lucky to benefit from new equal employment laws and reliable birth control methods. Technologies and businesses changed so rapidly in the last few decades that we had lots of opportunities to get in on the ground floor of something big. But we were also not locked into career ladders, and when we saw our opportunities, we jumped at them because we had so little to lose.

I am among those women who drifted from career to career -- teacher, secretary, mommy, librarian -- and fell into her present work by being in the right place at the right time. Like any librarian, I looked for good information wherever it appeared, and when I found it on the web, I was one of the first to organize it, linking it to the web page I built for my university's faculty and students. Since I hadn't fully grasped that once you've put something on the web, it serves the entire world, I was surprised to find I had become a guru, and that people would pay me for my expertise.

Becoming a writer was another accident, something I'd always dreamed about but never gotten around to doing until I saw a notice that the London Mall wanted an American correspondent, and won the chance to write this column. Under the impetus of a weekly deadline, I discovered that I could reliably come up with something to say. Another accident gave me the chance to get paid for writing. The accident of buying the right internet stocks gave me enough financial security to quit my job and do what I love full-time.

We transitional women have lived through sea changes. We try, and fail, to live in both worlds -- meet the challenges and achievements of the new order, and still give our families the comforts of the old -- and guilt is our steady companion. But we have ended up with lives that are complex, rich, and full. The stories these women tell are fascinating.

But they are new to me only in detail -- the shape and texture of their stories are very much like my story, and very much like the stories of the five brilliant women in Mary Catherine Bateson's book, Composing a Life.

What would be new to me would be a book that interviewed the men who came of age in this transitional period. The rules changed as much for them as they did for women, but they had a lot more to lose than we did, and maybe less to gain. Despite the scar tissue we picked up along the way, we transitional women wouldn't go back to the kind of lives we grew up to expect. I'm not so sure that's the case for men. I'd like to know, though.

* Susan B. Evans and Joan P. Avis. The Women Who Broke All the Rules. Sourcebooks, Inc., 1999.

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