Building a good life when women had it tougher

Sally Friedman and her husband, Vic, in the receiving line of their wedding in 1960.
Sally Friedman and her husband, Vic, in the receiving line of their wedding in 1960.
Posted: March 13, 2014

The phone call came at dinnertime, and I could tell instantly that the daughter on the other end was uncomfortable.

So we talked of the usual stuff - her life, ours, how things were going in graduate school. And then we got to the point.

Our daughter wanted us to know that she would be moving in with her then-boyfriend. Soon.

She methodically gave me the new address. I methodically wrote it down.

But as it was happening, I knew, standing at the kitchen counter more than 25 years ago, that we'd crossed another generational border. My life - and hers - were different universes.

Saying the words "Living with my boyfriend," let alone doing it, would have been as remarkable in my universe as not doing it would have been for my enlightened, liberated daughters.

The usual script in my world went something like this:

Take the academic or commercial track in high school. Graduate. Get a secretarial job, or go to college.

But most of all - inviolate and required - save yourself for marriage, get a husband, and live happily ever after.

My mother had learned that from her Eastern European immigrant mother, who may have struggled with English, but knew the dreaded words "old maid" well. My mother obeyed, hitting the jackpot at 20 with a dashing young lawyer. My mother, more subtly perhaps, had transmitted the same message to my sister and me.

Marriage first - then the rest would take care of itself.

I got the degree in teaching, because teaching, my mother had intoned from time immemorial, was something you could always "fall back on." I hated teaching grammar to squirmy eighth graders.

That career lasted one year.

I also got the husband. That's lasted 53 years.

We married three days after my senior-year geology final at the University of Pennsylvania. I'm not sure which was the greater relief - getting past those tongue-twisting geological terms, or knowing that I would always be taken care of.

Yes, that was the deal back in 1960. No apartments of our own. No single life. And surely no living together without benefit of marriage.

At a recent Penn reunion with some of the women of my era, the collision of our past with our present was inevitably raised. And a key element of it all was that single word: astonishment.

Most of us had married young - the ultimate expectation.

But then along came Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and that familiar landscape yielded to another. Work - real jobs, even careers - were ours to claim.

Like my classmates, I've had to renegotiate the marriage contract with my husband, who ultimately learned to wield a mean vacuum and not just grocery shop, but make the list, too.

We may have been the first generation to experience this miracle.

And now the younger women in our lives have taken more leaps.

They became women with interests, passions, and callings out there in the big world where once only men roamed. They crashed into courtrooms and boardrooms and newsrooms. They lived large.

Their husbands cook and clean. They diapered babies not as a favor, but as a part of the deal.

And now I have a college sophomore granddaughter.

Hannah's world vision is just that - the world. At Barnard, Columbia University's all-women's college, Hannah is thriving on empowerment. She owns herself - something I missed at her age.

Her horizons are as vast and wide as mine were limited back in the days when caution and conformity for women reigned.

Hannah listens with bafflement to my stories of standing outside the best room at Penn's student union and wishing I could go in to enjoy its paneled walls, its Oriental rugs and wonderful grand piano. But in this coeducational university, "coeds," as we were called back then, were denied entrance.

"But why didn't you just go in?" she has asked. And I try to explain that back in the late '50s, girls didn't make messes.

Hannah lives in a world where even dormitory rooms are sometimes shared by a man and woman who are not a couple - just chosen "roomies."

Even my younger granddaughters know they do not live in the long shadows of boys.

Feisty Emily, at 11, already questions everything. She argues gorgeously with her older male cousins, determined to be heard and yes, respected (her word).

I've told both of these granddaughters, and even little Carly, who's not yet 10, that my life as a woman, while limited by cultures past, has not left me feeling bereft.

I've told them that although I missed so many experiences that are their birthright now, I've been one of the lucky ones.

I've loved my life. I came late to the great banquet of women's rights - but I lived to savor the meal.

I've loved one man, and he's been by my side as I've grown from girl to woman to person.

So regrets? I've had a few, as that old Frank Sinatra song goes.

But no matter.

I'm accepting the changing of the tides.

And I'm riding the waves.

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