Over the past several weeks, I have discussed the impact of attending a traditionally female college in the early 1970s. I wasn’t there that long — like most students of the time, I got on the train at 18 and disembarked at 22 with a diploma. But those four years were formative, shaping the rest of my personal and professional life in some important ways:
--Valuing female friendships: Most women I know value their friendships with other women, of course. But I was raised in a time and culture that put men first. We were encouraged to break a date with a girl friend, for example, if a boy asked us out. My exposure to the brilliance, fierce loyalty, seriousness and silliness of my classmates put an end to that nonsense. My best friend from college remains one of my two best friends today. She is the person I call when I need to talk through a problem, cry without explaining myself, or share good (or bad) news. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for her.
--Valuing women in the workplace: I have friends, both male and female, who complain about “women bosses”: that they are petty, self-contradictory micromanagers, mostly. For a while I thought I had just been extraordinarily lucky to have a string of extremely competent, visionary, and decisive (not to mention empathetic and fun) female employers. Then I realized that we were sometimes talking about the same people. Women of my generation were trained not to raise our voices; to deliver definite pronouncements as though they were tentative questions; and to mask and deny irritation until it builds up into an explosion. This behavior is so ingrained in many of us that we don’t realize we’re sending out seemingly mixed signals. Working on tech crews, student committees, etc., at college, I got used to decoding “Maybe we should go with the yellow scrim; what do you think?” as “Please get started on the yellow scrim now,” and this assumption that my female bosses a) knew what they wanted and b) were communicating this, if I listened hard enough, saved me many misunderstandings as a young flunky. I also, unlike many of my peers, took women’s competence as a given, and thus avoided the irritating questioning and second-guessing that tends to lead to the aforementioned explosions.
--Weird relationships with men: As mentioned last week, a process of “othering” took place with regard to men. I was hardly an early bloomer, and when I left for college, most of my relationships with boys were friendships. I stayed in touch with my male friends during my college years, and met some new and wonderful men as well. But most of my serious, committed friendships were with women, and men seemed increasingly marginal, except as date material. This lack of fascinated attention enraged some men and intrigued others, but there was not a lot of space to build natural, trusting relationships. I was lucky in that my first job out of college, at which I stayed for three years, entailed working intensely with a team of recent college graduates, both male and female. For me, this experience served as postgraduate socialization training. (It was also where I met my husband.) Even so, I think that having missed out on unforced interactions during those important years had long-term consequences. Until I became the mother of a boy, I did not have a great deal of sympathy for men as a group. Life was so much more pleasant, fun, and orderly among women, and I saw men as inconvenient disrupters—except for those who penetrated my resistance, and became loved ones. I had to experience life as a boy, vicariously, before I really understood how hard they have it in some ways, and how sweet they are naturally, unless the sweetness is shamed or beaten out of them.
So am I glad or sorry that I had this experience? A little of both, probably. On the one hand, I wish I’d learned more natural ways of relating to men earlier in my life; but on the other, I’ve never doubted that women could do anything we set our minds to. I hope I’m of the last generation for which this is either/or, but somehow I doubt it.