the Women Who Planted Our Trees

It was 1990-something as I studied the newsletter proof fresh off the fax machine. I felt my eyes drifting upward into a rolling motion. Every reference to the term “ladies” was heavily scribbled out and replaced with “women.”

My proofreader was coordinating a large event hosted by our business women’s networking group. This group included emerging professionals, experienced leaders, and recent retirees. All of them were confident, outspoken trailblazers in their fields. This woman was no exception. She was an intelligent, ambitious, caring, bold, older career woman, mother and grandmother – a success story in every way I could imagine. She was also one of the women whose opinions clashed with my conservative leanings.

I loved this networking group and all of the women in it, but I bristled at the occasional denigration of “housewives” that I would hear. The women who held such opinions sometimes used the more recently coined and politically correct term, “stay at home mothers,” but regardless of what they called women who chose not to work outside the home, their comments were meant to place a moniker of shame on those women. Conservative women were seen as a detriment to intelligent women everywhere, and I walked a thin line between what was seen as two warring leagues of women.

So, it was with a twinge of annoyance that I viewed these edits to the newsletter I had drafted. But rather than becoming furious, I became curious. I thought the term “lady” simply meant a female who was civil and respected. What was I missing? And in that moment, I got on the phone and sincerely asked my proofreader why this innocuous term offended her so.

She was eager to share with me a story of her younger self – a woman who in the early 1970s was not much younger than I was in the 1990s – a woman who was determined to advance in her profession as she launched her career. She had to prove every step of the way not only her capabilities but also her ability to out-perform her male counterparts in order to be taken seriously. Along the way, she endured repeated degrading remarks about “the ladies” not knowing their place and “the ladies” having silly notions that they had a better way of approaching objectives.

But it wasn’t the office banter that upset her most. It was an action – an action that was repeated throughout every stage of her career in most of the meetings she attended. “Ladies,” the man in charge would say at the beginning of each meeting, “go get us some coffee.” The men seemed happy to welcome the women as long as the women didn’t interfere with their meeting and acted as their hostesses. If one able-bodied man would stand and announce he was going to refill his coffee, inevitably another man would stop him and call for the ladies to accommodate his caffeination needs.

The ladies – usually no more than two of them in the midst of a dozen men – were relegated to office work as the men would turn to them to request additional copies be made, minutes be recorded, and reminders be noted and relayed back to them at a later date.

These women were supposed to be organizing their own valuable tasks in support of company objectives, yet their contributions were diminished time and time again. To play along like good female soldiers was soul crushing and damaging to their professional development. To fight back against it could be career-killing.

This was her battle, reoccurring all the way up to the point where she outranked many of the men in the room and her position power silenced the sickening practice of calling on the “ladies” once and for all.

I could hear the anger and frustration in her voice. I could also feel it in my gut. I hadn’t lived her experiences. She hadn’t lived mine. I had fallen into the field of human resource management in the late 1980s, and I had been surrounded by strong female coworkers and leaders throughout my journey. She had not.

She would have been entering the workforce around the time I was six and my father was telling me I could be anything I wanted to be. At that time I wanted a career in science, but I had the impression that girls couldn’t be scientists. That was the day he told me about Madam Currie, and I never forgot that moment. Messages like that from the men in my life were empowering, but in an office building across town, the messages my proofreader was receiving from the men in her office were nothing less than constraining.

We discussed our contrasts in early experiences. She was wise and gracious enough to withhold judgment against me for my view of the world not matching hers. But in that moment my world expanded, and it wasn’t the last time this would happen, thanks to that networking group.

Schools teach us the dates of important events, like the formation of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor and the ratification of the 19th Amendment, both celebrating a centennial this year. If our lessons in history are rich enough, we might also know that until 1974 women often couldn’t get credit without a husband’s co-signature, even if the woman had ample income. Before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed in 1978, women were in danger of losing their jobs if they got pregnant. Women couldn’t even serve on a jury in Texas until 1954.

I knew most of these pertinent women’s history facts, but the older women in that networking group offered insights I would gain from no other place. The histories they shared included their need to hide their business ownership behind their initials because using their feminine names created barriers to success. Becoming a CPA was so traditionally reserved for men, CPA licenses that displayed female names were often followed by a male-centric declaration that having completed “his” requirements “he” was qualified to practice as a CPA. And the reason hundreds of women banded together to form this networking organization was because the “ladies” routinely were shut out of good ol’ boys’ clubs where social capital was built and business deals followed. Women couldn’t even gain Rotary membership until 1987.

I was the benefactor of the hard-fought battles that women before me waged. They planted the trees. I enjoyed the shade. Failure to plant those trees is shortsighted, but failure to appreciate them is tragic. I had failed to even notice them.

The surprising lack of my women’s history knowledge is part of what inspired me to develop the storyline that runs through my book, Songs from the Canary Cage. Understanding our life’s song requires knowing not only who we are but why we are – those family stories that built us. When we lack this knowledge, we run the risk of making choices based on narrow perspectives. I wanted my characters to see how their songs harmonized and collided with the voices from their past so they could carry forward the lessons learned by those ancestors who fought for the opportunities that future generations would enjoy.

Today, I stumbled upon an inspiring collection of women’s stories on the Women’s Bureau Centennial website. These short accounts, provided by women of all ages, paint assorted pictures of the paths they traveled to get where they are today. Some faced challenges; some benefitted from the paths cut long before they were born, just as I had benefitted from the Herculean efforts that women like my proofreader had brought to the fight long before I put my toe in the arena.

Back on the day that I held that edited newsletter proof in my hand, my proofreader, having shared her history with the term “ladies,” also suggested that maybe it was time she moved past her disgust with that degrading six-letter word. Moving past it provides healing, and healing is good. But moving past a deeply held hurt should mean neither suppressing nor forgetting it. I was grateful she shared that experience with me, I never forgot it, and in solidarity I incorporated her edits into that newsletter.

As we celebrate June anniversaries of the Women’s Bureau on June 5th and the National Organization for Women on June 30th, I encourage you to seek out voices of women who fought their way into the workforce decades ago. Let’s give them the microphone so they can move past the hurt and we can ensure their experiences will never be forgotten. And while we’re at it, let’s thank them for planting trees under which we can sing a brighter song.

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