The Hazards of Teaching Your Women
My great-grandmother married a Rabbi. That in itself is a story, but not the one I wish to tell right now. She married a Rabbi, and they had five daughters. She did not have a degree, but her husband the Rabbi said that their daughters would have college degrees. “If you educate a man,” the family legend says, “then you have educated a man. If you educate a woman, then you educate a family.” So. She raised five daughters, and she was a good wife, and she did as she was asked and the Rabbi saw to it that her daughters had college degrees. She was also a suffragette. She hosted meetings in the Rabbi’s parlor. She argued with him at dinner. My grandmother, 98 years old when she told me this story, could still imitate her father’s tone, slamming her frail hand hard down on the table as she did: “Esther!” he declared. “That is ENOUGH!” “Yes,” she agreed placidly, Grandma said, and held another meeting in the parlor. When my grandmother was 5 years old, my great-grandmother took her and her little sister and the baby down to watch her vote. Fruit and rocks and worse were thrown at them, but Esther wanted her daughters to understand that when a man can vote, he votes for a family, but when a woman can vote, she votes for herself. She is a person in the eyes of the law. She uses her education. She _matters_.
All of Esther’s daughters went to college. At least one of them (as I understand it) earned her Masters in math. That woman was my grandmother Sybil. The family legend goes that the women were expected to have degrees in math. You must realize, as I write in 2016 and you do the math, that we are speaking of women just after the turn of the last century.
My grandmother showed me a picture of the Rabbi and his wife. He is grave, serious, dignified — he fits the notion simmering in the back of my head of what a scholar should be. My great-grandmother, standing nearby, has no expression. I would like to say that her eyes were kind, but they are vague blurs in a vague face. If she has thoughts, opinions, expression, they are hidden behind layers of fabric and the imprecision of an ancient photograph. I searched that photograph for meaning. I wanted a sense of the people, the human beings, that connect the dots of DNA and time through generations to my son. I get that sense from my great-grandfather, from his dignity and his bearing and the sense that he can stand and be himself. From my great-grandmother, none of that. I can study her dress. I cannot study the woman.
Imagine the backbone of my great-grandmother, marching her five year old and her toddler and the baby up to vote in the face of such disapproval. She would not have been a woman who could do so quietly. The wife of a Rabbi stands out in the community. That she defied him was remarkable — and, understanding that, that she took that defiance all the way to the finish line is … inevitable, once I began to understand that my great-grandmother Esther must have had a spine made of pure steel.
Sybil, my grandmother, married late for her generation. She waited for a good _reason_ to get married, an utterly absurd notion. She was in her 20s when my grandfather turned out to be that reason. Sybil was a math teacher, at both her high school and sometimes at a nearby college. When she discovered that the city trash collectors made more than she did, she helped start the teacher’s union in New York. My grandfather, a quiet man with a wickedly dry sense of humor and a calm willingness to shark his granddaughter at gin rummy, whose garden had a warning to blue jays that they would be shot first and questioned later, had a sense of integrity you could use to support major infrastructure. He did not want my grandmother to have to work. He insisted that she should not have to work. She worked anyway, and she fought for fair treatment for teachers, and she insisted that her education and her work and her person have value. I take after her — my build, the length of my face, the way I think, have echoes of Sybil in them. When I search through pictures of her as a young woman, lean and merry and poised on a rock, standing in front of the apartment door with her daughters, standing at the shore of a lake with her husband, the smile gradually shrinks as she grows older. Her eyes crinkle less. By the time she has worked for two decades, her smile is faint and controlled and in her manner there is poise but little enough sense of who she is.
Imagine, in the thirties and fourties, working because you _wanted_ to work. The determination and the grim insistence on self, on the value of women, that it implies. This is the lesson I sought to learn. The women in my family must be rebels, I said, the first time I heard this story, a grown woman in her late thirties, a professional, a mother, a thinking, breathing soul. Grandma looked at me, and the woman could get a world of tart and pointed into a glance that was somehow reserved. “Women,” she said pointedly, “are not rebels. They are themselves. It’s the rest of the world that rebels against common sense. Now, dear, bring me that,” as she indicated something inches from her hand, and she changed the subject, briskly ordering her grown granddaughter around. Obediently, I fetched.
But they _are_ rebels, and I cannot tell you why — oblique rebels, sideways rebels, the way many women are. Not torches and pitchfork rebels, but the kind who are quiet and familiar and disgusted with the rules and who navigated their truths in spite of all of it — respectable women who did not change expression while thinking, “This is an educated family — yes, including me — and in my head and my heart, I know what I think and I know _why_ I think it and you do not get to tell me what it is.”
Sybil had two daughters. The eldest, 11 years old, sat at Thanksgiving one year while her great-aunt pointedly offered her extensive and obviously expensive crystal and china to the first of her great-nieces to keep a kosher household. This meant, the 11 year old instantly understood, the first girl to get married, as that was the point of being a girl. She piped up into the expectant silence, and they let her, because she was the eldest great-niece and naturally would marry first. “I will not keep a kosher household,” the child said. “I’ve thought about it and there’s just no logical reason to adhere to the dietary laws designed for desert nomads thousands of years ago.” The silence, my mother told me years later, could have encompassed a pin dropping into a very deep well. “So you got their attention,” I said, misunderstanding. Mom shot me a glance — steady, subtle, sharp as hell — and replied mildly, “I didn’t want their attention.” I blinked. “Then what did you want?” Calmly indifferent, she said, “To find out what I wanted.”
Mom was dragged home by the proverbial ear. Grandma does not tell this story, I noticed. _Her_ daughters were dutiful, good, educated girls, who married and had sons. But my conservative, contained mother, whose expression rests in a state of hyper-neutrality, lines of stoic understanding etched into the corners of her mouth and around her eyes, who chooses what she says and how she says it — my conservative, contained mother glints a bit when she tells me this story. Hidden in there is a glimmer of satisfaction. Imagine what it took to say that, a child reared on obedience and the value of authority, to the towering figures of her life. It was chutzpah. It was honesty. It was incredibly brave for a little girl _because_ it was honesty. It was something that should not have been necessary.
She went to college at 16, turned down Harvard and a full ride at Stanford because those spots could be used by a boy (who, it was understand, would not waste them), and instead accepted the scholarship of a smaller school. She met my father at MIT, when she was pursuing her PhD. She did, as she was expected to do, attempt to go for a math degree. Women, she was told, don’t _do_ math. So Mom, the daughter of a woman with a masters in math, the granddaughter of the man who insisted that all his daughters be college-educated, stepped to the side and did economics.
After all that, she married my father, abandoning her PhD with the dissertation not yet defended, and went to work. For much of my childhood, she did everything, and I do mean everything. She was on the local Board of Jewish Education. She managed a series of rental properties. She worked a demanding policy wonk job. She raised three children, two of them boys, and ran the entire household single-handedly, finances to scrubbing floors, meals to homework. I do not know when the woman slept. I remember coming upstairs in the middle of the night to find the study light on. I remember ducking into the house in the very early hours of the morning as a young adult and finding her awake. Mom was non-stop. She still is.
I do not remember her laughing. I do not remember her playing. I remember her working. In every picture I see of her, she is smiling politely, poised and restrained, her posture straight as a rule and none of her formidable thought on her face. Staged.
She sent me to very good schools, moving me year after year, trying to find the right fit. I was not deeply interested in an education, much to the exasperation of pretty much every adult who tried to engage me. I dug my heels in wordlessly and buried my nose further in the nearest book. When I was 11, Mom signed the permission slip for my first sexual education class. I paid dutiful attention, then appalled closer attention, and then I looked around the room at lunch. I came home that evening and, when it was my turn to volunteer something of my day, I laid it out to my extended family. “I am not going to have children,” I announced. “I have thought about it and I do not like the idea and I am not doing it.” My father, very old fashioned even for his generation, turned to my mother over my brother’s snicker and my mother’s abrupt, wary silence. “What,” he demanded, “is wrong with her?” “Let’s not discuss this now,” she said. “Fix her,” he replied. Ignoring all this, I kept going. “I’ve made up my mind,” I announced. “Stop. Talking,” Mom said, very quietly and very clearly.
I ended that evening in my room, the door locked, because I did not stop talking. My father eventually came in. He sat down and tried very hard to kindly explain to me. “I know you think this now,” he said, “but you will grow up. Girls become women and get married. One day, you will give me many fine, strong grandsons.”
I knew enough, even then, to say nothing. But no. Really no. (He did eventually get one fine, strong grandson out of me. But not because it is what women do, but because I wanted to meet my husband’s child. Having met the kid, hell, yes, and I wouldn’t trade him for anyone. But I have to say: nowhere in my 11 year old’s lunchroom was anyone remotely like my husband.)
I wasn’t being brave. I was being myself. I was speaking _for_ myself. And because of my regrettable tendency to speak for myself, I left home at 18 and threw away my college enrollment. I didn’t so much rebel as I simply did something else. I insisted to my stunned mother, back when I announced my intention to leave home, that I wanted to find out what I wanted. In my family of women with suitable resumes, I wandered off the tried and true track and neglected to finish my education. (This is, in my family, much worse than, say, getting pregnant out of wedlock, or being a Democrat. You can get married and have your political views corrected. Lacking credentials is a travesty.)
I’ve ended up in a professional career in spite of giving up every advantage to get here. I’m married, yes, over Mom’s cautious warnings, and I had a child, in spite of Mom warning me that she could not think of one single good reason to have children. (She was not being cruel. She was trying to protect me.) Quixotically, I ended up in a management role in tech, one of the industries that women simply do not _do_.
I do not flatter myself with thinking that I have the alloyed vertebrae of previous generations. I’m a bit more human than that, finding my own way. I do notice that, the older I get, the more seasoned I get, the more I contain my expression and the more I choose what I say and how I say it. I watch my audience more and more. I take my name off the essays I write for myself. I know that to do my best by myself, by my family, I must be respectable, unassuming, nonthreatening, and no more intelligent or knowledgeable — educated, to people who do not realize that I lack credentials — than is comfortable for my largely male world. I do respectable well; I was raised in a family that prized obedience in its women. I do _polished_ well. I modulate my voice, I couch and frame my suggestions, I manage my situation, and I have, as one vice president put it, an inhuman sense of ownership that earns me trust. I build a reputation for competence. I deal with enough condescension and bias that my husband once responded to my wry aside about it by showing me the decision matrix that, so far as he can tell, is how I choose how to handle each new instance. And I show up for more.
But in my heart of hearts, I use my voice. I put my voice where my work is, and I speak by being competent in the first place, and I rebel, very quietly, no pitchforks, no torches, every day that I show up and get the job done. No one will write excessively long essays about my backbone. It is enough for me to connect the dots across DNA and generations, to Esther and Sybil and Mom, and to keep my expression mild as I refuse to simply go away because it would be most convenient for everyone else.
This is what comes of educating your women. You really do educate a family.