Change Comes Drop By Drop, Brain Cell By Brain Cell
Editor’s Note: This is the second installation of a three-part series called Gchats with Grandma. In this episode, Carly and Mimi discuss the birth of the Women’s Liberation movement, same-sex education, and how she almost became a barber instead of a journalist.
Carly: Hello! Are you there?
Mimi: Hello, yourself. Wozzup?
Carly: Oh, you know, sitting on my balcony, enjoying the afternoon sun before the inevitable downpour. It rains every afternoon here.
Mimi: Think of it as a kind of cleansing.
Carly: I like that. I’m in so much denial I haven’t even bought an umbrella yet.
Mimi: I’ve been thinking about our last conversation on the importance of memorization. Reading and memorizing poetry was the traditional way of supposedly adding “culture” to our lives. Would you like to hear a selection from “The Vision of Sir Launfal” by James Russell Lowell?
Carly: Well…not really.
Mimi: I knew you wouldn’t. OK, don’t worry. I won’t lay that on you. “What is so rare as a day in June? Then, if ever, come perfect days….” etc etc
Carly: You taught me to memorize a poem once. Halfway down the staircase is the place where I sit. There isn’t any other place quite like it. It’s not at the bottom, it’s not at the top. So halfway down the stairs is the place where I stop.
Mimi: That is from a kids book by the great A.A. Milne, author of Winnie The Pooh. He wrote two poem books, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. Now, what would you like to talk about today?
Carly: Let’s talk about being a woman. What was life like for you, as a woman, growing up? And how has that changed?
Mimi: Hmmm. So much has changed that it’s hard to know where to begin.
Carly: Did you ever feel that life was more difficult because you were a woman?
Mimi: In prehistoric times, i.e. the late 1950s, I was living in Hartford, Connecticut. While my husband, your grandfather, was a psychiatric resident, I was home with two tiny tots, one of whom was your mom. And my friends were other mommies with little kids. So I hit on this fabulous plan.
Carly: You always have a scheme.
Mimi: All the little kids had hair in some form, right? Hair has to be cut, right? It’s sometimes hard for moms to get out to get Junior’s and Sissy’s hair cut. I would become a traveling barber specializing in children’s haircuts!! I would go to barber school, learn the tricks of the trade, get myself a cute little tool bag, maybe with Disney characters on it, and some cute business cards with something like “Haircut House Calls” or “Kidz Kutz,” and proceed to make a friggin’ fortune!
Carly: Sounds brilliant to me.
Mimi: The next step was to call the Konnecticut Kollege of Barber-cueing or whatever. So I did, and said, when do classes begin? The guy laughed so hard I thought he would choke. What, a WOMAN barber? Cutting MEN’S hair? I said I don’t wanna cut MEN’S hair, I wanna cut KIDS’ hair, and he said same thing, totally out of the question, no women allowed on these premises. And hung up on me!
Carly: That’s completely absurd. I don’t think I ever had my hair cut by a man as a kid. Or ever, for that matter.
Mimi: I was lucky enough to go to an excellent women’s college. There has always been a strong streak of feminism in women’s colleges — you were SUPPOSED to go out and do something useful with your life. In my class we had doctors, educators, lawyers, scholars, a woman who started a horse breeding farm, a successful dress designer, science types, etc etc. But these women knew it wouldn’t be easy for them. A couple of the doctors told me they were derided and taunted in medical school.
Carly: I went to an all girls boarding school too, as you know. But I would argue that in this day and age, same sex education is bad for feminism, because it doesn’t prepare you for the real world.
Mimi: Do you actually think anything, other than a technical school or maybe the army, prepares you for the “real” world? Nothing prepares you. You have to make all your mistakes on your own. And what do you mean by the “real” world? Is any part of the world more real than any other part? Is the principal’s office realer than the gym? Is your kitchen realer than your bedroom? Is a subway ride realer than a private jet?
Carly: Hmm. I suppose that’s fair. I think being a teenager is just hard in general, maybe. I like to blame it on my all-girls experience.
Mimi: I think same-sex education gives you confidence in being a woman and courage to go out and compete. You get to have practice in leadership, which you probably wouldn’t get at a co-ed school.
Carly: What was it like living through the dawn of feminism?
Mimi: My friends and I agreed that we were born too soon to take advantage of the women’s movement and too late to really appreciate it. It didn’t have a direct effect on our personal circumstances. It changed our minds, but not our lives. After college most of us sank into suburbia but managed to swim nicely. Then along came what were these hordes of angry women.
Carly: But do you think it changed anything for you at all?
Mimi: Well, I never had a “career” career, just freelance writing gigs. So I never experienced workplace discrimination directly. Except for my thwarted attempt at being a hairstylist. But let me tell you about my friend Pat. She started teaching 5th grade in the early 50s and said the men staff members didn’t really respect her. She left to raise her kids and returned about 14 years later, after women’s liberation had gotten off the ground. And what a difference by then in the men’s attitude. They were respectful and paid attention to what she said, And the younger ones were REALLY respectful. She said she didn’t know if it was just because she was older.
Carly: I wonder how a movement works to actually change people’s minds and behaviors. I.e., if a bunch of sexist middle-aged teachers saw some angry ladies waving their bras in the air, would they really think, “Uh oh, we better start being nice to Mrs. Moody?”
Mimi: Hahaha. But you know, a little drop of influence falls into their brains and percolates around. So the NEXT time there’s an angry protest, they might think, hmmm. Must be something to this.
Carly: And thus change comes drop by drop. Brain cell by brain cell.
Mimi: That’s it!
Carly: Is there anything specific you learned from living through all of that?
Mimi: What I learned was this: You don’t have to tear off your bra to make a point, but it’s important to organize and have an agenda if you want to create real change.
Carly: I want to come back to something you said earlier, about not having a “career career.” You’re probably the smartest person I know. Why did you decide not to dive into the working world?
Mimi: I had all these kids and had to take care of them. I loved having the kids. That was the picture into which I was sort of expected to fit. Having a “career career” in those days was very hard and very competitive. Of course, it’s WAAAAAAY easier for a woman to have a career these days. That is, it’s easier to enter previously closed fields, like finance or science or children’s haircutting.
Carly: Along those lines, do you think it’s possible to have it all and also be good at it all — have a career career and excel, but also raise children and be a good mother?
Mimi: The secret is to be able to afford good help when your kids are little. But you still need to spend lots of time with them. It would be ideal if our society could embrace flextime and women had good on-site daycare. People get just as much done when they can set their own hours, studies have shown.
Carly: I agree completely. Especially the part about not being tethered to a 9-to-5, regardless of whether you have kids or not.
Carly: What advice would you give to a woman entering the working world today?
Mimi: Try not to get discouraged. Try to remain cheerful. Set some goals for yourself, even if they are secret goals, and work, work, work to achieve them. Network all you can. Over and over I have found that in the job world, the old adage is so true: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Ungrammatical but true. Many ungrammatical things are true.
Carly: It’s whom you know.
Mimi: And just be yourself; be cheerful and friendly but not silly. If you see real injustice or jerkish behaviour, you may have to do something about it. But get other women to be on your side. Find a mentor, another successful woman, if you can. Try to see that you get credit for your achievements. Keep your temper. For God’s sake, don’t cry. And don’t have tantrums or make scenes. Don’t do petty gossip or backbiting. Although gossip is tantalizingly tempting, try to avoid hurting anyone. In other words, just be a good person. Same as anywhere in any job. It won’t be easy, and only you can decide whether it’s worth being on Wall Street or wherever.
Carly: I would be lying if I said I never cried at work. Or gossipped, for that matter.
Mimi: You have had a fabulously competent career as an editor and writer! I would never have lasted at a place like HuffPo. I’m not fast enough. I’m a member of the SWAA.
Carly: Slow Writer’s Anonymous Association?
Mimi: Pretty close. It’s the Slow Writers Association of America. A guy in NYC is president, my friend Norma is VP and I am the member.
Carly: Well, I’ll be sure to submit my application to you. I’m not fast, either.
Mimi: I have to go. All my typing woke Ned up, and now he’s having a tantrum.
Carly: Goodnight. And good luck.
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