Feminist and Sexist Ripples in My Life
As mentioned in previous posts, I grew up in a very different family. I suppose it could be said that everyone does. In my case, both of my parents were engineers, my mother the first women in history to graduate from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in Mechanical Engineering.
Their parenting style and our family dynamic, at least back then, was a combination of Star Trek Spock-ian logic and an adherence to engineering thought in all applications. Dinner conversations roamed from designing spacecraft, which my father was working on at the time, to problems in physics and chemistry and math. And cars. Since I was primarily interested in sports and cars, I often had little to add. I was definitely the odd one in the family. I was also spoiled, which made up for it quite nicely.
When we had dinner guests, usually aerospace engineers, I was expected to stick around after dinner and take part in discussions of politics and the economy and anything else that came up. I was encouraged to speak my mind, and our polite dinner guests listened intently, on the odd chance that I might utter something of interest. I learned not to be immediately intimidated by people who were older and better educated, and that has served me well ever since.
I thought all homes were like mine, and for decades did not realize that Ozzie Nelson and his family as shown on TV were meant to be comedy shows. I thought they were documentaries, as my life had so much in common.
There was one application that I’ve always found amusing. I lost my temper for perhaps the 567th time one evening, and stomped off to my room in a rage, slamming my door just hard enough to avoid getting in trouble. As I sat on my bed in a festering rage, a thought rose slowly through the red mist. I had just sent myself to my own room! I imagined that my parents were sitting in the living room chuckling, making comments like “Well, he did it to himself – again!”
I decided that if my parents were into logic, that I should present things I wanted to persuade my parents to let me do with arguments based on logic. I would present my idea, and then the reasoning behind it with cost and time factors added. They rarely refused my requests after that. Logic works! With the exception of why Dad should purchase a new Corvette, and why I really needed a new motorcycle. It was difficult to make those plans sound logical, but I did try.
Comments by one of my older brothers in an e-mail today got me to thinking back. He quoted a classmate of his in high school who said “It is nice NOT to have grown up with a big grudge about how women were intellectually devalued in one’s family.”
So true. On the contrary, my father respected my mother’s considerable intelligence at all times. Almost. The day she tried to get a piece of burned toast out with a knife, with the toaster still plugged – not so much.
Then George alluded to the benefit to us three boys of growing up taking Mom’s intellectual capacity and courage for granted, and regarding any other attitude as abnormal. This brought me to recollections of so many examples of behaviors that were negative that might have influenced us. My parents would dismiss them with some statement like “That is not what Preston’s do.” That really took hold for me as a tenet. They actually did consider many activities, such as smoking and drinking and divorce and gambling and others, as “abnormal.”
Here the apple fell a bit further from the tree, as I’ve been enjoying the occasional beer or glass of wine since I turned 21, and have smoked a pipe for 40 years.
Ironically, my father later worked for the Coors brewery. When I moved to this area after college and after he did I was surprised to see him drinking a beer one day. “I thought you never drank alcohol!”
He smiled. “When you eat lunch every day with a man named Adolph Coors, you learn to enjoy beer.”
It is worth mentioning that all three sons married very intelligent women.
My brother added an anecdote from when he was the VP of a research think tank with a yearly budget of $500 million. This was in the early 1990’s, and the company had an education benefit that had never been used for anything other than night courses. George pushed through a $40,000 full cost payment for a female employee that resulted in her MBA from Santa Clara University. Credit for that goes back to our parents.
I realized now that my mother was a feminist long before the term existed, and my father was her lead champion. Her efforts and examples informed me, and still do. And yet, despite the efforts of the two of them and so many others, sexism still abounds in our society. Things are better, but there is still a long way to go, and I am so fortunate that my parents put me well ahead of the curve. Here are some examples from my life that lead directly back to their influence.
- When I became a feminist: When I was about 15 and Mother had gone back to work as an engineer. I sat and listened to a conversation at some party between her and a woman friend who was a professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. I cannot remember her name, but I think her husband worked with Dad. Anyway, they were calmly comparing notes on how they were treated by other women in their respected neighborhoods. They described being left out of all neighborhood social activities, and many other slights and insults. They were essentially ostracized, by other women, because of their education and because they chose to work outside the home. They discussed this calmly, with no rancor. That was just the way it was for women like them. I clearly remember how angry I got at the stupidity and unfairness of it all. I’m still angry.
- As President of LWEA in the late 1970’s, I joined the WEA Women’s Caucus. I had several reasons for this. I was representing 800 teachers, and roughly half of them were women. Education is the only field I can think of where everyone, historically, are paid “women’s wages,” so gains for women would be gains for me. To be fair, the union paid my dues, so it was not a financial issue, but I did take some sexist flak for it.
- After coaching boy’s teams in several sports for over a decade, I switched to coaching girls for the final decade I coached. A large part of that was due to Mom. I remember standing in line at a grocery store with a very young Dorine in my arms, on my way home after a girls’ basketball game. I was wearing a “coaching staff” shirt. The woman at the counter said “Oh, isn’t that how it is! Dad is a coach and he gets a girl.” One of the few times in my life I was rendered speechless.
- Sexism works both ways. At one point the Juanita principal wanted to talk to me about sexism in the English Department I chaired. I agreed that it was a huge problem, but explained it was coming from the women and directed at the men. She laughed, thinking I was kidding. I assured her I was serious. A week or so later we were in an English department meeting with her when one of the women went off on a rant about men in general – which was common. All of the other women nodded along with her, and the principal looked at me as if she’d been slapped. Her face went white, and we got along just fine after that.
- At one time I had an extremely attractive assistant coach, and in my last gig (ten years later) I was the assistant to an extremely attractive head coach. BOTH of them came to me for advice, almost in tears, because other women on the staff were gossiping that the only reason they were coaching with me was because we were having an affair. They were both much younger than me, and were appalled and embarrassed and very angry. Who wouldn’t be? I advised them to let it go, with the sage wisdom that some people have such wretched personal lives that they have to live vicariously through the lurid lives they imagine others are leading. That seemed to help them, and it may have been true.
At the end of my pondering process I’m left wondering which sex is more guilty of promoting sexism and depriving women of a fair shake. We usually blame men for this, and I think that is overly simplistic. Often, as I have experienced, it is utterly incorrect.
However, much progress has been made, and the future looks brighter.
Thanks, Mom and Dad.
Copyright 2015 David Preston