Chapter 2: Nancy Kelly’s Story
ONE WOMAN’S STORY
I drove to Nancy Kelly’s address expecting to meet a glass-and-steel woman in a split-level house. One of her colleagues had described her as “a lawyer, a litigator, one of those women men sometimes call ‘too aggressive’ at work.” Nancy was Catholic, single, and in her early thirties. The colleague had said, “I don’t know if she wants to get married; she may feel marriage would interfere with her career.”
Nancy sounded like just the kind of woman I wanted to interview, someone who, unlike myself, would probably be from a very traditional background, and, as a corporate lawyer, a believer in the Establishment and its values.
On the phone, Nancy had sounded smooth, professional, all business. I’d imagined her living room as sparsely furnished, with white sofas, chrome-edged glass coffee tables, picture windows, in a Manhattan-style apartment designed for corporate entertaining. There would be beige wall-to-wall carpeting, low-slung chairs. She would be wearing expensive gabardine slacks, high heels, lipstick. Her hair, glam¬orous, would be up in a French twist; she would be in terrific shape. Since it was one in the afternoon, she would offer me a drink in a highball glass, but I’d have iced tea.
As I drove, I thought about what I’d ask her. Why had she chosen law, still considered a man’s career when she entered it in the mid-1970s? I knew, of course, that Nancy and I were part of a major movement of women into careers, a movement which followed close on the heels of the 1960s student rebellions against the Vietnam War, the Establishment, and racial discrimination. Many women of our generation had been pro¬foundly influenced by the burgeoning civil rights and feminist movements. But why did all of this happen when it did? And why to us?
I had already learned that these were questions experts debated among themselves. Some historians saw our movement into professions as part of a natural progression of women into the work force, a movement that had begun with the industrial revolution if not earlier.
According to this view, in the nineteenth century women increasingly worked, not just as domestics, clerks, and teachers, but even as doctors and lawyers. In the twentieth century, a shift to light industry opened many jobs that did not require the physical strength of men, and after World War II, a growing service economy allowed more and more married women to work at part-time and unskilled jobs. By the 1950s, when Nancy and I were children, more women worked than ever before. With the added impetus of the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s, it seemed only natural in the 1970s for bright women to enter the nation’s expanding professional ranks.
Another view was that as production moved from home to factory in the nineteenth century, men took more responsibility for wage-earning outside the home, and women for domestic, spiritual matters within it. This meant, to those who shared that view, that women worked for pay only if they had to; in times of economic stress or war, women might take what were considered nontraditional jobs; afterward, they would return to more “traditional” roles.
While in the 1950s, more women worked than ever before, it was at less responsible jobs than women had held previously, and women were marrying younger and having more children than many women had a generation back. As late as 1964 social scientists predicted, based on those trends, that women’s rate of increase in the labor force was likely to decline. This interpretation made the ca¬reer choices of women like Nancy and me seem like radical and surpris¬ing departures.1
Still others described our entry into careers as in keeping with a cyclic pattern, driven in large part by economics or demographic changes.2 It seemed to me, as I approached Nancy’s house, that women didn’t simply jump onto historical trends; while they were certainly affected by them, they also in large part created them. What part had we played in creating this one? And why?
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As it turned out, Nancy lived in the first-floor apartment of a white frame two-family house on a country sort of street with no sidewalks. When I rang the bell, a stocky woman just my height—about five foot five—with short red hair answered the door. She wore a plaid cotton blouse with a button-down collar, a navy blue Shetland cardigan sweater, a blue denim A-line skirt, and well-worn, well-polished brown penny loafers—without pennies. Filled with old things—an overstuffed chair, a comfy sofa with lace doilies on the arms, a glassed-in bookcase on which rested a number of framed family photographs.
Over tea, I asked Nancy how she’d happened to choose a career in corporate law, fully expecting her to describe a straightforward career path—college, government major, law school, clerkship, law firm. In¬stead, she explained that she’d grown up with no clear idea of what she wanted to do with her life. Her parents had wanted her to be a teacher, then get married. “That was the next best thing to becoming a nun,” she quipped.
In her late teens, Nancy had rebelled—first by going to a non- Catholic college, then by joining a theater crowd. After graduation, she worked in theater management for a couple of years, then left because she didn’t enjoy working with “crazy people” and wanted to earn a more stable living. She became the director of a community organization that turned out to be too conservative to suit her—she supported busing for desegregation and her constituents did not. Finally, she went to law school. “I wanted to do things that were ‘important and serious,”’ she said. “To bring class action suits that had tremendous social ramifica¬tions.” She also wanted to make some money. Besides, a number of her friends were considering going to law school, and you could get in there with just a liberal arts degree.
As Nancy ticked off the rather incongruous reasons for her decision, she managed to sound quite lawyerlike. “Some of it was a fluke,” she said. “I was interested in doing something more substantial. There was also an element of chance. And there was peer pressure.” Then Nancy smiled and shrugged her shoulders. Maybe she was remembering the pe¬riod in the early 1970s when it became trendy for women to go to law school when she joked, “Oh, yes, that seemed to be what was in that year.”
As Nancy told it, all of this seemed to have “just happened.” What about the deeper motivation? What would make a good Catholic girl, brought up conservatively, become part of a grand movement toward social change? Earlier in my research I had looked to studies done by sociologists and social psychologists—to little avail.
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Some studies found that a woman’s religious background correlated strongly with her life plans. Jewish college women were the most likely to plan on graduate school, Catholic women slightly less likely, and Prot¬estant women the least likely of all, studies showed. Because Nancy had been educated in Catholic schools, she would not have been expected to enter a field predominated by men; most women planning innovative careers voiced no religious preference and had parents who either prac¬ticed different religions or were agnostics or atheists.3
Some researchers explained these findings on the basis of religious groups’ attitudes toward gender roles. In orthodox Jewish families, for instance, wives typically earn money and husbands deal with spiritual matters. In strict Catholic families, however, women have tended to be concerned with religion, and men with temporal affairs. Other research¬ers suggested that it is not the religion itself but rather each family’s or¬thodoxy or conservativism within the religion that predicts its attitudes toward gender roles. Or perhaps girls whose parents do not insist on conformity in any realm are the likeliest to seek nontraditional careers.4
Another factor was nationality. In the 1950s, three fourths of the women mathematicians in America who went to graduate school were born either in Europe or Canada or had at least one immigrant parent, and half of women lawyers in a 1965 study were of immigrant origins. These women may have felt comfortable pursuing high levels of educa¬tion because European women commonly did so. Or perhaps, as immi¬grants or daughters of immigrants, they already felt different and were used to not fitting in.5 (Conversely, women from Native American, African-American, Puerto Rican, and Mexican backgrounds encountered almost insurmountable barriers to professional careers, such as poverty, language and cultural differences, lack of tradition in higher education, and prejudice.6)
How about education? While certainly it had an impact, studies were limited, and the results were less than clear. One 1960s study showed that college faculty were almost as important as parents in helping students choose innovative careers, but another found that faculty prejudice discouraged many women from careers in science. In 1975, minority women scientists reported having been encouraged in their careers by some faculty members and discouraged by others. Nearly all considered the pub¬lic education they had received “inadequate”; two of them, a Native American and a native Spanish speaker, said that in grade school they had been classified as mentally retarded.7
Among lawyers, assessing influences on career choice was no sim¬pler; when sociologist Cynthia Fuchs Epstein asked a group of women why they had chosen legal careers, many said they could not remember.8
This was all rather discouraging. Why should it be so difficult to understand how women chose their careers? What I would come to un¬derstand was that despite the impact of economics, religion, education, role models, the media, and other societal forces, much of what we do and believe is shaped by less accessible, less tangible forces: the interplay of historical events and family memories going back generations. First and foremost, however, a woman is influenced by her relationship with her parents. The question is, how? Here, too, the study results were mixed.