I graduated high school in 1976, the spirit of ’76, ready to take on the world. At that time, however, it didn’t seem like there was a lot that needed taking on. Students before me had protested the Vietnam war and the soldiers had come home. Civil rights protesters had already marched. “Womens’ libbers” had already burned their bras. I started college with a very diverse student body that was at least 50% female -- and these women were not looking for husbands. They were majoring in pre-law and pre-med. On my dorm floor, we had students from Iran, Kuwait, Korea, all over the U.S. Our R.A. was from Barbados. It was a co-ed floor, but we worked out the bathroom situation, we ate pizza together, we played Frisbee outside when the weather was good and a kind of hallway baseball when it wasn’t, we had great parties.
Though I had toyed with pre-law, I thought what I’d really like to do was work in television. I was always fascinated with good advertising. I made the decision to go to Hofstra University partly because they had a good communications program but mostly because they offered me a scholarship. My first year at college was a free ride. After that, I realized I had been the victim of that old advertising trick of bait and switch. Tuition spiked and my scholarship stayed the same, it no longer covered my dorm. I worked office temps summers and January breaks to pay my dorm fees. I worked three federal work-study jobs during the school year to keep myself fed. I couldn’t afford a meal plan, so I ate a lot of things that came out of no frills cans. I was confident that this would all be worth it in the end. I would have the dream career.
I quickly began to lose my fascination with working in television. A lot of the work involved physical tasks, like working a tv camera or a sound board. I am not particularly well-coordinated. When I heard that communications majors could take an advertising course in the School of Business without meeting the prerequisites, I jumped all over it. It turned out to be a very good decision. I loved that class. I loved the School of Business. Rather than studying something that seemed to have no application to my world, business was so interesting because I could see how it could apply. I changed majors. The only classes I did not enjoy were the two accounting courses I was required to take. Accounting, like sushi, is an acquired taste.
I graduated with a degree in Marketing and about $10,000 in student loan debt, which I realize is nothing in comparison to the loans students come out with these days but considering minimum wage at the time was a little over $2 an hour, its easy to do the math.
Working office temps had given me experience in a many different types of businesses as well as a good handle on the NYC subway map. At that time, typing was a very valuable skill. Applying at a temporary agency meant you were given a couple of paragraphs to type and timed for a minute. Your words were counted, one was deducted for every error. A clerk typist could type 30 words a minute and was not paid very well, but someone who could type more than 60 words a minute could clean up. While my years of piano lessons failed to produce a maestro, they made for very nimble fingers. I was a well sought after temp. When I showed myself to be bright and efficient, I was offered permanent jobs in several places, including a couple that could have lead to nice careers, just not the one I wanted.
When I graduated, I thought this vast experience had to count for something. I had been working in offices all over New York since high school, I made good grades, I was ambitious. I didn’t see a problem getting a job.
I circled ads in the paper. I sent in resumes. I made appointments with personnel agencies to help me find something. As a college graduate, I was shocked to be presented with the old familiar typing test. At first I refused it, but as I was getting desperate, I acquiesced. I was told by several counselors at personnel agencies to take a secretarial position to get “my foot in the door.” I didn’t think the boys in my graduating class were being given the same advice. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut, but I did it. I got a job in an advertising agency by swearing that despite four years of living in poverty, pulling all nighters to study for finals and finish papers and watching my student loan balance expand along with increases in tuition, all I ever wanted was to be someone’s secretary.
The secretaries were a nice bunch and truthfully a lot of them knew more about what was going on in the agency than their bosses. I actually enjoyed the female camaraderie in our alcoves and over lunches. Still, I was fortunate that it did not take my bosses long to realize that I actually was all the things I denied being when taking the job and they promoted me to assistant account executive – a position at my agency that normally required a master’s degree from a school like Wharton.
The secretaries in my agency took turns sitting at the reception desk to give the receptionist her lunch hour. On the very day the memo went out about my promotion, the woman who hired me—the general manager’s secretary—told me that one of the girls was out and I’d have to cover reception. The irony was not lost on me, however, I knew it was no secret in this agency where I had started out and I was prepared to take my lumps with grace. I wasn’t there five minutes when one of the older secretaries came by and said, “What are you doing?” I told her that someone was out and I was covering. “Assistant Account Executives do not sit at reception,” she said. She took my place with a look of pleased defiance I will never forget.
Times were different then. Women were still trying how to figure out how to be female and be executives. Some wore pant suits with big shoulder pads. A couple wore suits with short skirts. One of my early role models wore very plain suits, flats and no makeup. I wondered if she thought me ridiculous with my lipstick and the pumps I kept in my desk drawer so I could wear sneakers to work. She worked in the new business area in industrial advertising and was most often the only woman in her meetings. I thought she was tough as nails. Her secretary confided in me that she sometimes hid in her office crying because she missed her twins. It blew my mind. This woman had a family? I couldn't picture her nurturing children -- or crying. I would take me years to understand the complexity of human nature.
As young girls, one thing we learned very quickly was to ignore the older bosses when they said inappropriate things or flirted with us. Amongst the women, we talked about which one was horrible or argued over who was “the worst,” but no one would have thought to report anything short of actual rape. Who would you even report it to? What would be the point?
I have seen the world change so much from that time. I remember taking my son to the emergency room when he got hurt playing basketball at camp. The nurse who called me from the camp was male. The triage nurse at the hospital was a man and the doctor who treated him was a woman. My kids, Sesame Street alumnus and believers in all the children’s books I’d read them depicting women in all sorts of roles, did not notice what I found miraculous.
I have always told my daughter, like I am sure many of you have told yours, you can do anything, you can be anything.
My daughter and I gleefully headed to the polls together to participate in what we thought would be an historic election. We scanned our ballots, we high fived. The polls all said that in the morning, we would see history made.
The history we had expected to be a part of was not made. The man who is to become president reminds me very much of the leering bosses I met at the start of my career who objectified female employees without thinking it was anything but business as usual, without thinking it would raise an eyebrow.
Politics aside, I am struggling over a country that seems to be taking a step back from the progress all those protesters made all those years ago. I so empathize with people who feel they were left behind in this economy and can’t conceive anything but a bleak future for themselves. I can certainly understand why they would feel they could accept almost anything but more of the same. I understand that some political correctness seems contrived, but do we combat that by making expressions of abject racism and misogyny acceptable? I don’t know a person alive, except potentially our Congressmen, who doesn’t want to see Washington cleaned up and for the politics as usual to stop. I just don’t see how more divisiveness is a better plan. If someone has a perspective I’m not seeing, I welcome your thoughts.
As for me, I am making my own personal protest against the divisiveness by simply being kind. Even more than usual, I am trying to catch peoples’ eyes and smile at them even when they bang their shopping carts into my legs. I’m holding doors open even when I am in a rush. I’m insisting the other person go first if we arrive at the checkout line at even close to the same time, even if they have more stuff. Maybe someone will pay it forward.
I am trying hard to let the peace and joy of the holiday season win over my post-election stress and anxiety. After all, I have a lot to be thankful for – two wonderful kids who are still willing to hang out with their mom, a bunch of good friends always up for adventure, four adorable cats and you guys. I am very thankful to have you in my life and to continue to feel your confidence and your friendship.
This year we have had much excitement. My daughter Liz got engaged over the summer. I am very happy that she is marrying Nicole who is just right for her. I have never seen my daughter happier. We are planning a wedding for November 2018. The California family is happy as they will get to see our fall colors when they come east for the wedding.
We are in the process of rearranging the office so that each business will have its own space. It provides more privacy for our clients and their paperwork and gives our team easier access to each other.
The A team is still together. James and Peter are still my guys. We are only missing Kevin who is still in China with his wife and their baby. We have someone new to introduce to you this year. Just to keep things confusing, his name is also James – potential nickname to follow
Provided that I have the time I am going to attempt to blog a couple of times a year rather than just at the holidays. Check the website.
I am looking forward to your calls and visits. It will be nice to have a chance to catch up. We made the appointments fifteen minutes longer this year, so we have more time to gab. Some of you may have gotten or will get calls with slight appointment time changes.
See you soon!