My "Unladylike" Occupation (McCall's, May 1980)
My “Unladylike” Occupation
Women on the Job: A Reader’s Story
by Patsy Miller, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
The note was on my desk when I walked into the office. “Patsy,” my supervisor had written, “a meeting is scheduled for 10:00 to discuss your highway relocation report. Alternate locations and environmental considerations will be evaluated. Please be there.”
I hurried to the meeting, which lasted until noon, then went back to my regular duties. There is always more to be done than there is time to do it in - letters to write, projects to complete. Things didn’t slow down until I was on my way home from my evening class at the university. As I drove through the beautiful oak-lined streets of the campus, I thought of the class I had just left, comparing it with those in my youth when I was a very shy young female, studying civil engineering. College days are supposed to be some of the best days of your life; but they weren’t for me. My favorite subjects were math and art, so it was suggested that I try majoring in engineering. This choice of professions seems very ordinary now, but in the early 1950s it was pretty unusual, especially for us down South. As it turned out, I was the first female to graduate in civil engineering on our campus, but it was a miserable four years.
Oh, my friends and sorority sisters were green with envy. They thought it would be great to be the only girl in all those classes filled with beautiful virile men. They couldn’t believe how uncomfortable I was. Imagine walking into a class of 150 men to the embarrassing sounds of whistles and catcalls 0 I would have given anything to be invisible. I lived in fear of just being noticed; I was horrified at the thought of being called upon to speak. Why didn’t I give it up? The subjects were really interesting, and I thought that surely my shyness would disappear and sooner or later I would be recognized as just another student.
Toward the end of my junior year I realized that things were not getting any better. I discovered that what I really wanted was what most girls were looking for - a home and family. What I aspired to be was a lady - quiet, serene, gracious - and a woman engineer definitely did not fit that picture.
In the Deep South, ladies were refined, unassuming, soft-spoken. Everyone knew that the woman who pushed herself into a man’s world would be crude and course, probably vulgar. This concept may seem ludicrous now in these days of the women’s movement and ERA, but at the time it was the predominant attitude - and it durned out to be my biggest handicap. The major battle I have fought has been not the usual one of achieving recognition in my field but one of convincing myself and my contemporaries that it is possible to be both an engineer and a lady.
Of course I did go ahead and graduate in engineering. My parents convinced me to get the degree, and even though they offered to finance three more years of college in another field, I decided to go to work. I was tired of school, the opportunities were good and the salaries high. So my professional career became a reality.
The work was interesting, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was more intent on establishing my ladylike image than pursuing my career. I knew everyone expected me to be pushy, bossy and aggressive, so I overcompensated by exaggerating all of the opposite traits. I was quiet and avoided being assertive or even firm. I was so shy that this wasn’t even hard to do. I just sat at my desk and did the work that was assigned to me.
Then I married the man who greets me now as I arrive home from my class. As he walks with me into the house, he boasts, “Well do you realize that your laundry man has taken care of the clothes, your cook has cleaned the kitchen and taken out the garbage? You are certainly lucky to have found such a versatile husband! If course, it would destroy my administrative image at the office if they knew about my ‘night life.’” We both laugh, but I am lucky. He is a wonderful husband, but in the beginning he helped complicate my basic problem.
His thinking was as Old South as mine. He agreed with me that a wife’s first responsibility was to her husband and to her children. After we were married, I went into permanent retirement and, soon after, our first son was born - who was followed by two more boys. Then the bottom fell out of our financial world. My husband’s insurance business failed, and while he was reestablishing himself with another firm, I brushed off the cobwebs and went back to work on a temporary basis. Two years later our economic situation improved, and I breathed a sigh of relief and happily returned to my “ladylike” existence at home. It was during this time that our baby daughter arrived. Life couldn’t have been more perfect. I took care of my family, did volunteer work in the community, played bridge and gardened. A great life - I was beginning to fit the picture I had always imagined.
But family sickness and financial reverses have a way of changing the scheme of things, and my husband and I finally realized that I was going to go back to work on a permanent basis. Our daughter was only one year old, and our sons were six, eight, and ten. Counting my blessings, I realized that we were lucky in that I could expect good financial remuneration for my work, which would allow us to provide excellent care for our children. There was no question that my work could be most rewarding; all I had to do was change my attitude, learn to like myself as an engineer. The decision was made - I would try to forget my image and enjoy my “unladylike” occupation. I would have the best of both worlds, a family and a career.
This decision meant making a big change in my thinking, and it didn’t happen overnight. I had to force myself to speak out on the job because there was no way I could be the helpless female, standing back quietly waiting to be noticed and then expecting to be given the interesting assignments. I kept reminding myself of what Emerson said, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.”
A remarkable thing happened. When I finally gave up my notion of the way I should act and went to work with a determination to make it pay, everything fell into place. After taking some graduate courses in a specialized field that interested me, I found a technical area of engineering that was a real challenge. By just being so interested in what I was doing, I was able to forget that I was out of place. I stopped apologizing for being in a man’s world. In other words, I stopped being my own worst enemy.
Now, when I look back on it, the goals I set for myself seem overwhelming - being a good wife and mother, a capable engineer, and at the same time maintaining a smooth, gracious approach to my life. I couldn’t have done it, though, without a cooperative husband and a wonderful housekeeper who loved our family and stayed with us until the children were older.
Oh, there were wild times when I would rush home after a busy day at the office, into the mainstream of family life, frantically searching for tube socks to be worn in a wrestling meet, or dashing to one of the may activities requiring a parent’s participation. I might not have been quiet and serene, but I did get the job done. My husband pitched in wherever and whenever he was needed, from trips to the orthodontist to meetings with the children’s teachers. He is a fantastic person, and I’m convinced that the children’s lives - and his - have been made richer by their closer relationship.
Now at the end of the day the two of us relax in the den, enjoying our solitude. Our children return from their various activities, pausing to visit and say good-night. Would they have been better off if I had been at home with them? I only know that they are healthy, happy, nice people. We are very proud of them.
In the years Ive been back at work they’ve grown up, and I’ve grown up, too. I have come to realize that you don’t have to be in a perfect setting to be what you want to be. I have proven to myself that I can be soft-spoken and feminine and still be an engineer.
And yet I haven’t deluded myself. You read every day about women in business having to be tough and aggressive in order to reach their goals. Marlo Thomas, the actress and business woman, says that “alone,” “abrasive,” “ruthless” are words programmed into the successful woman. She says that a man has to be a Joe McCarthy to be called ruthless, and all a woman has to do is put you on hold. There is a new book written by a woman executive who defines a boss as a four letter word, a lady boss as a two four letter words. These comments may seem amusing, until they are directed at you or, even worse, until you let them affect your life.
I’ve come to accept the fact that my actions will not change a business woman’s image, that being involved in a field that until recently was restricted to men leaves me open to criticism. On the other hand, the benefits are tremendous - there is the stimulation of tackling difficult problems, the satisfaction of solving them and the anticipation of facing each new day. And knowing, too, that all this is done with the confidence and support of my family.
Now that my children are moving into adulthood - usually a time in a woman’s life when she begins to search for new horizons - I can say that I’ve found mine, a challenging career in a technical world. My goals are defined and my energies are concentrated on striving to be a competent engineer - and, with all its beautiful connotations, a Southern lady.