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Disappearing women

Food For Thought

Several times a year, I drive to my hometown for lunch with some classmates who still live there, or who live close enough to make the trip occasionally. Sometimes, we are lucky to coincide with classmates who are vacationing and want to include a brief reunion as part of their trip. This monthly opportunity, along with our annual newsletter, keeps us in touch with each other, a habit that has become increasingly important to most of us over the years.
This wasn’t always true. There was a lengthy gap after our graduation when we lost track of a good many of our number and it was only good luck we managed to contact the majority of the class when it came time for those class reunions at five-year intervals.
During those “lost years,” probably the biggest roadblock to our keeping in touch was the fact most of us got married. And when girls marry, they become invisible. Their names are changed and browsing through the phone book is no longer a way to find them. Iowa City isn’t such a big place but I was astonished to learn one of my classmates and I lived there for 12 years, not many blocks from each other, with neither of us aware the other was so close. An Iowa City neighbor turned out to be a cousin of a classmate, and was a few years ahead of me in school. I only discovered we shared the same hometown and knew many of the same people when my husband introduced her to me as the wife of one of his clients. Unless our friends use hyphenated last names, we seldom ever learn the maiden names of new women acquaintances, and those high school yearbook faces change rapidly with the help of just a few years and fads and fashions in hair and makeup.
As I thought about this, I concluded girls have long been identified by their relationships to the men in their lives. For all of my childhood and early adult years, I was known to all but my classmates and friends as Earl Hanson’s daughter. Then I became Paul Gilbaugh’s wife. I must admit I did my share to perpetuate that title because of some old-fashioned rule of etiquette married women should not be addressed by their first names except in private. And, to many people in my husband’s hometown, I was simply Ted Gilbaugh’s daughter-in-law. I was in danger of becoming known as the mother of Kenyon, Mark and Jay, except once I started writing this newspaper column, it seemed that all the credit– and all the blame– for what appears here should be laid squarely on my shoulders and there was no hiding behind any man’s name.
Further mulling brought me to the realm of women artists, poets, writers and composers. Too many times in the past, these women have hidden themselves behind pen names, initials, or indistinct names that left the matter of their gender vague, if not misleading. Part of that, I surmise, has been because they assumed a male identity would be taken more seriously. And partly, I fear, because that assumption has been true for nearly all that time and in the vast majority of cases. We tend to assume a painting or symphony was created by a man unless told otherwise. You doubt this? How many times have you heard it said that such and such a sculpture or poem was created by a male sculptor or poet? Never. Then how many times have you been told this prize-winning novel or popular play was written by a woman? Always. It is universally assumed the piece was produced by a man unless otherwise specified.
Part of all this can be blamed on the fact, for too long, the male ego has been allowed to dominate the female ego. Men, for generations, loudly boasted, “My wife doesn’t have to work,” and women meekly acquiesced in order to keep the peace. Never mind the wife might prefer to work outside the home, she might be better at managing a clothing store or selling insurance than she is at cooking and sewing, or she might find dentistry or psychiatry more fulfilling and contribute more toward society than keeping the windows polished and the flower garden weeded.
It took World War II to bring out the true nature of the war between the sexes. When women had to take over the jobs formerly done exclusively by men, we all learned some things we kept our eyes stubbornly closed to for far too many generations. We admitted very few jobs are best done specifically by one or the other of the sexes. Women had access to education and training enabling them to take more interesting and more critical jobs than before. And finally, men might someday be proud of a wife that had a “real” job instead of feeling it was somehow his failing she “had to work.”