Despite what sometimes seems like glacial progress, strong woman are instrumental in humanizing society.
In 1920, after eight decades of struggle, women won the right to vote. At that time my maternal grandmother, abandoned by her husband, was trying to raise her family as a secretary in the Sanilac County Courthouse.
During World War I, she processed men into and out of the military. Returning soldiers liked and respected her so much they made her an honorary member of the American Legion. Her photograph hangs in the Legion Hall. Her grave is decorated with a flag every Memorial Day.
My mother was 15 when her mother could first vote. She learned gentleness, mentoring and tenacity at her mother’s knee. I wonder if her activism was influenced by the suffrage process.
With determination to complete college, she received her degree the year I graduated from high school.
Soft spoken, gentle and not one to make waves socially, she was also one tough lady professionally. Countless of her students became teachers. My cousin Judy, who lived in a neighboring town, told me her story.
Judy couldn’t get the hang of learning to read so my aunt brought her to our house for Saturday tutoring. Crying, Judy told my mother she was a 7-year-old failure. With a smile and hug, mother said, “Why, that’s ridiculous, of course you can learn to read.”
Of course Judy learned to read, became a teacher, and set a goal of becoming the first female superintendent of a major Detroit area school district. But the times weren’t ready for that. She became the area’s first assistant superintendent.
My mother led a 1940s unofficial teacher’s strike. Teaching contracts one year didn’t include an increase in salary. But the superintendent’s budget included a raise for him.
Mother and her best friends Elizabeth and Ruby refused to sign. The super claimed to have lots of teachers’ applications on hand. If they’ll teach for that salary, you’d better take them, the troika replied.
He took the matter to the school board, who said if they’re worth it, pay them; If not, get new ones. They got the raises.
The medical profession is perhaps the second slowest social institution to adapt to changing times. Today nearly half of the medical students are women. Six decades ago my medical class had three females: 4 percent.
The undercurrent was that women weren’t emotionally fit to be doctors.
While I was absorbing that tripe, Dr. Ruth Carney, with support from her husband, Dr. John, was revolutionizing medical care in Ludington. Steeped in her family tradition of conciliation, Dr. Ruth demonstrated how being a good doctor could also include being a mother and homemaker. And she found ways of doing her share professionally with her male colleagues. Like strong women before her, she was outstanding without trying to stand out.
Subsequently, today’s female physicians and medical students are a different breed from my day. Those that choose to, juggle personal and professional lives.
I enjoy mentoring 20-something young adults. They’re like adopted grandkids. I recently asked one, Emily, a third-year medical student friend from the gym, what she might like to be doing in five to 10 years. She wants to continue her passion for fitness and outdoor activities and plans on specializing in some related area like physical medicine and rehabilitation. Family will probably happen, sometime, if and as it works out.
Alexi, a friend from band, is starting medical school this month. She’ll have military obligations after graduation. That’s fine with her. She wants to fly airplanes and perhaps fold that into a medical career. She’s in no hurry, she trusts that the future will take care of itself.
Politics is the social institution that’s slowest and most resistant to change. Consider the presidential campaign. One candidate has no experience in governing and doesn’t seem to have natural democratic intuitions. Another has minimal government experience and a strong vision for change that’s popular in some arenas. The third has broad experience in government and international relations and is eminently qualified to be president.
But she’s female and is attacked because she’s stiff and humorless, uses strange and boring syntax in her speech, doesn’t appear to have a private life, broke this or that rule, as Secretary of State failed to prevent a tragedy in Libya, and has a bad hairdo.
Criticisms of her are deja vu all over again to the bad old days in medicine and our critiques of females as physicians.
If Clinton isn’t elected president, another strong woman will soon follow and take us kicking and screaming into female presidencies and a more humane society.