Yet she was trapped by her era, her dreams stifled by her time and by the men who held the power over her life. She came from a long line of physicians and surgeons who had helped build the McGill medical school and the affiliated Montreal teaching hospital into a force to be respected internationally. Like her grandfather, father, and older brother before her, she wanted to be a doctor, but was told it was no job for a woman, who had neither the health nor the stamina for it. At 97, she sure has proved them wrong! So she did graduate work in biology and bacteriology instead, and when the reality of family responsibilities encroached, she became a high school biology teacher. But what a teacher! Innovative and creative throughout her teaching years, she wrote text books, developed a new ecology curriculum decades before its time, acted as president of her teaching union, and inspired countless students. After she retired, she went on to settle refugees and participate in social action and social justice causes, earning at the age of eighty a Caring Canadian Award from the Governor General of Canada. At 87, she wrote a book.
As her daughter, I had it slightly easier. But when I wanted to go to graduate school, the universities still required a letter from my father proving he could support me. When I wanted to buy a car, the bank required my husband to co-sign the loan, even though I was a professional on an equal footing with him. When I enrolled in my doctoral psychology program, the class consisted of nine men and me. Many of those men had wives who cooked their meals and did their laundry, allowing them to stay all hours at the lab. I had a great but lonely husband who just looked sad when the meals were late and the laundry forgotten. When I first started working as a school psychologist, women dominated the classrooms in elementary schools and made up about half of high school teachers, but there was only one woman principal in the whole school board. The higher you got in the school board, the more men dominated.
I'm happy to say times have changed. Women are everywhere in psychology and teaching and school board administration. They are dominant in many fields of university study, including law and medicine. But there is still this niggling reality that the fields dominated by women are the "soft", "nurturing" fields, and that the pay in these fields is not equal to the power-broker fields of science, tech, finance, and business, where it's still a man's world. I vividly recall a comparative entry-level income survey done between psychologists (who require a PhD and roughly 25 years of study) and regular engineers (a B Eng and less than 20 years). The engineers started at about $20K more than psychologists. At the time, I thought it's a good thing I love my work!
What does this have to do with this blog, which is after all a blog about writing? Because in some ways, the underlying themes hold true. Since I started my second career as a writer, I have banged my head against the same glass ceiling, encountered the same biases against women's stories the same undervaluing of women's choices, and the same preconceptions about the worth of women's work. An unpublished author, in an effort to find out why agents and publishers were rejecting her submissions, changed her name (and nothing else) to a male pseudonym and received eight times as many expressions of interest. Male authors receive more reviews, more festival invitations, more offers from the big publishers. And when it comes to prestigious awards, men win hands down.
Since recent surveys of publishing and literary agents reveal an overwhelming majority are white women, our sisters seem to be perpetuating the same message; men's stories matter more. And here's a recent anecdote to illustrate this. At the conference I just attended, our Canadian contingent of crime writers organized a reception to highlight Canadian Crime. Pictures of all of us were posted to Facebook, prompting several commenters to ask "Are there no male Canadian crime writers?" There was one, but he was lost in the sea of hard-working women toiling on behalf of all of us. It's just what we do. What we have to do.
So it seems it is not yet time to lay down the sword and declare the battle won. But every time I grumble grumble grumble, I just have to remember my mother– where she came from and how far she travelled, against far greater odds than me. And if if all else fails, there's always the plucky thought "It's a good thing I love my work!"