We Stand On Their Shoulders

On Monday March 13, 2023 twelve term congresswoman and persuasive feminist, Pat Schroeder, died. Her passing coincides with National Women’s History Month. Her loss has caused me to reflect on the impact to the generations of American women coming behind me who are benefitting from Schroeder’s important legislation. Many of us today stand on her shoulders and those of other Americans who have worked toward equal rights for women.
When I was hired in 1966 as a full time tenure-track college teacher there was no such thing as family or maternity leave. I was hired at age 23 as a married mother of one small child. It was not a problem. The issue was that Ken and I wanted a larger family and we did not want to sacrifice my career, the alternative, to growing our family.
Ken and I worked the problem. We became strategic. We figured out that if our child’s birth coincided with my summers off, my career could prevail. Beyond our strategy, we were fortunate. Our second child was born July 30, 1968. When classes began the day after Labor Day, we secured child care for our tiny five week old daughter, Julina. I will never forget my drive to work that first day of school; I sobbed the entire way as leaving my newborn was against every fiber of my maternal being. I sucked it up and kept going, knowing that for the rest of my life, leaving her would be one of the hardest things I would ever have to do.
A few years later, once again strategizing toward summer break, luck was again on our side. Baby number three was scheduled to arrive in July of 1971. My voluminous dresses did their best to cover my girth. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell!” was the rule of the day for expectant teachers. In May that semester, I had a meeting with the district chancellor. He held eye contact with me during the entire appointment, never acknowledging my huge mid section. I lumbered through the June graduation in my oversized academic robes. Baby Dan was born the next week. There was never a mention of Donna or a baby boy, nothing, by anyone, not in a faculty newsletter, nowhere. My students understood and threw me a big in-class baby shower. Otherwise, mum was the word on campus except in the faculty lounge where the sentiment was in keeping with Paul Erlich’s Population Bomb which called for a limitation in family size. Certain faculty members enraptured with that idea, were wrapping his explosive books in black paper and delivering them to local maternity wards. My girth and I stayed away from the faculty lounge.
When Colorado woman Pat Schroeder decided to run for congress in 1972 the newspapers described her as only a “housewife.” She drew so little credibility from the media that her name was NOT even mentioned in the articles. Mind you she was a Harvard trained attorney, and an accomplished pilot. In fact, after her election to congress she was chosen as the first woman to ever sit on the Armed Services Committee. Her aviation skills were of value in that forum. Two of her most important accomplishments in the U.S. Congress were to benefit the American family. In 1978 she championed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act which barred employers from denying maternity benefits. In 1993 she helped get the Family Medical Leave Act passed which permitted workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to bond with their newborn child, to care for the health of a seriously ill family member, or tend to their own serious health issues without concern for losing their job. Being allowed a leave back in 1968 would have helped my broken heart. My daughter was 25 years old when this important legislation was passed.
Recently, the Ancestry.com website sent me a notice that my 2nd great grandmother, Mary Jane Swan Lewis (my grandfather’s grandmother), at age 82 fought across heavy rain and snow on November 2, 1920 in Altoona Kansas to stand in voting lines so that she could finally legally cast her vote for president. The 19th Amendment had been ratified and nationwide women were permitted to vote. Prohibition was the big issue; she could have voted for James Cox or Warren Harding. Her stand on prohibition is lost to me, however, the majority of Americans overwhelmingly voted for the popular Harding whose slogan was “Return to Normalcy.” It warms my heart to think of that lady wrapping herself up in layers of clothing against the snow to stand in a long line to have her say. I stand on her shoulders.
I also stand on the shoulders of my great grandmother Lydia Cram Lewis who was a pharmacist in the family’s R.W. Lewis Drug Company which had nine drug and cigar stores in early 1900’s Los Angeles. I stand on the shoulders of Vera May Lewis, my grandmother who was a pioneer in children’s television. She hosted the first local TV show for kids in Southern California. It was The Playcrafters Club on Channel 5, KTLA, Thursdays at 5, from 1950-1953.
We American women benefit from and stand upon so many shoulders of strong women and men. Some of our influencers have been more outspoken than others. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, for instance, was a fearless advocate against gender discrimination. She was also the first Jewish woman and only the second woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. Reflecting further upon gender discrimination in the workplace, I think about my Aunt Margie. In the 1930’s during the Great Depression when she applied for an adult night school teaching job, she was forced to hide the fact that she was married; jobs were reserved for men who had families to support.
This month, National Women’s History Month, provides us with an opportunity to pause and appreciate the strides taken forward toward gender equality such as the passing of Title IX in 1972. Title IX legislation gave women the right to equal opportunity in sports and in educational institutions which receive federal funds. There is still a lot of work to be done. We can slide into complacency or we can be inspired. Perhaps Pat Schroeder, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the women behind the passage of Title IX, and thousands of others who have been banging away at the glass ceiling, can embolden us to continue to actively teach our children and grandchildren the importance of gender equality. As the grandmother to nine young women and two future fathers, it has been an urgent matter to me that they have every opportunity available, that they see themselves as equal and believe in their hearts that they have what it takes, and most importantly that they understand the battles that must continue to be won to move to gender equality.
Observing the independent nature of my grown grandchildren, I interviewed them and their parents asking if they could articulate their thoughts on gender equality. It’s a hard question. Not everyone got back to me, but what answers I learned are compelling. My oldest son, no doubt thinking of the arduous Saturday before in which he and four of his daughters endured competing on the muddy, watery trails of the Catalina Marathon, immediately offered up his family’s tireless marathon participation as a metaphor. The marathon participation as vehicle to illustrate that he and the girls’ mother have inspired their girls to believe in themselves, to understand that they can accomplish significant goals, regardless of gender, through determination and practice, even a horrific nine hour trek through mud so thick that it pulled their shoes off!
Marathons, half marathons, 5 and 10 K races have been a family affair of ours for decades now, with almost all of us participating at one time or another. I continued to think about that difficult course and the fact that our daughter and her youngest son, James, also took up the same brutal challenge. The twenty-six plus mile dirt course is exceedingly challenging even when it is dry, imagine wading through knee high lakes and deep gullies! The torrential rains had only stopped two hours before race time!
Our youngest son, Dan, decided to run the steep 10K as a buddy to his 13 year-old daughter, Caroline, as it was her first time to compete. Laughing he admits, “Caroline was so fast that I almost struggled to keep up with her!” Caroline came in first for her age group winning a nice trophy.
This is not to say that the entire family is populated with natural athletes. It is not but it reflects the belief my children have taught their children that they have personal power and can achieve whatever they set their minds to. Statistics show that only .05% of Americans, and only .01% of the world’s population ever complete an arduous 26 mile foot race! The “Can Do” messages we teach the generations behind us are critical to moving forward in human rights. When I asked my 25 year-old granddaughter, Jaycelin, what thoughts about this were in her head as she completed her own 10K run, she responded, “I believe I can do anything I set my mind to.”
Who are the strong advocates both men and women who have helped shape the independent person you are today? What have you taught the younger people in your sphere? Who influenced you to be all that you could be? I would love to know upon whose shoulders you stand. My best, donna