I consider myself a beneficiary of the saner side of Women’s Lib. (For the insane side, amuse yourself reading Christina Hoff Sommers’ Who Stole Feminism : How Women Have Betrayed Women.) After all, I was effortlessly able to launch myself into the traditionally male preserve of law. Over the years, thought, I’ve gotten to meet some of the women who were the first in their classes and their law firms, and their stories aren’t so pretty. A perfect example is Sandra Day O’Connor’s story. Although she graduated near the top of her Stanford Law class, the only job offered to her upon graduation was as a legal secretary.
Of course, before women’s lib, tends of thousands of American women went to college. Whole colleges were set up for these female “best and brightest.” Back East, for example, women who had the brains and drive got to attend the prestigious Seven Sisters. My beloved next door neighbor when I was growing up was one of the first women to receive a Masters degree from Berkeley.
These women, the creme de la creme of American female brain power, got excellent educations in all the traditional fields, such as science, literature, history, etc. And then, as did Sandy Day O’Connor, they found upon graduation that their options were limited. So most of them did what my beloved neighbor did — they became teachers. In other words, for generations, those women teachers who staffed American schools were highly educated, career-oriented, extremely bright people. Some became embittered, burned out and vindictive. Some stopped teaching to raise their own families. And some went on to inspire generations of young people. I experienced each type of teacher and was, of course, profoundly affected by those women who fell in the last category.
Now, I know that there continue to be bright, charismatic, well-educated women and men who are drawn to the teaching profession as a calling, and I am most grateful for them. My own father was one of those. He was a teacher to the core of his being and one of the best.
However, there’s absolutely no doubt that the opening up of the professions (medicine, law, architecture, etc.) has drained away all those women who would never have viewed teaching as a calling, but ended up teaching because they had no other choices. This means that nowadays there are many women and men out there who also end up teaching because they have no other choices. But their lack of choices doesn’t result from institutional prejudice. Rather, it flows from their own inherent limitations, limitations that prevent them from pursuing higher earning, more prestigious professions.
I don’t regret at all the fact that the sensible part of Women’s Lib opened doors that have been closed for so many centuries. I wouldn’t turn back the clock, even if meant improving American education. Nevertheless, I think we’d be foolish not to recognize the law of unintended consequences. Here, that law’s operation saw the formerly large pool of exceptionally high quality teachers shrink significantly in response to increased employment opportunities for women, a fact that will inevitably affect education. Whether we can do anything about it is a different story. I suspect it’s now simply the teaching world as our children and grandchildren will know it.