On Being a Woman – Options

The following was written in the late 1970s or early ‘80s, during which time I was a newly “liberated” woman with a family and a demanding career. I happened upon this essay while sorting through a box of old writing, looking for something else. Apparently I had submitted it to a couple of magazines, but it wasn’t taken and was set aside as I went on to other things, mostly professional work and raising children. I’m now long past those pursuits, am retired, and have teenage grandchildren. Nonetheless, the piece seemed relevant to this blog, if for nothing other than historical interest. I decided to transcribe it and include it here – serialized, of course. The title was obviously relevant: “On Being a Woman: Options.”


I’m in my mid-forties, now, having entered the middle years as a woman whose adult life has spanned the pre- and post-“liberation” era. My experiences during the past quarter century have, in many ways, paralleled the themes and events of the contemporary women’s movement, and I’ve had the urge, lately, to reflect upon that transition from the perspective of one who has lived through it. It seems to me that one of the key features of the cultural reorientation emerging from the women’s movement has been an increase in the scope of life choices now available to women. More particularly, the possibility of coupling career with family has become an option that is now considered both realistic and desirable.

From the time I was quite young, something subconscious, almost instinctive, told me that my life would not be really fulfilled without a mate and children. But something else, perhaps conditioned, but no less powerful, and always conscious, compelled me to do well and generated an unquestioned assumption that I would have a job and career. As a child, I had read Wonder Woman comics and Nancy Drew mystery stories and had appropriated the message that it was possible to be both competent and feminine.  

To be sure, having been raised during the forties and early fifties, I could not avoid being exposed to assumptions about female roles and behavior which tended to limit initiative and competence. I remember the injunction in a well-meaning book for blossoming young ladies not to outshine their men for love’s sake. “Let him beat you on the tennis court even if you are a better player.” I remember sitting in the car until my date came around and opened the door. I remember never paying for a date and not even wondering about how the young man obtained the money. I remember thinking that marriage would ensure happiness ever after.

When I entered college, I was enthusiastic, idealistic, and steeped in the then-current mythology of what it meant to be a woman. But I also thought that I could have it both ways, that I could do well academically (prepare for a career) and be socially popular (eventually marry and have children). Thus, I was surprised and offended by the advice of my undergraduate “advisor” (a male history professor) who suggested that I shouldn’t take both biology and chemistry courses the same year because they were too difficult. And besides, I was just going to get married after I graduated, so why take a pre-med course? And I was bewildered and hurt when a boyfriend’s interest cooled rapidly after he discovered that I had made all “A’s” my first semester in college (yes, taking both chemistry and biology courses). “I knew you were smart, but I didn’t know you were that smart.” I also became indignant when a female biology professor counseled me not to get married because any stupid woman could marry and have children.

These are all old stories by now, recounted by thousands of women to therapists, or in consciousness-raising groups, until their power to elicit pain and anger has abated to tolerable levels. Taken together, these stories depict middle-twentieth-century woman drawn simultaneously to—and sometimes paralyzed between—the poles of personal achievement and interpersonal relationships. The responses to this double-bind have ranged from militant rage to tranquilized escape. Many women, however, have been silent pioneers and have taken a poorly charted middle road, neither highly visible, nor yet comfortably safe. In so doing, they have enlarged the potential scope and role-options of all women. I would like to think that I have been among this group…  (to be continued)


About javsimson

Scientist, traveler, woman, writer, spiritual explorer, mother, grandmother, fascinated with the world, appalled by deliberate human ignorance. Website and blogs include: http://javsimson.com/ http://solowomenathomeandabroad.blogspot.com/
This entry was posted in Being a Woman, working mother and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to On Being a Woman – Options

  1. I do not understand how women and men are still so mixed up about our roles. I am sure it is complicated and further that there has been a lot to muddy the water. I see nothing wrong with chivalry; letting a man open doors for me, especially if I am going to cook for him and take care of him as a partner. It’s like couples dancing each has a role, steps and a part to play.

    Thankfully no one has ever told me to under perform for acceptance. I am sure when I was younger I did not think to wonder where my dates got their cash. That is about being young.

    I grew up with married parents. I know marriage is what people make it. The more mature and compatible the two parties the better the odds but not much more than that.

    • Tosca, it’s not that women and men are “mixed up” about roles, but rather that they’re expected to conform to roles at all. It is true that our natural instincts incline us to act in certain ways toward members of the opposite sex. But it’s also true that “roles” are enormously confining. Many people, both males and females, would prefer to lead their lives by being the best they can be, and by reacting to others in a way that feels natural and comfortable, rather than by conforming to some set of behaviors and expectations prescribed by their family or their culture.

  2. Really interesting to read this. I grew up in the 60s and 70s but do remember no mothers worked. And yes. A gentleman should open your door. You should submit this o Blogher.com

  3. I loved reading this. I remember being so confused when someone once told me, in junior high school, “boys don’t like girls who are smart.” As a former fifth grade teacher, it was sad to see some of my most gifted female students begin hiding their intelligence by the end of the year when the boys started noticing them. Some of this is biology, of course, but a lot of it was social and cultural.

    I believe a woman can have it all. I’m appalled at women who chastise those who have chosen to stay home with their children, and equally appalled at those who lay a guilt trip on mothers who have chosen to work full-time. I did both, and struggled with both decisions.

    • Thank you, Angela!! Yes, it’s the confusion, the hope for approval dashed, the having to pretend and then deciding, stubbornly, not to.
      And I so agree with you; women (and men) should have the chance to make choices that fit with their talents and desires for a fulfilling life. I’m so glad you have been able to work it out in your life, which seems to be a dynamic one! And you are a model for the younger women you know.

  4. Pingback: On Being a Woman – Options, Part 2 | joannevalentinesimson

  5. Pingback: On Being a Woman – Options, Part 3 | joannevalentinesimson

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