Sunday, March 24, 2013

Leaning In, Having It All, and Biological Clocks

Marion Nicholson 1910 era

Years ago,  in 1997, when the Internet was new  to Canada my husband subscribed to AOL, not for our two kids who were in their early tweens, but for me.

"You are a writer. The Internet is bound to create MORE jobs for writers," he said.

He was right...sort of. He didn't say paying jobs, after all.

At the time I was at home, but working freelance, which was a big pain because any and all freelance work was last minute - and often on the weekend and always to a tight, tight deadline.

Almost immediately I found a website that was wanting for essays, which I had aplenty, as I was (am) an essay writing machine by nature.

I sent in three of my essays and the website accepted all three and paid me (YES!) 25 American dollars for each one of them.

I became a regular writer on the website, eventually writing an entertainment column, and I made up to 100 dollars an essay. Imagine, getting paid for writing!

And then said website, despite being popular, went broke.

Oh, well.

Yesterday, I saw a tweet on my Twitter account, a woman both laughing and crying because the Huffington Post, a very successful Internet news site which I subscribe to, had asked her to write them an essay - FOR FREE.

Here's a Forbes article interviewing Arianna Huffington about the Second Women's Work Revolution

Technology changes us but in ways we can't predict. The Internet has made writers a dime a dozen, perennial unpaid interns.

I also subscribe on Twitter to Salon (which I have written for and was well-paid for) and yesterday I saw a tweet about LEANING IN, a new book out by Sheryl Sandberg based on a Ted Talk "Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders"....and a mentoring and advice website with support for women in the workforce.

Leaning In is the talk of the town, they say. Or the gab of the global village.

This article, reprinted from some other site,  was about how LEANING IN was of little use to unemployed women over 50 because in our society women over fifty are invisible, if not reviled or condescended too as cookie-making grannies.

The author, once a successful lawyer, has taken time off to raise kids and is now finding it impossible to get a job.

She isn't alone, according to the posters on the message boards. Many women in the US are experiencing the same problem.

The message here: don't take time off to raise kids and expect a career, or security in old age.  Don't get into the position where you are ONE MAN AWAY FROM WELFARE, as Gloria Steinem famously stated.

This Salon article touched a nerve as the author is 58 and so am I. (I don't feel old. I feel like a kid except in my knees!)

 I am an English writer in French Quebec, over fifty,  and I know there is no chance of me ever finding a good paying job.  I'm just happy my husband can keep his union job until retirement. And I hope he doesn't die soon after retirement because that would be a disaster for me.

It's embarrassing. I never meant for it to be this way.

At least I can blame my situation on where I live (a French province where English is considered a threat) and what I do. Working in media has always been precarious as well as a young person's domain.

This Salon author says she has many professional friends in the same situation (women who need to work because they are divorced or their husbands have lost their own jobs, etc) women who have taken time off to raise their kids and who are now shaking their heads and wondering HOW DID IT CAME TO THIS?

It's funny, one of my 'jobs' on Moms Online was to manage a message board.

In those days, the Mommy Wars were raging, where SAHM's (stay-at-home moms)  battled it out with Working Moms.

 Many of the SAHM's were sanctimonious about their choice to stay home and take care of their kids, assuming there was plenty of time to re-enter the workforce later on.

I was in essence a SAHM, although I was ALWAYS on the look-out for paying jobs. I was an In-betweener Mom, a reluctant SAHM, so I  didn't have the luxury of being smug about my lifestyle choice.

I stuck up for the Working Mothers.  I thought that taking time off to raise children was a big risk for women.

It appears I was right.

And who was to know about the dire economic downturn - and banksters and casino banking - and galloping technological advances that make yesterday's skills obsolete by noon today?

Can women have it all? Can men?

My 1910 stories about the Nicholson women of Richmond, Quebec and Montreal  are a case in point.

1910 was the era of the NEW WOMAN, when it was said women were beginning to WANT IT ALL. It was the era of the first Women's Work Revolution.

Sheryl Sandberg begins her Ted Talk (which I am listening to right now. See! I can multi-task!) by saying we are lucky to live in these times and not the times of our grandmothers. Hmm.

And, as I have discussed many times on this blog, almost everyone in the 1910 era believed that women HAD MADE IT, that any woman could have it all, any career she wanted. After all, weren't there women in almost every profession, even some women doctors and lawyers?

That was a myth, of course, total nonsense.

Statistics show that most women were either teachers, or shop or factory girls, or domestics, depending on their social status.

Edith 1910 ish.

Marion Nicholson of my story Biology and Ambition,  the follow-up to Threshold Girl and Diary of a Spinster and the prequel to Sister Salvation, did have both a brilliant career,  as a teacher and Union President, as well as a family, but she had a miserable time of it too, widowed in 1927 and left penniless, so she had to work.

(This was NOT the socially acceptable thing to do. Her job was to remarry.)

Edith Nicholson, her older sister,  had a nice career at McGill, working in the Registrar's office and as Vice Warden at Royal Victoria College, Women's college, but she was a spinster and never married and never had children. (She couldn't become a 'well-paid' teacher on the Montreal Board, because she didn't have a teaching diploma, so she prevailed upon her connections to get her the jobs at McGill, part tutor-in-residence, part secretary.)

She lived with her married sister Marion, off and on, and helped raise her children. She considered Marion's kids her family.

These two hard-working and ambitious women (born to leadership, one might say) never had any money at any point in their lives, despite working HARD, but they did have fun, and lots and lots of friends and connections, a buzzing social life if the letters they left behind speak the truth (and they do).

People needed people in those days, and not just to help them get ahead and to help them acquire power or make more money.

The Nicholsons had their circle. They were born into in. The Presbyterians of Quebec wielded  a lot of power back then, especially in the education arena.

In a 1927 letter Edith writes to her mom. "We may be poor in money, but we are rich in friends."

At the time Marion's husband, Hugh, was dying and  about to leave his wife with four young children and no money as he had been shut out of the family business.

Marion, a real go-getter if there ever was one, pulled up her cashmere stockings and got to work. She applied to the Masons for an education stipend for her each of her children and she got back her job teaching on the Montreal School Board.

By then her oldest daughter, 13, was able to take care of the younger children when she was not at home.

Marion had worked from 1906-1912 as a teacher. She had been super-ambitious back then, too, but her ambitions were stifled by realities of the profession (where inexperience male teachers got all the promotions)and by her biological clock.

Marion Nicholson, my husband's grandmother, went on to became a Master Teacher and during WWII, President of the PAPT, the Provincial Association of Protestant Teachers.

When she died, the Gazette gave her an editorial page Obit. The editor of the newspaper was one of her many admirers, apparently.

A Leader Among Teachers

From the Montreal Gazette, February 16, 1948 Editorial Page

In the death of Marion A N Blair the teaching profession not only of this province, but of the whole Dominion, has suffered a serious loss. For Mrs. Blair gave wise leadership not only in her own classroom here in Montreal but as the chosen head of the Federation of Protestant Women Teachers of the Island of Montreal, the Quebec Provincial Association of Protestant Teachers and for three years as the Quebec representative to the Canadian Teachers' Federation.  So ably did she fill this last post that she was asked last summer to represent Canadian Teachers as one of the delegates to the meetings of UNESCO in Paris.

For many years Mrs. Blair headed the salary committee of the local Women Teachers' Federation and for her wise and just leadership Montreal women teachers have much for which to be thankful, not only in material gains, but in enhanced prestige for the position of the woman teacher.

In common with all persons in public office, Mrs. Blair found herself the object of criticism by those for whom she was working. It was in such situations that the soundness of her advice and the staunchness of her character were most evident. And among all willing to give fair credit where credit was due, she won lasting respect.

Mrs. Blair frequently reminded her fellow teachers that theirs was a dignified calling and that their chosen lot was a life of service.  Her own life exemplified her belief. In spite of ill health and family responsibilities, she shouldered administrative tasks, working faithfully for teacher's organizations, at the same time fulfilling her classroom duties.
Mrs.  Blair  typified the teacher needed in our school today. Her influence was felt for good both in her profession and among those she taught."

According to people in the know, the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal was the TOP performing school board in North America at one point in the 60's. This is largely due to the efforts of Quebec educators like Marion Nicholson, whose work for the Teachers' Union permitted the Board to attract top teachers from other provinces and countries, like Britain. Many of the Board's high performing students went on to brilliant careers across Canada and the US and beyond.

Edith Nicholson became head of the Quebec Red Cross during the War. And she mentored many a Donalda, McGill co-ed at RVC over the years. 

Oddly, even in 1930, there were few job options for educated women outside of the teaching profession.

Most Donaldas, who had followed the same curriculum as male McGill Arts Students, worked as teachers.