The Class With All The Smart Girls

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. I graduated from high school in Liberty, New York in 1965. Although I didn’t know this until many years later, we were known by some as “the class with all the smart girls.” I did know that nine out of our class’s academic Top Ten were girls because I was one of them.

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In 1965, the concept of “girl power” was still a long way off. The lyrics “I am woman/hear me roar” was in the future, too. Females could not get a credit card (or a bank loan) in their own names. They needed a man to co-sign. That didn’t change until 1974. In 1965, abortions were illegal and extremely dangerous due to the unsanitary conditions under which they were performed. That didn’t change until 1973. In 1965, “the pill” was available for birth control, but not to all women in all states, even if they were married. A woman could not attend Yale or Princeton until 1969, or matriculate at Harvard until 1977. She couldn’t practice law in every state until 1971 or be admitted to astronaut training until 1978. She could not marry and keep her job if she was a stewardess for Pan American Airlines. She could be fired simply for being pregnant until 1978 and had no legal recourse if she was subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace until 1977. No woman could legally run in the Boston Marathon until 1972. Women couldn’t get a no-fault divorce until 1969 and in some states women could not serve on a jury until 1973. In 1965, there was just one woman governor and only two females were U. S. Senators.

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Was I aware of any of that at seventeen? Not really. Like most teenagers, I was pretty self-centered. I was also appallingly naïve. Fortunately for me, although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I was blessed with a mother who expected me to excel. I knew from an early age that I would go to college, even though neither of my parents had done so. I was also encouraged to think for myself. I went against the advice of our school guidance counselor, “Moose” Gerber, who told me that I shouldn’t consider applying anywhere but Albany State. Instead, I applied to William and Mary, where I made the wait list, Oneonta State for a “security school” and Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where I was admitted under early acceptance. I also considered applying to Randolph Macon Women’s College because author Pearl S. Buck had graduated from there.

But to return to the top ten. We were in the same classes. Overlapping groups of us went to movies together, ate together at lunchtime, and participated the yearbook, the school newspaper, Senior Star, and productions of My Sister Eileen, Ah, Wilderness, and The Music Man. We went to each others’ pajama parties (at which, with great daring, we made crank calls to teachers). I don’t remember that we talked much about career goals in any of those settings. Feminism, women’s lib, and bra burning were still a few years away. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure we all shared the expectation that we would go to college and have a career afterward. We weren’t just going for four years of higher education to get our MRS degree.

For many years, I was out of touch with the other eight “smart girls.” Sara and Glenna are no longer with us, but thanks to reunions and Facebook a few of the old friendships have been renewed. To the best of my knowledge, everyone but me has retired, but at the twenty year mark Leslie, Cheryl, and Glenna were teachers and Judy had traded in that career in for a new one as a lawyer. Sara and Wendy were in banking. Mary Lou was in marketing. Eileen was a speech-language pathologist. Then there was the oddball—me. By then I’d taught at three levels—first grade, community college, and junior high, been a library assistant at the University of Maine at Farmington, and then taken the plunge to become a full-time writer. Nobody ever told me I couldn’t do any of those things. Then again, I wasn’t trying to break into a profession traditionally dominated by men.

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Speaking of men, what about the one boy in the mix? As you can see from the photo, taken from our yearbook, in 1965 we thought it would be funny to pose as his devoted worshippers. Somehow, I don’t think we’d include this in the shoot if we took the photos today. Then again . . . . Michael, I should add, perhaps seriously and perhaps not, said that his goal was to become the first Jewish president of the United States. Twenty years out, he was an attorney specializing in international law. I don’t know what he’s doing now.

Women born around 1947 have seen the world change for the better and a lot of them played vital roles in making that happen. I look back fifty-one years with great fondness. That nostalgia is even playing a major part in the new mystery series I’m working on for a 2018 launch.

1965 came at the very beginning of a new era for women. A few years later, they used to say “You’ve come a long way, baby!” and it was true, but not everyone was happy when the glass ceiling got another crack in it. What we used to call the “male chauvinist pig” still exists.

When you get right down to it, calling us “smart girls” wasn’t really a compliment back in 1965. There are people out there today, some of them in positions of power, who would like to take things back to the way they were before 1965, when women were actively discouraged from going to college, working outside the home, or even thinking for themselves. Fond as my memories are, I wouldn’t want to be forced to live in the world of 1965 again. It would be almost as stifling as being transported back to the 1580s, the time period in which my Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries are set.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, the pictures in this blog were taken on the roof of the school. We had no business being up there, but there was this ladder . . .

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Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Kilt at the Highland Games) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse ~ UK in December 2016; US in April 2017) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. In addition, as Kaitlyn, she is working on a new series, this one featuring a sixty-nine year old woman who returns to her old home town after fifty years away. Kathy’s websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com

 

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15 Responses to The Class With All The Smart Girls

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Love this post! hose of us of a “certain age” grew up in a different era. And we’re still climbing those ladders to reach the ceiling .. or even the roof! Thanks, Kathy!

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  2. Gram says:

    I well remember those days. I hope women younger than I will not let the clock turn back. They grew up with these rights and do not know how it was, except from books!

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  3. Reine says:

    Terrific post. I remember my grandmother not changing the name on her Filene’s credit card after my grandfather died. I still feel the shock of hearing her say that she would lose her credit if they new she was widowed.

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  4. Pat Turnbull says:

    This post in large part is my story also, though I’m a few years older (born in 1942). Being a “smart girl” in my high school didn’t get you much except approval from parents; it certainly didn’t make me one of the popular crowd! And, like you, I didn’t “settle” for going to the state university, and instead was lucky enough to get a big scholarship to Simmons in Boston. That was a life-changer for me.
    Thanks for the post! (And since my mid-30s, I too have been a feminist, thanks mostly to the mentoring of the wife of our minister at a socially progressive church in Champaign, IL.)

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    • Thanks for sharing, Pat. It wouldn’t have been so much settling as it would have been getting lost in a crowd. That I chose a small college where I was encouraged to think for myself while still being protected by sensible rules like an 11 PM curfew in the girls’ dorms and having a “big sister” assigned to mentor me made a huge difference.

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  5. Like the poster above, I can relate to much of what you say here, also graduating in 1965 and valedictorian. I also had parents who allowed me to grow up planning on college even though neither of them had attended (my mother was forced to quit school at 15 to help at home) and money was scarce. However, I do wonder about that 1974 date I’ve heard recently for women allowed to get loans and credit cards. I had a car loan and a credit card or two before I married in 1973 and no male to co-sign as I was living far from home. I still remember putting our wedding night hotel stay on my credit card because my new husband did not have one and the hotel preferred cards.

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  6. Barb Ross says:

    I loved this post. As you know, I’m just a few years younger than you, but as I always tell people, all Baby Boomers did not have the same experience. I those tumultuous times, just a few years made a difference.

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    • Thanks, Barb. The thing that worries me is that younger women who have always had certain rights and freedoms may not realize how easily they can be taken away . . . and women aren’t even the group most at risk right now.

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  7. Kait Carson says:

    SISTER! Oh, were the times different. I wanted to be a trauma surgeon. Parents said no, women marry doctors they don’t become them. Can you imagine that today? Yep, I was a smart girl in a smart school, we were told by parents to dumb it down. Wouldn’t get a husband otherwise. Rock on, current generation. We paved the way, don’t waste it. I’m sole support of my family. Smart girls rule.

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