My daughter had a writing assignment this week for History class that got me thinking about what it meant to pass along our history… a woman’s history. I grew up with strong female role models. Both Grandmothers proved themselves as not only caretakers of their families, but as bread winners. My mother, too, had an important career in intelligence, breaking ground in a field where, traditionally, women were secretaries not code breakers.
My Daughter was asked to write about an artifact she would pass down to her children and why it was significant. Our house is filled with furniture, china, and artwork from family. Both of my Grandmothers passed along their belongings to their grandchildren. As I am certain both grandmothers expected, I set out to make each piece “my own” either in the manner in which I refurbished the piece or the manner which I chose to use it.
Together we walked around the house quickly honing in on just the right artifact; a secretary (a desk). No one in my household has actually ever sat down at the desk to write anything. Rather, I set the secretary up as a bar. And no, I do not believe my grandmother is looking down on me shaking her finger “Why??!” She enjoyed her after dinner glass of Brandy. Therefore, in her honor, I keep a bottle of Brandy on the top shelf.
The story of the Secretary goes a bit like this…. my Grandmother worked for Marshall Fields in Chicago. She was an architect. She worked in a room full of men. She wore pants when women did not wear pants. (Remember, this is how I recall her telling me this story - accurate it may not be, but it made a huge impression.) She paid $1200 for the secretary when she purchased it …. a long time ago. $1200 is a lot of money for a desk today so you can imagine how expensive this was back then. She told me she saved and saved to purchase this secretary and she was very proud of how marvelous it looked in her home. Her piece of resistance. I found notes in the desk when I inherited it 20 years ago. My favorite line in the letter, which by the way starts off with “I am so blind I can not read what I am writing”, is “Do not let go of my secretary. It is valuable. I got the expert to look at it. He said Chippendale did not make it. The nails was (were) manufactured after 1870.”
So, I have no idea who made the desk, but I do know Chippendale did not. Honestly, I could care less who made it, but what I do love about her story was the fact that she worked in a room full of men and wore pants, and that those two points were very important elements in her story of how she came to own the secretary.
My mother walked in her mother’s footsteps seeking out a career where she too worked in rooms full of men. She tells a story of working at an office where they did not have a women’s restroom. They made her a sign that she could put on the bathroom door to warn the “room full of men” that the bathroom was temporarily off limits. She told me two things that I have never forgotten about being a woman in a man’s workplace. One: Never think that using foul language makes you seem stronger. Two: You will always work a bit harder to get ahead. But trust me, “they” know you are just as good if not better.
A few months ago, I took my daughter to the Women’s March here in Los Angeles. I wanted her to see and feel the power of what can happen when people come together. When women come together. Our strength. Our resilience. Our desire to keep moving ahead. It was a reminder to keep telling our stories. To keep reminding our girls how important it is to stand up for ourselves and our beliefs, and to make the world a better place, not just for us but for future generations.
Keep telling our stories... your stories, because sometimes a secretary isn't just a secretary.