Recently, my college graduating class had its 50th reunion. In preparation for this momentous event a memory book was created, featuring auto-biographies of many of the students and brief descriptions of the lives of the few who had died. At the time, our college was for women only, although there was a male college located conveniently in the same Kansas town. The ladies were known collectively as The Mounties, the men as Ravens. Both schools were Catholic institutions, operated by the Benedictine Order; they have since merged.
The Class of 1964 graduated sixty-eight women. Ours was the class to experience the election and assassination of John F. Kennedy. We would see the beginning of the United States’ exploration of space as well as the deadly Vietnam conflict that would later divide the nation. The struggle for equality and civil rights began in earnest while we were students. We welcomed the Beatles to America.
We were members of “The Silent Generation.” Most of our lives have been spent in the shadow of the vocal, self-absorbed “Baby Boomers.” We grew up in times of stress, our parents entering adulthood during the Great Depression. World War II, the Korean Conflict, Hiroshima, the Berlin Wall, and the Cold War painted images of uncertainty on the canvas of our young minds. We were not raised to feel “entitled” nor did we believe ourselves “special.” The battles of the ‘60s and ‘70s—Civil Rights, Vietnam War Protesters, and Flower Children—announced an adulthood that would be inspiring, confusing, and sometimes frightening.
The Women’s Liberation Movement began more than a decade after our Commencement. Had we really been suppressed, undervalued, and oppressed? Had our “literature” been neglected? Were men our natural enemies? Were we finally to become EQUAL? Oh my, once we had been thought to be not equal, but better! She stoops, not to conquer, but to be equipollent—hence commenced The Fall.
The situation for women before Women’s Lib was not by any means idyllic. Few were encouraged to seek professional careers in STEM areas, although the Mounties can claim a few. Employment was not an equal opportunity experience. My own experiences illustrate the times: 1) In an interview at a large bank I was told, “I can’t hire you—although you’re fully qualified—because you are a woman, a Catholic, and engaged to be married. You will get pregnant and quit to raise a family.” 2) At an even larger bank recent college graduates were hired for the management training program. Men were assigned time in major departments where, after a month or two, they would write up their impressions and what they had learned before moving on to the next department. Women trainees were assigned as needed—on Mondays we opened mail and tallied lock box payments, on other days women would be assigned to fill new check orders or to some other menial task. 3) I topped out on a programmer aptitude test for another large company, but was discouraged from accepting the training position because the interviewer stressed all the negatives, including the necessity of coming into the downtown in the middle of the night whenever problems occurred and being constantly “on call.” None of these scenarios appealed to a soon to be newlywed. It was 1964 and it was legal.
Before The Fall women were often encouraged to go into teaching, nursing, and other social welfare professions because it was assumed that marriage and children would employ most of our lives. Our class memory book records the career satisfaction of thirty-three teachers and about a half dozen social workers. Most of our classmates, no matter their careers, were stay-at-home moms for at least part of their lives. And moms we were—with a total of 185 children, 278 grandchildren, and the total of great-grans mounting. Of the seventy-one women who are listed in the memory book (about a dozen did not graduate from our college), sixty-three married and only eight divorced. Six chose to remain single, having equally fulfilling lives, devoting their talents to fulfilling professions and volunteer work with animals, social services, and religious projects.
Despite the inequities of the ‘60s Mounties got on with their lives. My classmates seem never to have been cowed by men; they have not pined for “liberation.” Most of their married lives reflect a loving partnership with their spouses. Although nary a bra was burnt, we managed to obtain thirty-one master’s degrees, four PhDs, two JDs, a Registered Pharmacist degree, and several Medical Technician certifications. Two had successful military careers. We even had a Nobel Peace Prize winner!
The Class of 1964 came from farms, small towns, large cities. Our class included women from as far away as Japan and Kenya. A few were from affluent families. Several had to work to earn their way sometimes interrupting their studies for a year or more to pay the yearly $1000 tuition, board, and fees. Many had campus jobs. Almost all found summer and holiday employment. We worked and sacrificed to achieve our educational goals AND we have used that education for the benefit of our families, communities, and selves.
We were diverse; we were so alike. The stories of our lives record our successes and failures, sorrows and joys. Our families, communities, and faith ground our very being. The ladies of the “silent generation” had unshakeable values, inculcated from the cradle—sometimes missing a GI dad—and our schools which stressed responsibility and respect along with the basic 3Rs. We were honest, hardworking, and considerate. We cared for others above self: we were intelligent, but not proud: we were tough but never crude. We could wait.
The Class of 1964 was imbued with the Benedictine Spirit of SERVICE. Equality meant the Other not the self. The Mountie Honor Roll of Volunteer Service is long and varied. The stories related in the memory book reveal an appreciation for the gifts of love, trust, and learning so liberally bestowed by parents, teachers, families, friends. Mounties acknowledge those gifts when they actively participate in their communities. The needy are fed, clothed, and sheltered: the ignorant educated: the abused and aged protected. Military families are supported: youth receive structure and guidance: animals are respected. The Class of 1964 has given its all in a way characteristic to women forged before The Fall—without resentment or regret, without ego or self-aggrandizement. Each life story teems with contentment and satisfaction. For the Class of 1964, the road taken—the paths well signposted by faith, families, and the “silent generation”—has “made all the difference.”
The Women Forged before The Fall didn’t miss out on a thing. Congratulations on fifty wonderful years.