Achievement at the intersection of class and gender (part 1)

Dec 29 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

My mother met her dearest friend when she went back to get a doctorate in her 40s. They quickly became, in their words, confidents. Ruby was an epidemiologist who had, as my mother had, gone back for a doctoral degree when she had young children. When they met, (in the mid-60's), they were not only the oldest in the school of public health, but pretty much the only women in the doctoral program.

Ruby had been a nurse, my mother a social worker. As both had said to me, on separate occasions, when they had been young (the post-war 40s) there were three choices for smart, ambitious working class women: teacher, nurse, social worker. When they were young, and starting out, having a job was critical. Having a job that would pay almost immediately, for which there was scholarship money to get their post-high school education, was essential. Neither Ruby nor my mother had the resources, the encouragement or the social support to do something as complex as medical school or get a PhD.

Out of curiosity I went back and looked up some of the early female physicians. Reading between the lines, most of these women came from if not owning class families, at least high professional ones. Helen Taussig, an incredible woman who found a solution to extend the life of Teratology of Fallot (one cause of blue babies), was a generation earlier, graduating medical school in the 20's. There were lots of barriers in her way, including the fact that most medical schools would not admit women. Her father was a Harvard professor. My mother's parents were illiterate factory workers.

Both my Mom and Ruby had waited as long as they could to get married. They finished college and got married at what was quite late at the time. Their society was not particularly tolerant of unmarried women. As an aside, I know that they both loved the men they married, and stayed married until their husbands died.  They worked as nurse and social worker for years, but wanted more. Even in the 60's that was not an easy choice. I remember when my Mom went back for her doctorate when I was in grade school (her kids were 12,10 & 8). I was the only one I knew with a working mother, let alone one going to school.  It was years later, with supportive spouses and children that my mother & Ruby could go back to school as 40 year olds.

Today, there is more encouragement, support, etc for at least white working class women. Yet, judging from the classes I teach, medical school still draws more from middle class women, with more working class men enrolled. The children of my working class friends chose nursing, police work, mid-managerial positions. Medical school is something "rich people do".

But I admit that I am guessing here, and don't have the statistics. There is abundant information of ethnic/racial, even religious, makeup of the classes I teach now, at almost-MRU, as well as at the medical school of my old MRU. Far less information exists on class.

This meditation was prompted by an article in the NYTimes this Sunday about "marrying up" by Tyler Cowen. That article, about class flexibility totally ignores gender, and gender selection in marriage. I'll come back to that in the next post.

Its my mother's 90th birthday this week. I remember her telling me that when she was a girl, she never expected to see the year 2000, because in her world, back then, people did not live to be much beyond 60 or 70. Her parents, working class chain-smokers, lived into their 80s. I wish I could reach her to tell her how incredible and wonderful is everything that she accomplished. Likely she would say to me, old 60s civil rights worker that she was: yes, but who is not getting the opportunity today? What are you, the jewel in my crown, doing to change that?


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