May 2012

The Fault Line Generation

Shaped by the nostalgia of the ’50s and the revolutions of the ’60s, the Class of 1962 made its mark on the world.

 By Abigail Trafford ’62

 

Abbie Trafford ‘62. Photo courtesy of BasicBooks.

Abigail Trafford ‘62. Photo courtesy of BasicBooks.

When I was a little girl, I used to sit on a rock on the Maine coast and listen to the lap, lap of the water below and stare at the horizon of waves and passing boats—“mind-sailing” away, far, far away, to distant lands and different lives …  a deep, wondering wanderlust to explore, to change, to hope.

What defines the class of 1962?

Our class is a Fault Line Generation, a demographic crack between two massive cultural plates: the nostalgic era of the ’50s and the revolutionary esprit of the ’60s. As in geology, a cultural fault line is a zone of stress and social earthquakes. Our destiny has unfolded in that explosive tension.

“We were kind of restless,” says Barbara Schieffelin Powell, who taught in Africa, pursued a career in education, married, and raised three children. “We were very idealistic,” says art critic Nina Sutherland von Eckardt, mother, grandmother, and now Presbyterian elder.

Our roots are in the chaos of war, with the men away and the homefront dominated by women. What can a toddler know? I must have soaked up the horror of the times; my father in the infantry on the frontlines in Europe, my mother losing her mind and turning to drink. Eventually the daydreaming of childhood would become a drive to break with the past and find new space with more hope. I do not share Depression’s shadow or the Victory-garden patriotism that shaped older, more serious cousins. And I never got caught up in the dark rage and drop-out destruction that would trap some who followed in the official baby boom.

Our class is so small: 159 of us graduated in the spring of 1962. More than half came from private schools, which were often single-sex. About 70 percent were Protestant. Only one of us was African-American. We do not reflect the broad sweep of American women born during World War II. Yet perhaps because of privilege and education, we can be seen as canaries in the mine of historic change.

We came to Bryn Mawr with tea sets, with one foot planted in the stable veneer of Father Knows Best. We graduated in time to ask ourselves what we could do for our country—putting the other foot in the idealism and turmoil of the ’60s.

“We are an in-between generation,” says oral historian Alison Baker. “We didn’t want the lives our mothers had. We wanted to do something in the world. Yet, in some ways we were tentative. We were part of the Establishment.”

As the cultural plates pulled apart, we grew up with mixed messages. “We were the first generation that really thought the sky was the limit; we could do anything we set our minds on,” says von Eckardt. But in the first job interview, we were asked: can you type?

The push to excel, the pull to conform—how did we break out? One option was simply to get away. Many classmates joined the Peace Corps or continued studies abroad. Living in another culture fed our restlessness and idealism. In a recent class survey on globalism, the majority reported living abroad. Were we seeking new worlds as a way to change our lives back home?

Another option was to follow a career track as a man would. Thirteen percent of the class became doctors and lawyers. When Barbara Paul Robinson entered Yale University Law School right after college, she was one of seven women in a class of about 170. “We couldn’t live in the dorms,” she says. “Women couldn’t go in the main reading room of the university library.”

In time, many of us became First and Onlys. Robinson was the first woman to make partner at her New York firm. “That was a little lonely,” she says. At the weekly partners’ lunch, the senior partner would tinkle his glass and begin: “Gentlemen and Barbara.” In 1994, she became the first woman to head the New York Bar Association.

Frances Krauskopf Conley was the first tenured full professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University School of Medicine. Joanna Underwood, one of the early leaders in the environmental movement of the ’70s, founded INFORM, a premier not-for-profit research organization on pollution. At U.S. News & World Report, I became the first and only female assistant managing editor.

Discrimination in the workplace was endemic. More than half of those who responded to a class survey on personal histories reported they had encountered discrimination in paid and unpaid work and added comments like: “Was not given a promotion because I was of ‘child-bearing years’” and “I was told I could not be interviewed [for a job] at one university because ‘they’ did not hire women.” Conley resigned from her tenured position to highlight pervasive discrimination against women in academic medicine.

Like many classmates, I was paid less early in my career than were male colleagues doing the same job. I had to enter through the back door of an all-male club to sit at the editors’ table for a working lunch. Starting out, I covered the Apollo moon landing program, often the only female reporter at NASA press conferences. Behind my back, older white male colleagues called me Ms. Tits.

But those same journalists also took me under their wing. They became mentors and lifelong friends. Indeed, sharing work and ambitions is a framework for friendship. It is also a kind of aphrodisiac. Much later, one of them became my second husband.

The push to work; the pull to love; in the fault line, we tried to combine the two.

We embraced marriage. At graduation, almost a quarter of the class was engaged or married. Ten years later, 80 percent of respondents to a 10th-reunion survey were married and had an average of two children. In the most recent personal class survey, more than 95 percent said they had married at some point in their lives.

We also tried to change the rules of relationships. Early on, we followed the lead of men. Baker joined the Foreign Service and taught school in Ghana and Haiti. When she married a colleague, she quit the Foreign Service. “It never occurred to either of us that he could quit instead of me,” she says. “The world was the way it was. You dealt with it.”

Some of us dealt with it through divorce. As one classmate describes it: “these too-early husbands from too-early marriages.” But breaking up a marriage in the ’70s, before divorce would become more normal, played havoc with our families. “Everybody suffers in a divorce,” notes von Eckardt, who has been married, divorced, remarried, and widowed. “Except later when you are free to make a new life.”

Meanwhile, as pressures built up along the social fault line, we found ourselves on the cusp of successive movements: the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the anti-war movement, the gay and lesbian movement. Susan E. Johnson was at the University of Wisconsin when the governor sent the National Guard to occupy the Madison campus. “They were armed with bayonets! Fixed bayonets! It was absurd,” she told Baker, who profiled members of the class in her seminal book: It’s Good To Be a Woman. In 1990 Johnson published her study on long-term lesbian couples, Staying Power. “For people our age,” Johnson told Baker, “the sixties were wonderful! They were very radicalizing. They pushed us.”

Pushed us because doors were opening. “But … every choice comes with a price,” points out von Eckardt. We juggled different aspects of our lives without rules or role models. We agonized over being good enough mothers, over not being as successful as we could be, over working too hard/not hard enough, over making all our relationships work. “The price is we did think we could do it all,” says Baker, and that meant we could end up “doing everything badly.”

We have not solved the triad of work, mating, and children. We changed ourselves to make do in a man’s world. But to support the talents of women over their life course, it is the institutions of employment, politics, marriage, and family that have to change. “I feel frustrated that it is still so hard for women,” says Robinson.

Now in our seventies, we are on the cusp of another social movement—the longevity revolution. We are the first generation to enjoy a new stage of vitality before traditional old age. In the personal class survey, more than 90 percent rated their health from good to excellent. What next? Even as losses pile up, so do opportunities.

For many of us, the advent of grandchildren pulls our lives together. Every summer I take my three grandchildren to sit on the rock on the Maine coast and dream into the future. As my daughter said when her son was born: “I get it now, Mom. We’re on the same side now.”

Perhaps our final legacy is to redefine aging and show the young how not to fear growing old. “When we hit new stages of life, we have a combination of a sense of adventure as well as contentment,” says Powell. “We helped pave the way for future generations. We have a lot of good stories to tell.”
 

The Fault Line Generation: Then And Now

This April, members of the class of ’62 were surveyed online about their personal histories. About 70 alumnae replied, and while the survey is too small to make statistical conclusions about our class, the responses paint a portrait of where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Some highlights:

PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL IDENTITY

By the Numbers

Self-identify as feminists: 75%

Had a career outside the home: 93%

Currently employed: 40%

Currently volunteer: 75%

In Their Own Words

“When I was growing up, I was always told that I ‘couldn’t do that’ because I was a girl. Then I went to Bryn Mawr and learned that I could rely on myself, and if I wanted to do something, I could figure out how to make it happen.”

“I like to be thought of as a scientist, not a woman in science.”

“I want to define who I am beyond what I have done.”

“I consider myself a 4th generation feminist, i.e. someone who believes fervently in and fights for the rights of women.”

“Putting my children in day care when some considered it ‘harmful to the child.’. . . I forget that so many things we pioneered are considered routine today.”

“Now that I have completed five+ years of blissful retirement and freedom from mundane responsibilities, I have been asking myself: what next? What is it that will give meaning to the remaining years of my life?”

RELATIONSHIPS

By the Numbers

Currently married: 75%

Currently in a relationship, but not married: 10%

Divorced: 32%

Married only once: > 65%

Have children/grandchildren: 70%/60%

Have stepchildren: > 20%

Provide financial support to children: > 25%

In Their Own Words

“I have no regrets about marrying young… but I would advise most young people today to wait until they have lived ‘single’ for several years before marrying.”

“Neither my father, father-in-law, nor my brother could so much as boil water. My husband often cooks dinner.”

“I understand the strength and joy of the nuclear family and the marvelous eccentricities of a warm extended family. That said, we are tied by love more than blood. The extended family includes adopted children, stepchildren, and a transgendered cousin.”

“Men and women both have become less polarized, less locked into perceived role models … these changes have led to some confusion and discontent.”

“The current political climate causes me to wonder whether the majority of men have changed at all.”

“Having grandchildren is like a second chance at raising your children and this time I’m trying to do everything correctly.”

“I would be impoverished without my women friends. My Bryn Mawr roommate is still my best friend.”

“Friends are my lifeblood. They keep me sane, on my toes, honest and alert … They get me out of the house for lunch.”

HEALTH

By the Numbers

Rate health as good or better: 90%

Rate health as excellent: 40%

Had a major disease: 33%

Continue to exercise (out of 63 respondents): 90%

Say they are more content now than ever before: > 33%

In Their Own Words

“We have fewer years left than years we have lived, so why not look on the bright side and enjoy the sun.”

“My husband died last summer and I’m just still pretty sad.”

“I really feel lucky! To have the family I do, to have had the job I had, to have been able to retire at a good (political) time and with sufficient savings to be comfortable.”

Globalism and the Fault Line Generation

 

Barbara Schieffelin Powell ‘62 in September 1962, surrounded by curious children in a village in Malawi. Powell taught English and African history in the southeast African country after graduating from Bryn Mawr. Photo courtesy of Powell.

Barbara Schieffelin Powell ‘62 in September 1962, surrounded by curious children in a village in Malawi. Powell taught English and African history in the southeast African country after graduating from Bryn Mawr. Photo courtesy of Powell.

Globalism defines Bryn Mawr today. In fact, 62 countries are represented in the student body. In comparison, the Class of ’62 seems parochial: the vast majority hail from the U.S.—largely from the Mid-Atlantic states and New England. Yet our horizons have always been international: since graduation, the majority of the class has lived or worked abroad. For many of us, going to a foreign country has been a way to expand our own culture and develop a kind of “global empathy.”

At Bryn Mawr’s 125th-year anniversary, the College celebrated the international role of women at the conference “Heritage and Hope.” Members of the Class of ’62 filled out a follow-up survey on globalism, and we also answered questions about international experiences on the recent personal history class survey.

More than 62 percent of respondents to the latter worked or studied abroad. Some went into the Peace Corps. Some followed husbands to foreign countries. Some pursued an international focus their whole lives—working and living permanently abroad. Here are some highlights of how respondents described their experience with globalism:

“In Morocco, I learned what it was like to live as a woman alone in a Muslim country.”

“During a one-in-a-lifetime sabbatical, I left my professional life and my family to go work in two great gardens in England …  I learned to take risks.”

“I wanted to see how other people lived … I was turning 30 and not married—rethinking life’s likely trajectory as a single woman.”

“I don’t see my nation as the only place on Earth … Our way isn’t the only way.”

“I taught English language and literature and African history to 9th and 10 graders in Malawi.”

“In Australia and Finland, I did field work on anthropological and archaeological subjects with my husband.”

“I taught at a … school in Ibadan; there were no women in the program.”

“[International experience] is completely fundamental to who I am today as a successful professional woman.”

“[It gets people out of] their comfort zones to risk being vulnerable and awake to new ideas and ways of living … The travel does not need to be to a foreign country.”

“There is nothing like personal experience to banish clichés and stereotypes.”

 

 

 

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