Woman in front of hills in Autumn

Breaking Glass Ceilings: an interview with my grandmother

On December the 26th 2019, I sat across from my grandmother Bea, in her bedroom quietly anticipating how I was going to conduct our interview. Although I can certainly say I know my ”Grandma Bea” quite well, this somewhat professional twist to our conversation felt a bit daunting. What I would hear would capture me: who were her heroines and heroes, how she would not be defined by men or tradition and her journey from a traditional little girl to the first female Mayor in the 350 year old history of her American town.

I decided to interview her after a conversation we had about this year’s 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution  - guaranteeing American women the right to vote. For Christmas, she gifted my female cousins, my aunts and myself 2020 calendars featuring pictures of posters and periodicals by British and American suffrage organisations celebrating this occasion. I had grown up hearing from my father about my grandmother’s impressive career on her town’s board of education and time as the town Mayor - or the Chairman of the Town Council, as they call it. However, I never explicitly asked her how she became so involved and what challenges she had during her rise to local prominence. I’ve chosen to share this interview with you all, not because she is my grandmother, but rather because she is a reminder of the importance of women’s rights, our right to vote, America’s 19th Amendment, and women's inclusion in politics.

 

Woman in green chair Photo by Chris Stockwell, edited by Julia Stockwell

We began our conversation where it all started: her childhood. 

“I was born December 31st, 1932 in Greenwich, Connecticut . . . about 20 miles [outside of New York City]. The interesting part is that my father worked in a bank and this was The [Great] Depression and the fact that I was born on the last day of the year gave my father a tax deduction. But also, President Roosevelt closed the banks for three months to prevent a run on the banks. So Dad was out of work for three months . . . and my mother had gotten sick and she went back into the hospital, and my father took care of me”. 

Whilst many were struggling, my grandmother and her family were still of the more privileged set, with her father employed for all but three months of The Great Depression. That said, their life was not easy. I remember in past conversations that my grandmother had one pair of brown shoes to last the entire school year, one pair of black patent leather shoes for Sunday school, and just a couple of dresses to rotate through. Her mother, Anna Hansen - a daughter of Danish immigrants to America - was a stay-at-home mom. When asked whether she was politically active, my grandmother responded:

“My mother fulfilled the role of the woman of the day, by being devoted to the family. She talked about things happening in the “outside world” - that’s what she said. And so her confines were her large family. We all lived in the same neighborhood. She was one of twelve children - two of whom had died young. She was not politically active. In those days people did not talk about politics or religion”.

We acknowledged how much things have changed from her mother’s lifetime through her own 87 years - although at this time we didn’t know what the rest of 2020 would bring.

When asked about her father’s political activity, my grandmother described that he was certainly active in the community and treasurer of many outside organizations. She proceeded to say, “ . . . from a young age, I wondered what my father was doing in that outside world. And that is where I wanted to go. I didn’t want to be like my mother. I wanted to follow my father”.

I asked if she had experienced gender discrimination when she was young and she told me about her interest in science, and although she wanted to take physics she didn’t “because that was not what girls would do.” My grandmother was even disappointed in seventh grade (age 12 and 13 in American education) when she wasn’t put into the only classroom with a male teacher. Up to that year, she had only seen women in teaching positions.

My grandmother recited two other stories involving different women in her early life; her elementary school librarian and her high school principal. Although she thought of her elementary librarian as someone who believed in her, this librarian took full credit for a student-run play directed by my grandmother, who was just 11 or 12 years old at the time. My grandmother recalls this as, “the first time I realized that some people will take advantage.” Her high school principal, Ms. Brown, on the other hand, chose not to punish my grandmother and her friends for cutting school so they could go to New York City to attend a parade in celebration of General George MacArthur on the 20th of April 1951. These two women, as different as they were, have remained in her mind all these years.

Bea knew from age 12 that she wanted to be an elementary school teacher and she did everything in her power to make this goal a reality. “I didn’t ask my parents - I told them that I was going to go to college. They never said no.” That said, my grandmother’s high school guidance counsellor discouraged her from going to college for financial reasons.

My grandmother went on to sa:

“My Aunt called up and told me that I would kill my father because he took an extra job to get the money for college. I wanted to apply for scholarships [but] my father would not fill out the part that said how much money he made because he said that’s nobody’s business. So I filled out an application for the Mother’s Club and the Dad’s Club of our school and I got both scholarships which made me believe that they believed in me. I earned the money for my tuition every year that I went to college - but it was only $500 [a year]. And I earned that every year. My father never paid my tuition, but he paid for my room and board.”

 

two women in front of a brick wall, one with a bouquet Photo by Joan Stockwell, edited by Julia Stockwell

In January of her 3rd year at college, Bea’s friend set her up with a blind date; a man who would become her future husband and my grandfather. During the summertime of her last two years of college, my grandmother and grandfather worked on Nantucket, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, as a waitress and bartender respectively.

When asked for how long she taught early childhood education after college, she answered:

“The first two years. I was married five days after I graduated from college. And then that summer Dick (my grandfather) and I both worked on Nantucket and he earned all the money [for his] medical school [tuition]. I had a job as a teacher beginning in September [1955] . . . I was a kindergarten teacher in Newton, Massachusetts and I took that job because it paid more than any other job in the Boston area. Then I taught third grade in a private school in Pennsylvania (while her husband was in his medical internship)”.

We came back to the conversation of the majority of elementary teaching positions filled by women. When I asked why she thinks this was the case, she said she believes it’s “because of the stereotyping of women. Women are considered more nurturing. [In addition], the pay was so low that a man could not afford to raise a family and have that income.”

My grandmother had been a part of the student government from eighth grade through college, holding positions such as secretary and head of student publications. After she moved to Farmington, Connecticut in 1962 her aspirations continued. Although she stopped teaching in order to raise her four sons, she has dedicated the rest of her life to her town and the greater Hartford capitol region.

“When I came to Farmington, I was an independent. I made friends with [a Republican] active in the Republican Town Committee. And so she said, “You should register in one party or another because you won’t be able to vote in the primaries”. My grandfather had said to my mother, “You are a Republican. Period. That’s it”. So my mother and father were Republican so I said, “Okay, I’ll be a Republican.” And that’s how I got into it. I became active in PTOs and that kind of thing. I also felt that the school system was average, not great. And Rye [New York] had a really good school system - where I graduated from [high school]. I had served on the Philosophy Committee for [Farmington] high school, which was being re-accredited. So what we [wanted to do] was raise the standards of the high school. We rewrote the philosophy, knowing we would fail. And we did it deliberately . . . and therefore that set the town in the position to say, “Look, we have failed accreditation. We have to improve in these areas”. So it was set up to become excellent rather than good.”

Later on, “A woman resigned from the Board of Education . . . and [the head of the board] appointed me to take her place. So I got into politics in Farmington by an appointment. And I was on the Board of Ed. for twenty years. From ‘73 to ‘83 I was Secretary of the Board and from ‘83 to ‘93 I was head of it.”

When I asked how she became Mayor, or the Chairman of the Town Council, as they say in Farmington, she responded:

“What happened was that by the time my twenty years was up at the board of education, I still loved it . . . But I thought, it’s time for other people to do this. Actually, the Republican party asked me to run for Chairman of the Town Council. So I went over for an interview and there was a man who wanted it, who had been on the council. It was a snowy Saturday for the interview and he came in, in his snow clothes and just expected to get it because he was a man. And I came in, tried to dress professionally, and I had a list of things that I thought we should do on the Town Council side. And so I came in and presented what I thought the future should be. And they asked me to do it!”

She went on to describe the negative response that she received by people, male and female, in the town, but we’ve agreed to not include these details for privacy reasons. 

“But they asked me, and I was the first woman in 350 years to be [the Chairman of the Town Council]. And it upset some of the old guard. [The Council] asked me, “Shouldn’t it be Chairwoman?” and I said, “No. Where do you see a sex symbol on that chair? I’m assuming the Chairmanship. That’s it. And I will be called Chairman.” 

We proceeded to discuss the English language and the origin of the word “man” and how it was originally gender neutral. 

The dedication and effort my grandmother alludes to in her answers made me wonder who inspired her to be so involved. When I asked her about her influences and various idols throughout her life, she was quick to give an answer. She recalled the Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who held office throughout her entire childhood (1933-1945): 

“I remember my parents were Republicans and my father did not like [FDR] and the changes he was making . . . but I did. When FDR died in August [1945] - he had had four terms - and we all thought, “What will happen to us? He’s gone.” We had grown completely dependent on him. We would listen, by radio, on Sunday nights to the fireside chats. He had an eloquent voice and a very precise way of speaking - only Churchill was better than FDR, those two were outstanding - and I remember sitting by the radio waiting for what he would tell us.”

“Growing up, and through my early years, Eleanor Rosevelt was a model because of human rights. After her husband died, she was appointed by Truman to go to the UN. So she was an early idol. Golda Meir, who was the Prime Minister of Israel, was also someone to admire . . . she was one of the early Prime Ministers of Israel, so I saw women in positions of authority and they were doing a good job. I also admired Mahatma Gandhi. I admired Martin Luther King. I admired the Kennedy’s. In the height of being young, J.F. Kennedy was shot, his brother, Robert, was shot, and Martin Luther King was shot. Those were three heroes of our time. And that was a tremendous blow to this country.” 

My grandmother continued on to say that these three deaths gave her even more motivation to be involved at a local level.  

“I learned from the Town Manager - early on he said “If you want to make change, you make it at the local level.” And so I really believed that if we did things locally it would change. And I became very active in community efforts. That’s when I did Camp Discover. Pope John [Paul II] was another idol. He started the Ecumenical movement and that motivated me [and a friend of mine] to [create] Camp Discovery (an ecumenical day camp bringing together inner city and suburban boys and girls). And that motivated me to be involved in Amistad House . . . a home for pre-delinquent girls and an infant day-care center. I did other things with my friends like low-cost housing for the elderly and an early homemaker service that provided homemakers to keep you in the home when you were sick.”

 

two women in a kitchen, one with a mask Photo by Chris Stockwell, edited by Julia Stockwell

One question that I had prepared, and was very intrigued to know my grandmother’s answer to, was “What would be your advice to the girls and women who are discouraged from reaching their goals because of their gender?”. She answered: 

“Focus on the job to be done . . . Focus on the future, focus on what you have to do. I’ve never pretended I wasn’t a woman. I’ve never had to assume a masculine role. I mean, I do jobs men usually do but I’m still a woman and I act like one and I’m treated with respect. And that’s what you want.”

Another question that I was particularly interested to hear the answer to concerned the support of her husband, Dick, throughout her life and career. 

“My father said to me, “You’re very lucky”. Because Dick would take care of the boys and change diapers. [Dick] taught me how to cook - to make everything come out at the same time. Because in my house my mother cooked . . . And she’d say, “Do you want to cook or do you want to clean?”. And I always preferred cleaning. When we moved to town . . . he was working at Hartford Hospital and the thing that every woman wanted to do was be active in the Hartford Hospital Women’s Group - it was social and all the doctors’ wives did it. And I said to him, “Do you want me to join the women’s group?” and he said, “I don’t need you to bring me patients - do what you want to do”. So I never did any of that stuff that most doctors’ wives did.”

When asked if any men and women in her community judged her for her life choices, my grandmother responded:

“Yes. I’m very goal oriented and if I see something in my head - done. I just do it and I don’t care what anybody says. And so that was not a good quality for a woman to have”. She said laughing.

Toward the conclusion of our conversation, I stated an open-ended sentence and asked her to finish it: “You were born in 1932, so you’ve gone through . . .”. She proceeded with:

“A depression, a World War, many skirmishes, a lack of respect for institutions - I’ve seen that in my lifetime. It began with Nixon. I never liked him and he was a liar  . . . I was disillusioned with Eisenhower when we had a surveillance plane flying over Russia. Eisenhower, who was the “hero of World War II” in America - my mother loved him - he lied to us. He said we were not servailing, and we were. So those two incidents were when I thought, you know what, it isn’t all perfect. Sometimes they lie, sometimes they lie for a reason, but don’t believe everything you hear. I’ve never forgotten that.”

“I used to think that teaching critical thinking skills in school was a waste - [but] it’s crucial. Because if you don’t know how to look at the news, read the newspaper, hear things and critically think about them, you will be swept in . . . It doesn’t mean only looking at your own channel either, it means looking at both sides of the story. There’s always another side to the story.”

“If I were born today, I don’t know if I would live this life. I would probably have wanted to be the superintendent of schools. I probably - I don’t know what I would have done - I’m glad I lived when I did. It was much easier.”

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Interview conducted on 26 December 2019 in Farmington, Connecticut, USA.