Happy Ending

Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the South. Maybe not the best location for a spunky, outdoorsy woman from the mountain west. I was almost through with my Ph.D. program, and it was time to get that teaching job I’d been working toward for four years. I’d never had a “real” job, even though I had been working since I was 16. I taught swimming and skiing, did ski bum work as a house maid and a cook, waited tables and baked bread, but I didn’t have any qualifications for a real job until I went back to school. Now, I was qualified.

I was invited to two on-campus interviews in the winter of ’84 – one in Richmond and one in Northfield Minnesota. The first scheduled interview in Northfield had to be postponed because the airport was closed by a blizzard. Just one of those things in Minnesota. But before it could be rescheduled, the University of Richmond offered me a job, and I took it. I didn’t really want to live somewhere where the airport closed routinely for snow. I’d done enough big winters in the Utah mountains. And the stories of the below-zero cold didn’t add to the allure. So I took the first offer I got. I was going to Richmond. When I accepted the job, they sent me flowers. At the time, the middle of winter in Utah, it seemed a wonderful gesture. Maybe it was a sign.

When I went to interview in RIchmond, I was terrified. I hadn’t flown much and was mildly fearful, especially on this long flight. I was inherently quiet and scared to death I wouldn’t have any idea what to say. What would they ask me? Would this be like oral exams? What was my dissertation about, again? It wasn’t even finished. Thankfully, somehow I figured out that if I asked just one question I was off the hook. All the men who interviewed me loved to talk. Of course, they were professors. Professors talk for a living, they choose talking for a living. So for two days, dressed in my plaid wool skirt, white shirt, and navy blue blazer, I mostly listened quietly.  It turned out they were looking for someone quiet.

At the end of the summer we packed four kids (a son, two sisters and a cousin) and a dog into a VW camper bus and headed east from Salt Lake City. It was a great trip – another story. We moved into a big two-story, white colonial, in the suburbs, and it looked as though I was getting off to a reasonable start. I had a wonderful office, with a tall leaded window, in an old ivy-league looking stone building. People were reasonably nice.

Then one morning just before school started, the Associate Dean stopped to talk to me as I arrived on my bike. He looked at me askance, “You’re not going to make a habit of riding your bike to school, are you?” I didn’t know what to say. This was an attitude and a question I had never anticipated.  Of course I was. I had been riding my bike to school since third grade, and we had only one car which my husband was driving. Not that I am sure that really would have mattered. Twenty nine years later I have an extra car, and I still ride my bike to school. Besides, the head of my department knew I was a biker. When he asked me about finding housing, I told him being within a 10-mile radius would be nice, since I would be riding my bike. And the house we moved into, which he arranged, was almost exactly 10 miles away. Thankfully, later in the day the Dean intervenes, telling me it was fine if I rode my bike to school. That was a relief. The Associate Dean would probably not be around too much longer, anyway. He was definitely the “old guard.”

Generally, the job seemed to be all right. I knew the material. I could talk when I had to for limited times, especially when I was in complete control. The students were attentive and polite. I was freaked about finishing my dissertation and starting the whole publish or perish life. But I did finish my dissertation and got one publication.

Then a colleague came to visit me in my oh-so-academic office. His mission was to let me know that the reason I had been hired was because the Dean had mandated that every department have one woman among them. I was the one for economics. The other person they had hired that year, Judy, was the one for marketing. They would work on the rest of the departments later. I was aghast. But also, at first, I was thankful. Being a woman hadn’t seemed to have been much of an advantage to me up to this point. My mother wouldn’t let me back pack alone; I couldn’t just take off on road trips by myself; I had to wear skirts to school; I was weaker than I wished I were, and not as tall as I’d like to have been. There had been a lot of downsides to being a girl, but now at least I had a good job. There were very few women economists, so with demand high (everyone needed one woman economist) and supply low, I finally had the advantage.  If he had only stopped by once to let me know the conditions of my hiring, I probably would have forgotten that he even came, or remained happy about the serendipity of being a woman. But he repeated his visits regularly. This was the same shrimpy professor who kicked copying machines and yelled at the administrative assistants, so I shouldn’t have taken it personally, but I did.

The other professor who took to coming to my office even more regularly was an older, sophisticated, handsome mathematician. He was a lot more trouble. Sitting in the chair meant for the students, he would stare at me, invite me to lunch, and eventually proposition me. It seems there’s at least one of these in every academic unit. And I suppose at first I was flattered by the attention. But then I realized he wasn’t all that discriminating – “younger women” is a big category. It was creepy. I wondered if he had been instrumental in the one-woman-per-department decision. Having choices at work, reduced his hunt time. Unfortunately, his office was right across the hall from mine.

Later that year, the administrative assistant told me that I wasn’t exactly the quiet ex-nun in the plaid skirt and blue blazer that people had been expecting. She was a bit feisty herself, but she hadn’t expected me to be. I’m not sure if someone put her up to telling me about this disconnect between the expected woman economist and what materialized, but it again left me speechless.

Maybe it’s not fair to blame these attitudes on Richmond being the capital of the south, but I did. Although I had always realized being a woman had its disadvantages, they had never been made so starkly obvious. The atmosphere was poisonous. Nevertheless, I was employed.

But when the end of the first academic year rolled around, there were clearly more problems. I had chosen to take my compensation over nine months rather than twelve. And the nine months were ending. Also the nice colonial belonged to a professor who had been on sabbatical and he was returning. As the end of the year approached, I realized we had very little money and no place to live.

I was cobbling together summer teaching at the university and coaching at a local swim club, when my phone rang. The person calling and I shared the same dissertation chairman. Our common dissertation chair had given him my name, recommended me for the research unit he was starting up at Citicorp (now Citigroup) Mortgage Bank in St. Louis. Was I interested? Yes! What timing. I flew to St. Louis to interview, got an offer, and took it. I can’t remember resigning from the University of Richmond, to whom I talked or what I said, but they lost their woman economist. Today there are 19 full-time economists on the faculty at the University of Richmond according the website. Five of them are women, but three of those are assistant professors meaning they are recent hires and have not been through the tenure process.

The job in St. Louis was challenging. I knew nothing about the mortgage industry, and it was changing fast. This was the beginning of the creation of the complex mortgage products that blew up the global economy in 2007. But I worked hard and learned. Citicorp and St. Louis were also dominated by men. I was the only professional woman in my department. But it felt different. The men with whom I worked were my friends at work and at happy hour. I played tennis with the boss, and even beat him on occasion. They respected me and took me seriously. No one ever questioned my bike riding or insinuated that I was the token woman. I wasn’t.

I stayed only two years for many reasons, but the biggest one was that I really wanted to teach. And now, with this “real world” experience, I was better qualified. I went back to teaching — and unfortunately at my next stop the environment was a replica of the University of Richmond, though the people were more discreet. I was too dense to see it. After all, this was Colorado. But that’s another story.

Now, over 60, I am still teaching and riding my bike to school, and I am back in the mountain west after a long eight years in the gray of upstate New York. A lot has changed, most of it for the better. Today, a lot of my colleagues are women. And there are no shrimpy men questioning my qualifications or dreamy eyed vultures sitting in my office. I have the best of all possible husbands who does the wash, shops for groceries, changes the oil in the cars … just about everything. I have to cook so I don’t feel completely useless. Wow. Things are pretty darn good, even if my knee is acting up.

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3 thoughts on “Happy Ending

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