The Part of Being Female I Still Wrestle With
I was traveling the United States looking for a graduate level training job in neurosurgery. Women were not as accepted in medicine as they are now. Personally, I think it is at least in part because medicine was still considered a serious profession. Most of the places I interviewed had never hired a woman as a neurosurgery resident before. They would ask me behind closed doors (with no witnesses) if I planned to have a family or practice part time and thus compromise the investment in time and money they planned to make in me.
I had met Mother Rocky, the great Jewish matriarch of a hunk of St. Louis, on a flight to that august city, where I had lucked out by getting a free upgrade to first class.
She seemed to think I would have some interest in an arranged marriage.
She took me to an excellent — if light — luncheon at an all-Jewish country club. If she had not told me that was its nature, I would not have guessed. It was ritzy by any standards, with a lavish wait staff and a fair amount of alcohol served — an awful lot of straight vodka and such. I remember thinking how different if was from the second-floor tea room at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. When I had first visited there, I was still in Beaver Country Day School, and still naïve enough to believe there was tea in the teacups. I did not learn until later that the second-floor tea room at the Boston Ritz was where alcohol was served, discreetly, to older women.
I found out first-hand what Stephen Sondheim was talking about in his lyrics to “The Ladies Who Lunch” from his Broadway musical “Company” — one of the great Elaine Stritch’s signature numbers:
Here’s to the ladies who lunch–
Lounging in their caftans
And planning a brunch
On their own behalf.
Off to the gym,
Then to a fitting,
Claiming they’re fat.
And looking grim,
‘Cause they’ve been sitting
Choosing a hat.
Does anyone still wear a hat?
I’ll drink to that.
There’s plenty more – and Ms. Stritch does a classic job if you want to watch her on YouTube.
St. Louis was nothing like that. The women drank openly, although joylessly. This time it took me a while to realize why.
Alcohol has fewer calories if you take it straight. These were women who valued thinness.
Mother Rocky wanted to know if I had any interest in marriage.
My answer was naive to her, to all of them. They giggled a bit as I spoke of meeting someone, maybe, who could accept me for who I really was, and was still in the process of becoming.
The ladies giggled.”
“Estelle — marriage is mostly about money.”
I shrugged. “It might be, for some people. But since I make my own money, I always figured I could choose my own guy.” I told her the same thing I had told my own Mother-of-Blessed-Memory when she brought up the same subject.
“Estelle, the salary of a surgeon, even a brain surgeon, is nothing compared to the kind of money we are talking about. We are talking about countries, large estates, fortunes in business, dynasties –”
I shrugged my shoulders and recalled France.
-“When I was in France,” I told her, “The president of the Jewish community told me that he would not have to call my parents if I wanted a marital arrangement, since the medical degree, along with any postgraduate training I had, would constitute a sufficient dowry.”
“Sufficient, yes for a hardworking girl who had worked her way up. But this is a whole other game. The family might just want the title — they might not even want you to practice.”
A shudder went up my spine then, as it does now writing about this. Rocky went on about how they would “glam” me up a bit, and could make appropriate introductions —
She was surprised at my terse answer. “No.” I told her about my passion for my profession, and the women stared at me in horror.
I spoke of my passion for my work. I had not worked as hard in life as I had to serve myself up as a prized commodity for marriage. I wanted to research and teach and give society something.
Mother Rocky rolled her eyes heavenward. The remainder of the luncheon was cold and distant. I wrote a very proper thank-you to mother Rocky, who graciously cut things off since I would be starting my American postgraduate surgical training in Cincinnati, Ohio, at some distance from her turf.
Dr. Fegelman, the Chief of Surgery at Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati did not ask my permission when — after the customary weekend surgical rounds — he said we were going on “social” rounds, as there were some people in certain families he felt I should know, and went on to cite the ages and professions of their sons of appropriate age. In one case, another, older surgeon with whom he thought I would get along particularly well.
I believe this other world still exists as real and as powerful as it was in both France and the Midwest a few years ago. It is the respectable end of a continuum or a persistent world I can ignore, but not deny.
The old sex roles, the stereotypes that morph into the cheap and the expensive models, are two sides of a single coin.
I wonder if men have gotten this message from their fathers, to value women by physical attractiveness. The double-standard seems to live, but these are only two sides of the same standard. Beauty, so strong a standard it is maintained with “surgeries” and treatments, may still be the only things, maybe at the very least, only the first thing, that someone sees when seeing a woman. Someone sees it as her “stock in trade.”
There is a world where women are the purveyors of sexual favors, and some kind of beauty and glamour, that men pay lavishly for and value. It may be socially venerated with a sometimes veneer of respectability but there is a lot of society that still has the double standard the sexual pleasure, the woman as sex object and plaything, and youth, purveyor of youth, perceived youth of an aging male by association with that glamour.
I really don’t qualify for this world.
Strangely enough I seem to have lucked into the fringes. I am closer to conventional attractiveness now than I have ever been, mostly by virtue of what most women my age consider an unattainable thinness.
If I had not figured out this thinness I would have been one of the grossly overweight matrons running about the grocery or discount stores on a motorized scooter.
If I were still alive at all.
I do not expect anybody to believe me, except my husband, who lived through it all by my side.
Every day I see women, generally patients, who lament how thin they “used” to be. This is one problem with aging I do not have.
What happens when a woman with earlier memories of glamour gets older?
My aging-but-still-beautiful and fashionable medical school professor (very French-and first year male medical students still lusted after her and gave her wolf whistles when she mounted the lecturer’s podium) once told me that if she had nothing other than that past glamour, if she did not have her science and research career, then the loss of youthful beauty would be indescribably difficult to bear.
Female aging is an inevitable truth of being. Maybe, if I were in the place of those who can only chart a loss with aging, I too would be seriously hurting from the loss.
I matured on the crest of feminism, in rabid denial of the value of female glamour, dating little when everyone was rushing to do it as much as they could.
My husband wanted to see this video, this “Last Vegas” that he says the critics panned.
These admittedly senior types in Vegas for a “last fling” prior to a marriage are more bittersweet than funny when the guys go after the sexy glamour of youth. Without going for a spoiler, I can say the only female character who rings true is the singer played by Mary Steenburgen (who happens to be the same age as me). She is mature, funny, and has the insights an 18-year-old could never muster.
She gave up a lucrative career in law to follow her passion and become a lounge singer and certainly nobody mentions a dowry. But in the idea of worth through humanity and insight and some kind of human wisdom in a woman who is quite attractive if mature, this is good.
This is hope for a future when I find little such hope.