Becoming a Lady, Part 1
by Mary Wakefield Buxton
In 1959, at age 17, I left my hometown in Vermilion, Ohio, for Lynchburg, Virginia, and Randolph-Macon Woman’s College where, according to Father, I was to become educated and, according to Mother, I was to become a lovely lady and find a good husband.
Father wanted me to become well read in poetry, literature, history and the entire works of Shakespeare, as according to him one was unable to function in life without such practical background. For one certainly knows if one did not understand “Hamlet” or “Macbeth” how could one possibly live? “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark!”
But Mother wanted me to become well-husbanded, which was why most women went to college in those days. Mind over matter in one case and quite the opposite in the other.
A professional career beyond teaching and nursing for most women was never considered because of their sex. It was a time in America of a terrible waste of brains. I vaguely had the sense that I wanted to be a writer, a thought that dwelled in the inner recesses of my brain somewhat like a mole; however, that sort of a career for a woman was still rare and not to be taken too seriously.
That I might need to earn money in life in order to take care of myself was a preposterous idea. It was expected I would marry and my husband would take care of me as if I was a fragile doll kept on a pedestal. The idea that I might go it alone in the world was equally outlandish.
According to Mother, in 1959 if a woman had any intellect whatsoever, she certainly had better never show it. Mother had forever warned me as I was growing up that it was never wise to “beat” a boyfriend in the classroom, on the tennis courts or at any game, and certainly never think of earning more money than a husband.
“Because boys like to win,” Mother continued with a knowing look. “They like to be in charge. They like to feel superior to women.”
“Well I like to win, too!” I would snap back, and Mother would sigh once again. Neither she nor I knew that a new world was coming for women and I was on the crest of the wave about to hit shore like a tsunami.
To me, “lovely ladies” were suppressed women who were submissive to men and not allowed to compete. Such suppression did terrible things; it thwarted women and made them profoundly unhappy. It made them turn on each other in a constant chorus of criticism like prides of angry cats caught mewling in an unescapable maze.
I vowed to have nothing to do with a man who would want a submissive wife! To this kind of response Mother warned that no man would want to marry such a rebellious young lady. It didn’t look as if I would take to becoming a lady any better than a kangaroo would take to a cup of tea, and whether I could ever “snap up” a man (as Mother called it) was highly unlikely.
Oh, to leave home and see the real world that was waiting for me! Other than an aunt who had attended the New England Conservatory of Music, I was the first girl in the family to leave the comfortable Midwest for college, much less go South to a woman’s college, of all things.
My parents waved me off as I boarded a Capital Airlines flight in Cleveland bound for Washington, D.C., to transfer to a Piedmont flight into Roanoke where I would be met by “big sisters.” It did not occur to me that it was odd my parents didn’t drive me to Lynchburg with my trunks packed to the gills with the totally inappropriate clothes I had purchased earlier at Bonwit’s and Peck and Peck and that I thought suitable for college in the South. I had purchased the clothes with money I had earned that summer working as a waitress at the local hotel.
Looking back, I wonder why. Most parents, including myself when my children left for college, drove their children to college. Perhaps my parents were burned out with me, certainly Mother was, or perhaps they had suffered some financial setback as the subject of money (or sex) was never discussed, or perhaps Mother or Father was ill? Who knows? Perhaps it was merely because I was the sort of person who could fly off to college and never look back.
At age 17, I was neither shy nor fearful. Who would be shy or fearful? I could have just as easily flown to Moscow to meet Russians as to have flown to Lynchburg to mingle with Virginians. If there was anything evil, dangerous or terrifying in the world waiting to devour me, I had most certainly never heard of it.
(To be continued)