More Gender Barriers
I n his Jan. 30 column regarding gender barriers, Steve Bouser asked his readers to share some of their own personal recollections. Some of his comments fueled a flame that lit a fire under me. They couldn't have been timelier.
Coincidentally, I had just met the week before with members of the committee that plans the reunions for the Durham High School Class of '53. It's always a very emotional experience for me, and one that puts me on the female side of the fence.
It starts with the teachers at Southside Elementary School, E.K. Powe Junior High and Durham High School. With only a few being under the age of 40, they were all branded as being "old maids." Most lived in the Erwin Apartments on North Buchanan Boulevard across from Duke's East Campus. It had been built in 1930 and, even in the '40s and '50s, was considered to be "Modernistic." Some lived a block down in the King's Daughters Home, which provided dormitory-style housing for single, aging women.
It was for them an "Age of Abstinence." But there was one exception, a teacher I'll call Miss Brown.
I was in the 10th grade and had just returned to school after Christmas break when the girls started giggling about the little "bump" Miss Brown was showing under her loose dress. Since she was otherwise thin as a spaghetti strap, the protrusion was hard to hide.
Within a matter of days, she was called into the principal's office. And the next week, he announced at assembly that Miss Brown had resigned and would be moving out of the Erwin Apartments. I'm happy to say that she had been secretly married for over two years and was delightedly pregnant. Consequently, she was blessedly relieved of the duty of chaperoning lovesick couples at the annual Junior-Senior Prom.
But there were greater concerns.
When our class graduated, a female student could not attend the University of North Carolina without first spending two years at what was referred to as a "junior college." Typically, that same student had three options - she could become a nurse, a teacher or a secretary.
Schools you know now as universities included Campbell, Pembroke, Western Carolina and Gardner-Webb. Some had started as boarding schools. Transferring after two years meant losing quality points and credits.
At the end of my senior year, my shorthand teacher, Miss Ruth Cordle, asked me to return to class at the end of day. Knowing I was not destined for college, she had three options for me to consider: She could apply for my admission into the Women's Air Force; she could submit an application with the U.S. Postal Service; or she could acquire a scholarship for a two-year business course at East Carolina College in Greenville. By family necessity, I chose the latter.
Because of that decision, it was that part of Steve's article referring to the freshman history class at Southwest Missouri State that moved me so. It was a story of gender humiliation wrought by an unaccountable, discriminating professor.
My first morning class at ECC was in economics. I was the only girl in a room filled with freshmen guys, restless and unruly.
The professor used an alphabetized student role to go down the rows calling for a show of hands. But, when he got to me, he paused and said, "I think this must be Miss Riley. Miss Riley, will you stand and give us your full name and tell us where you're from?"
I shyly replied, "I'm Lois Jane Riley, and I was raised in Durham, North Carolina."
After 60 years, his response remains burned on my brain: "Miss Riley, we raise cattle. We rear children."
I was extremely fortunate to be among the students whom an "old maid," Miss Ruth Cordle, fostered. It wasn't until her death that I found out how many she had financed in the hope of giving them the opportunity to have a better future.
Even after reading Steve's article and his other one that followed on how universities are now merging philosophy and practicality, I can't complain. If I missed anything, it was the chance to take a creative writing course. But there were none available for me and others you would know.
I don't profess to be an activist. And, certainly, I've never picketed, nor "bared all" in protest for women's rights. But maybe I should have since it has, indeed, taken my own lifetime to witness the things he so aptly pointed out.
Lois Holt is a Southern Pines writer. Contact her at email@example.com.
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