Where does it come from? You know, that memory that leaps full force to the fore seemingly from out of nowhere (if that's where our subconscious is). The other day it was a name: Eloise McElhone. I just blurted it out and my Chamber colleague Greg asked quite reasonably, "Who?"
"Eloise McElhone," I said and explained.
She was on a TV show way back. I mean way. It was called Leave It to the Girls, and there was a panel of women apparently quite comfortable with the name of their show!) who answered questions and discussed stuff. Mostly about men. Guess you could call it The View of its day, that being the way late '40s and way early '50s.
Each of the girls had her schtick. As I recall Eloise's was irreverence and outrageousness. Remember, I was all of 11 or so when I "met" these women who so fascinated me. They were nothing, I tell you, nothing like my mother's friends -- or so I thought.
Of course I was never around when Mom's "girls" got together and let their French twists down. Hey, maybe Ruth G was the Eloise McE of her set? I'll never know. But I do know that this TV exposure to dressed-up-with-places-to-go gals showed me that not every woman was on autopilot between home and the local shops and back again in time to do dinner. Heck, it was even possible that some of these panelist gals weren't even mothers! Imagine that.
So why all this from me now about women about "the girls?" Maybe because I heard that October was National Women in Business Month. So I guess I got to thinking about women in business I've known and how I came to do that.
In high school the girls played their parts in plaid skirts and turned-down wool socks and saddle shoes and sweater sets and dickies and pearls. They parted their hair (neatly) and wore those awful gym suits in which they competed but only on their own turf and terms.
They studied. They were smart. They "tried," as it used to be said. And mostly they succeeded. Truth was that they held both the valedictorian and salutatorian spots in my senior class. There was no use in a guy even trying to catch 'em.
Later on in college, some coeds (remember them?) actually did use the occasion to get their MRS degrees. Others added teaching certificates. Still others became nurses. Too few went to law or med school. And few "went to business," as it was put. (Going to business often meant that the hubby wasn't making a living and she had to fill in such a thing spoken of only in whispers.)
Oh, there was that fresh-out-of-school job, sure. That publishing spot, maybe. Or secretarial. But soon many went home. And waited, some did, to come back and pick up again once they'd played those First Act scenes at home.
Us guys? Right to work without looking back. Keep your eye on that ball. Along the way take out some trash, mow a lawn, wash a car, change a bulb and prune a tree now and then, but make the train, make it again -- and be home free. That's what it looked like to me as I joined tens of thousands of my young Turk compadres and hit the workforce back in 1960.
While I knew I wasn't likely to follow in my dad's Dashing Dan Commuter footsteps, nothing had prepared me for what would become a guiding reality of my work life: women were very much in evidence. In power positions, too.
Sure there was that glass ceiling -- even glass walls, truth be told. But there was room for women to do the work that was all too clearly left to them. In publishing it was mostly on the editorial side -- the creative, expressive side.
With few exceptions women held sway with those positions -- certainly in the fashion and home-furnishings and society publications and in "women's books" in the world I entered when I was one and twenty. They were all hats and gloves and full sweeping skirts (some in taffeta even for daywear!). They fashioned, critiqued and edited copy and ideas. They directed the men who took the photos (very few lady lensers back in the '60s). They went to lunch like ladies do and, unlike many of the guys on the ad sales side, came back maybe misty from a glass of pinot grigio but mostly sober enough to get back to work! They were elegant. They were classy.
As were my high school class's valedictorian and salutatorian, they were smart. Like Editors-in-Chief Miss Gordon (few were granted permission to call her Elizabeth) and Sarah Tomerlin Lee at House Beautiful, casting chief Ethel Winant at CBS (at the time, the early-mid ‘70s, hiring actors was about the highest network executive position a woman could land) and in a very brief encounter during my military days, Major Jose, U.S. Army Nurse -- she of the whitest uniform and reddest lipstick I'd ever seen. Certainly on a nurse!
When I left CBS and came to Brattleboro in the mid-90s I went to work for Judy Hendren Mello, then president of World Learning / SIT. Among women I'd worked for Judy was something of a mystery. She was neither a publishing nor show biz icon. I'd learned how to swim those waters. Judy'd studied international relations. She'd lived abroad (in Brazil, yet!). She'd been around. She was stylishly tough and exacting. I had my work cut out for me and learned to do it, I hope. And surely I worked with some pretty snappy ladies up on that hill.
Maybe I survived Judy's judgment by bringing fashion and style and a little show biz to my communications job. I do know that mostly I seemed to fare better when there was a gloved hand at the helm rather than a big fist. Too much testosterone has never done it for me. Not at work, anyway.
Now, as I ready to conclude my eight years at the Chamber I find myself nostalgic at best, weepy at worst and mostly in the middle of a lot of feeling. And when I think back on how I got here and more to the point how I managed to stay here, it has been mostly about several women. Board presidents Martha O'Connor, Joyce Morin, Julie Hamilton and Stephanie Huestis, who nurtured and guided me -- and then let me get my sea legs. My downtown colleague, Andrea Livermore, whose hand of friendship and opportunity made so much possible. My partner in publishing and PR, the brilliant former-CBSer-like-me Lynn Barrett. And she who took my logo sketches for the ONE and ONLY BRATTLEBORO and the Chamber itself, and made them look so beautiful, the deft, delightful Meg McCarthy. And so many other great ladies who helped make my stay here on Main sheer joy. (If you think I may mean you, you're right!)
Thanks for "going to business" -- especially the business of making me "work." You did it all without hats or gloves. Just smarts was enough!
Jerry Goldberg is the executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce. He writes from Brattleboro.