The Defining Generation
Defining the Role of the Sexes
Dr. Marguerite Guzman Bouvard
Seeking a Ph.D
Instead of a Mrs.
Finding BOTH at Harvard*
By Dr. Marguerite Guzman Bouvard
I worked toward a Ph.D. rather than a "Mrs." long before the women's movement, and I have both my mother and grandmother to thank. They came from more traditional societies, yet circumstances propelled them into situations that required flexibility, courage and creativity -- and they expected as much from me.
My mother grew up in a privileged environment in Trieste, Italy. Her family owned a brewery and had a whole retinue of servants, yet she wanted to do more than become a wife. She hungered for an education to become an engineer, but women at the time were not allowed to attend the university.
Fortunately, she had natural intelligence and great artistic talent. Even more fortunately, the family's cook taught her how to sew like a professional. As a child, she began designing and making clothes for her dolls, not suspecting how useful this would be in her troubled future.
She married when she was only
19, as was the custom. When World War II broke out, my father fled to the
Since my father was an unreliable and intermittent presence, my mother -- who didn't speak English when she arrived in New York -- worked two jobs to support us and to afford our dingy apartment in what is now Spanish Harlem. She became a costume designer for Columbia Pictures and taught at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Although we had little money, she kept buying me books -- not just children's fare, but substantial books on astronomy I barely understood and that I took with me when I accompanied her to her Saturday job.
She also took me to the public library and to museums. I stared at the exhibit of an Egyptian mummy at the Museum of Natural History, my first introduction to millennia, and fell in love with a whirling sunflower by Van Gogh at the Met.
Once she took me to Barnard College, a visit I will never forget. I couldn't have been more than 6 years old and felt that I was just a bit higher than the knees of all the young women rushing by. "That's where you will be going," she told me with her firm smile.
In 1946, when I was 9 years old, my mother won the Chicago Tribune Fashion Design contest. That meant a very good job offer and a move to the suburbs of Chicago. My sister and I spent a year in a Catholic boarding school while my mother settled into her work and found a house.
When we moved in, I was heady with freedom from the rules at school and with green expanses to explore. My new life seemed magical. One morning I was out on the front lawn when a taxi pulled up and Nana stepped out, tall, straight- backed, just as fresh as if she had come from the next town instead of from Italy.
Nana carried herself like royalty and claimed space when women were supposed to stay at home, like my friends mothers who played cards and did nothing all day. She entered the new landscape as if she had lived there all her life. She spoke German, Italian, Slovene and French. She learned English very quickly and acquired friends in what she considered "the right circles." In a period of raw prejudice against foreigners, I saw her as a conquering heroine.
My grandmother lived through two world wars, losing her husband in World War I, and, during World War II, experiencing the brutal German and then Yugoslav occupations of Trieste. She spoke not of the hunger and deprivation of those times but of her triumphs.
She mimicked the German officer trying to requisition her apartment on Via Cavana, barking his questions in a threatening voice and then replying with great dignity and in perfect German that the officer was at the wrong address. She recalled dumping her garbage in front of German headquarters in the wee hours of the morning.
She looked after me while my mother worked long hours and swept me into her life through her stories, a terrain that soon became mine. It seemed at times as if my more interesting life took place in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while my friends huddled around lime sodas in the booths at Walgreens drugstore. That life would surface in my second career as a poet and non-fiction writer.
Like my mother, Nana supported my various passions and applauded my independent streak. She was the storyteller of the family. My mother was the practical one, repairing cement stairs and mowing the lawn, things men did at the time while other mothers were playing golf. I knew that I wanted a life like hers.
Neither of these women had to work too hard to encourage me in my studies. I did well in high school, although that didn't make me very popular. I started dating when I was a junior. Once when we were driving, my mother, pointed toward a building. "That's an orphanage. Women who had babies when they were too young and unmarried bring them there." I got the message.
Both my mother and grandmother
supported my wish to go to college at a time when young women who did so saw
it as a way of meeting the right man. I attended
In my junior and senior years, I became engaged twice -- only to break off both engagements. My first fiancé became angry when the political science department nominated me for a Woodrow Wilson Scholarship. "I don't want to live with a damn Madame Curie," he growled. That ended it for me.
The following year, I fell in love with another young man whom I thought would be more open. When we began to discuss our future, he told me point blank, "Why go to graduate school when you have me?"
My mother helped me come to a decision, arriving at my dormitory one day with a package. I opened it, dismayed. "Dish towels!" "Yes dear," she said with a beatific smile. "For when you get married."
That sent me right down to earth. I ended the relationship with a conflicted heart.
My mother persuaded me to apply to the doctoral program at Harvard, though I was drawn to the University of California with its warm climate. By the time I visited Harvard's political science department as part of the application process, I had had enough sexist tirades and difficulties from a few of my college professors and was very much on guard. In fact, I was downright surly.
"You're prejudiced against women," I muttered. "Indeed we are," the department chairman retorted with a smile of satisfaction. But he added, "Send us a copy of one of your research papers."
Out of contrariness I mailed him a one of my art history papers on the paintings of Giotto. I was accepted into the program, and, in the fall of 1958, I left for Cambridge, Mass., swearing that I would never, ever get married. I was 21. Always struggling to make ends meet, my mother paid for my tuition.
I was an anomaly at Harvard, one of four women in a huge department and thus never invited to the informal social gatherings of professors and students. The man who checked book bags at the exit of the library would invariably comment with a sigh, "You'll never get married if you study so hard." Some of my unmarried classmates wanted to date me, even one who was married and whose wife was supporting him while she worked as a secretary. There were too many times that I felt under siege.
One of my professors, a highly renowned scholar, told me that he had lost my research paper after I turned down one of his many advances. I got his wife's telephone number from the department secretary and called her. "William somehow forgot to return my paper, could you please remind him." It worked like a charm.
Taking my own path and bucking the times turned out to be a lonely business. I became friends with two women in my department, a young woman from India and an older woman from Austria. We never socialized with our male peers nor were we included in the informal gatherings they had with professors.
My friends' living arrangements included their meals. I was renting an attic room in a rambling Cambridge house owned by a professor, not an unusual arrangement. I had a small hot plate I could use for my morning coffee and went to the grocery store every day to buy a few things for lunch and dinner. Sometimes I was able to go out to a restaurant for dinner, wishing I had some company.
One evening, as I walked down a rainy Brattle Street toward my room I heard someone make a comment in French about my legs. I turned around and replied in French. We chatted and went out for coffee. He found it perfectly normal that I should be working towards a doctorate. In Paris, his friends' fiancés were studying law and one was a physicist. We became close friends, a friendship that blossomed into a deep love. Despite my ranting against marriage, we married a year later.
We had a very short honeymoon so I could return to my studies, and my husband to his work at the computation lab. He found time to type my master's thesis, commenting on the number of "moreovers" and "howevers" that peppered the text. And when I went in for my oral examinations for my doctorate, he stood by the doorway where the four men shooting questions at me would see that I was not alone.
My studies were interrupted
when my husband’s student visa expired and we needed to return to France for
a year. When we returned I wanted to begin work on my thesis and have a child.
“Why don’t you finish your degree first,” my husband wisely cautioned,
but I wanted both and we had a son while I was doing research on a topic that
no one had yet addressed, the reaction of the labor movement to the newly
formed Common Market in
When I finally finished writing a book length treatise my thesis advisor called in a visiting professor from the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University to act as a second reader and whom I had never met. That professor invited me to lunch after reading my thesis and I was terribly pleased with the invitation. He arrived with my work in hand peppered with endless little notes. In the middle of lunch, just as I had my fork raised in the air he looked at me and said with malice, “I am going to turn you down. I don’t like your work” I was stunned into silence. He gave me no reason although he did state that he checked the hundreds of footnotes I included. Fortunately there were no mistakes.
My husband came to the rescue by having lunch with my thesis advisor who happened to be of French origin and was a rising star in the department. My thesis was not only accepted, but was published by a good press.
When I finally received my Ph.D. in 1965, the first time women were allowed in graduation ceremonies at Harvard rather than at Radcliffe, I was pregnant. I looked as if I had a beach ball under my academic gown. Both my mother and my husband were in the audience clapping when I picked up my diploma.
Because ultrasounds were not yet part of prenatal care, I didn't know I was carrying a girl. But I always feel proud that four women broke down the barriers to higher education at such a male dominated institution: my grandmother, my mother, myself and my daughter.
Foolishly, I believed that a Harvard Ph.D would mean a good teaching job. While an undergraduate, I hoped to join the diplomatic service but was told on no uncertain terms that women were not accepted in that field. Teaching was my one option. With my degree and a publication in hand I sat in the office of the chair of the Political Science Department expecting support, since the department routinely helped to place its graduates in government or teaching. I was especially hopeful since most of my male peers hadn’t published yet. But the man looked at me and broke out into laughter, “You, you want me to place you! Out of the question!” And that was the end of our brief meeting.
I came home in tears. But some weeks later, I read a newsletter from the Radcliffe Institute, a newly formed organization to give women Ph.D’s, writers and artists time for uninterrupted work on their projects. I noticed that one woman who had finished a year there had gotten a job at a small local women’s college. I immediately called the college and made an appointment with the academic dean. She was welcoming and made no remark about my advanced pregnancy.
One year later, I got a telephone call and a job offer in the Political Science Department at a time when those women who made it as professors were in the more “female” fields of English Literature. I was the only woman in the department, in so many departments in our area.
It was the beginning of my multifaceted life as a professional, a mother and a political radical because my experience had made me want to ease the way for both women and children. I volunteered with inner city children and spent ten years helping to sponsor and resettle Laotian refugees who had crossed the Mekong after the spread of the Vietnam War. I mention this because many women in the generation after mine blamed us first feminists for stressing careers. They had postponed having families until it was biologically too late not realizing that our generation had with great difficulty managed childrearing and careers.
In the early 1970s, I became a board member of Women West of Boston, an newly formed organization for women in a variety of professions simply because they were not accepted in the male dominated organizations of their particular fields. It was tremendously exciting to have monthly meetings in a large hotel dining room where we discussed the personal aspects of having a profession in an all male world and of combining work and home life.
I also began a career as a writer of books on human rights especially women’s rights, traveling to Argentina to write about the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo during the Argentine “Dirty War” when thousands of young people were “disappeared.” I have just finished my 15th book and am working on two more. I see my writing as a way of working towards political and social change, a completion of my years of political activism.
I’m now a Resident Scholar with the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis. At Brandeis, I continually marvel at the number of young women professors who are at the top of their fields and who find this perfectly normal. They have no idea of the road so many of us have traveled to pave their way. And I would have never dreamed that the traditionally male dominated Harvard University would have named its first woman president, Drew Faust, in 2007, just two generations after my graduation from that institution.
Bouvard, Marguerite Guzman,
"Seeking a Ph.D Instead of a Mrs. -- and Finding Both at Harvard",
Women's Voices For Change, 2007. Re-Printed by Permission.
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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