Evelyn Cleo Larson Owen, my mother-in-law, was a fascinating woman. By all accounts, she was a wife and mother who “kept” house for her husband and three children, adhering to the “traditional” roles of women of her generation.
She loved her husband and son, and held no animosity toward boys or men. As I’ve shared before, she had an adventuresome spirit that spurred her to take different and unconventional paths in life — and her ability to make a difference in her students’ lives was amazing.
From working in a cannery in Oregon during summers, to leaving her home and teaching job in Minnesota for a ministry in Dayton, Ohio, during WWII, and running for the board of education after retiring from teaching, Evelyn pushed the boundaries of “what was expected” of a woman with her background.
Evelyn started teaching when she was 18 years old in a two-room schoolhouse in Northern Minnesota; after a short interruption, she resumed teaching in the Dayton, Ohio, area. Her students loved her, and reading the letters and notes of appreciation from all of her students was heartwarming.
In 1974, while teaching in Wayne Township schools, Evelyn and a number of women, many of whom were members of the Fairborn, Ohio chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), created a task force to evaluate role stereotypes in elementary textbooks. By the way, my husband was surprised to learn that his mother had been a member of NOW in 1974.
These women were concerned with the gender stereotypes that were being passed on to their students through the textbooks used in the Wayne Township elementary schools. The task force reviewed almost every book in all subjects.
My favorite example is a book called “I’m Glad I’m a Boy, I’m Glad I’m a Girl” published in 1970 by Simon and Shuster.
“Boys have trucks, Girls have dolls.
Boys are strong, Girls are graceful.
Boys are doctors, Girls are nurses.
Boys are policemen, Girls are metermaids.
Boys are football players, Girls are cheerleaders.
Boys are pilots, Girls are stewardesses.
Boys fix things, Girls need things fixed.
Boys invent things, Girls use what boys invent.
Boys build houses, Girls keep houses.
I’m glad you’re a boy, I’m glad you’re a girl.
We need each other.”
Ouch! I’m sure I read this, or something similar to it when I was very young. I’m also sure that I am very lucky to have had a very strong, independent mother, and an encouraging father so that by the time I decided I was going to be a lawyer, in the fifth grade (1968?), I wasn’t discouraged from pursuing that goal.
The students in the Wayne Township schools were fortunate to have a group of dedicated teachers who wanted to ensure that all of their students had many options and were able to pursue their dreams. The report produced by this task force, Woman’s Place is in the World, encouraged the Wayne Township school board to make changes in many of their school programs – completely revising its homemaking and industrial arts classes in the seventh and eighth grades, and expanding the athletic program for girls.
Just for fun, I’ve collected a few firsts for American women:
• Marie Connolly Owens joined the Chicago Police Department in 1891 with the title of detective sergeant, full arrest powers and a badge. She was on the department payroll and received a police pension when she retired in 1923 after 32 years on the force. So much for women being metermaids!
• Arabella Mansfield became the first female lawyer in the United States in 1869, admitted to the Iowa bar; though she had to sue to be sworn in. Sandra Day O’Connor was the first female appointed the United States Supreme Court in 1981.
• Lettie Pate Whitehead became the first American woman to serve as a director of a major corporation, The Coca Cola Company in 1934.
• While it isn’t football, Edith Houghton became the first woman hired as a major league baseball scout in 1946.
• Jeanette Rankin, of Montana, was the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916.
• In 1983, Dr. Sally K. Ride became the first American woman to be sent into space.
In reviewing the short list above, it is clear that extraordinary women helped pave the way for many of us … and with teachers like Evelyn, and the other women on the task force, we will all, with no regard for gender, continue to achieve great things.