Take a walk in the shoes of the women interviewed by Janet lieberman and Julie Hungar in their new book, The Wisdom Trail, and you learn what limitless perseverance is. The 22 women whose life stories are woven together in this collective biography are all in their 70s and 80s. Their lives stretch back before the women’s movement, and their career and personal choices were made in times much less open-minded toward women than today. Prevailing attitudes about childrearing, marriage, education, and work prescribed very narrow roles for women and little room to stretch beyond them without risking disapproval or worse. One of the women describes her resulting career path as “zigzagging,” which is what it must feel like to try to follow a trail that you have to blaze as you go. Still, almost all these women were college- educated, some with advanced degrees. All worked in careers for some or all of their lives, and all did significant volunteer work after their employment. As a group, their courage and capability are inspiring.
It seems that adaptability was a trait shared by all Wisdom Trail women. since nothing was a given outside of having a husband and children, they were more flexible about change than their children. The causality had a lot to do with the national events of the time. We lived through the Great Depression and war, and the society changed a great deal. We had to be much more flexible. As a result of longevity we’ve seen a lot of history, and that makes for adaptability. The women we portrayed lived a lot of different lives within each life. There was opportunity if they seized it, but generally the pattern of life was pretty much the Norman Rockwell magazine cover. That’s why we picked these women, because they were different.
These women also seemed very open to career changes and taking risks. That’s correct. That’s what we call serendipity, important because it enabled them to be open to taking advantage of something that just fell across their paths.
How did these women avoid feelings of resentment or regret about missed career opportunities? They were too busy in the first place, just dealing with the tangible, and in the second place socially and psychologically it was not a time of self-questioning. That was not a prevailing attitude. Opportunities were not just out there for you to pick up or not pick up. You had to make your own. You had to have some motivation to do it. Either you were bored or it was necessary, but it wasn’t a given.
Some of the women in the book had husbands who were quite supportive of their careers, others were sort of lukewarm but they let it all happen anyway, and others, it appeared, got divorced? Absolutely. Their husbands objected, no question about it. And from a societal point of view, it wasn’t considered a benefit for a woman to work. My husband was a physician, and our life was quite circumscribed, and people would often ask me, “Why are you working?”
What did you say to them? Because I like it!
Was there anything about the women of The Wisdom Trail that surprised you? What surprised me was that when you take ordinary women and begin to probe how their lives are lived, you find extraordinary conditions. These are not the most accomplished women of the twentieth century, and that’s part of the point. When you find out what the sources of their inspirations and opportunities were, their stories become somewhat heroic.
-by Mary Witherell '83