Abigail Trafford - Author, Journalist and Public Speaker


To Be a Woman in the 21st Century

By Abigail Trafford
Alum Speech to an all girls’ high school
The Ethel Walk School, Simsbury, CT
May 19, 2007

Fifty years ago, in a time of blue uniform dresses and black velvet jackets, there was a lot of emphasis on what it meant to be an Ethel Walker girl. After all, the school had a reputation. My aunts had come here in the 1920s. It was now the late 1950s. I wanted to succeed. The pressure was on. I remember the slogan: Wherever you go. Whatever you do. You represent the Ethel Walker School! And I was a shy, awkward girl, rebellious and day dreaming. And I would say to myself: Does the school ever wonder what Ethel Walker’s does to my reputation?

Now we have some answers. Over the past 50 years, it has become clear what it means to have an education at a single sex school and how this experience prepares us to be a Woman in Full—in love and in work—in the 21st century. Much in the world and at Walkers has changed. The year my classmates and I graduated, Eisenhower was president. There was only one woman in the Senate. Female journalists were not allowed in the National Press Club. Sputnik would rock the country. So would the nine students who desegregated the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. Stamps cost three cents. The hit movie was “Peyton Place.” And Jerry Lee Lewis hinted at the future with a “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”

Without knowing it at the time, we would become the Faultline Generation, a cohort of women with one foot planted in the old rules of the Fifties, the other foot shoved into the social turmoil of the Sixties. Our personal lives tell the larger story of historic change.

Mine is typical. When I graduated from Walkers, I had vague dreams of being an actress, writing poetry, marrying Mr. Right and having five children. In other words, I was clueless. When I went to Bryn Mawr and studied French and German, a favorite uncle remarked: “you’d make a good wife of a diplomat.” . . . But then my father, a Boston lawyer, casually asked: “why don’t you go to law school?” And so began the push-pull of being a Woman in Full.

Well yes. I would become a good wife—twice! I would become a mother with two daughters, a grandmother of two girls and a boy. I would also become a professional woman and family breadwinner. I belong to that class of “first and only” women who had to break down the barriers against women in all fields from medicine and the military to journalism and plumbing. Often I was the only female reporter at press conferences at NASA’s space center in Houston when I covered the Apollo moon landing program. In the 1980s, I became the first (and only) woman assistant managing editor at U.S. News & World Report. It was lonely. . . and exhilarating.

How does a single sex education make a difference? Let me count four ways:

Number One: Resilience. We learned to be strong to survive. It wasn’t just about studying Greek and Latin with Miss Sindall, or playing field hockey on the Dial team. It was about developing a code, a damn-the-torpedoes kind of confidence.

I needed that. When I started out covering the space program, I was a recent French poetry major having to write about mathematical calculations of lunar trajectories, a breast-feeding mom among machine-loving guys, a beginner among experienced reporters. . . . I stuck out. . . . . Behind my back, the guys joked about Ms Tits in the newsroom. They stared. Some hit on me. What today would be considered sexual harassment was just the way it was. But a number were kind and helpful—and became good friends. I hunkered down, damned the torpedoes, struggled with celestial mechanics and learned how to cover a big story.

It didn’t get easier. My first day at U.S. News & World Report, the publisher remarked to the editor: “I’ve seen a strange woman walking around the halls—what is she doing here?” The editor, who later told me this, had to explain that I was a new reporter. . . the magazine needed to hire a woman. It was the 1970s and the Women’s Movement was making noise. Still, the personnel manager asked: oh, you have children! What are you going to do about your children? The question would be illegal today.

Yet the challenge is the same. How do women in full succeed in the workplace while they successfully raise children? This is a political issue. As is often said: If men had babies, the country would have paid parental leave, a national childcare policy and flexible work schedules. There is still much to do.

Back then . . . Again, I hunkered down. I hired a wonderful housekeeper for the children and paid her more than my starting salary at the magazine. I rented out rooms in our house to make up the difference. The children grew up. I became Health Editor at The Washington Post. Damn the torpedoes.

Number Two: Flexibility. The corollary is a sense of adventure. At Walkers, we were exposed to a wide range of possibilities—from participating in dramatics and art to student government to athletics. This is the privilege of options. The flip side of privilege is fate—these are the possibilities that are thrust upon us, usually as crises. The idea that life will unfold according to a grand plan is illusion. Flexibility protects us against disappointment when the present does not meet past expectations. Flexibility allows us to see possibility in an uncertain future. It makes us bold and more willing to take risks.

And it’s okay not to know what you want to do, to explore for a while and let life happen. To take the wave of adventure.

After Walkers I spent a year in Austria, living with a family, learning a language, falling in love with a count. At Bryn Mawr, I spent my junior year in Paris, learning French, marching in the streets, falling in love again. After college I thought about becoming a female James Bond and went to Washington. I fell in love, got married and moved to Australia where I became a teacher at a mission for aborigines.

No grand plan, but a great life.

Number three: Optimism. I remember at Walkers looking forward to spring, to the flowering Dogwoods and strawberries for breakfast and the end of exams—looking forward to graduation. Hope is a necessary companion, especially when times get rough, and they do get rough. I remember trying out for a job and not getting the job, and thinking I had hit the wall. A friend and reporter from space program days took me aside, poured me a martini and gave me a pep talk: if you find what you love to do, keep at it. I tried out for another job and another and finally got a job that would lead the job I really wanted. Careers are only smooth in retrospect.

The same is true in the personal arena. My marriage broke up when I was 35. I was alone, frightened, feeling very finished with life. My great aunt, age 98, wrote me these words of wisdom: “please do not think of yourself as failed. . . You are very young and can start afresh.” She turned out to be right. 35 is young. 50 is young. 70 is not old these days. Optimism means you can always start afresh.

Number Four: Friendship. When we are young, when we are shaping our personalities and discovering possibility, that is often when we make lasting friendships. The capacity to enjoy and maintain close relationships is an important survival skill. Friendship is about tolerance, loyalty and laughter. The friendship skill is critical to marriage and coupling. It cements the connection with adult children. It underscores relationships with work colleagues, neighbors and grandchildren. It deepens love and strengthens attachment.

Being together in a single sex school lays down the friendship framework for life. This is true of my daughters who went to girls’ boarding schools in Maryland. This is true of me and my classmates who grew up at a time when single-sex institutions were practically the only options for women. In important ways, we bear witness to how each of us started and how far we have gone in our lives.

Finally I want to turn to the next chapter for the Faultline Generation. We are pioneers in yet another social revolution—this time it’s the longevity revolution and the tremendous changes ahead because we are living longer and are healthier than our grandparents at the same age. A new stage has emerged in the life cycle—after middle age but before traditional old age. I call it My Time because it’s up to each of us to chart a new path. Instead of winding down, we must gear up. The imperative is regeneration. How do we find new purpose and craft a legacy for future generations?

Let me count the same four ways again: Resilience. By now we are really tough! Researchers call this ‘life empowerment.’ Flexibility. . . Optimism . . . do you see a potential for growth in these bonus decades? . . And friendship. Researchers tell us that we each need an intimate team of about ten. These are people you can’t imagine your life without—spouses, children, friends—the loved ones.

Well, 50 years is a long time to represent a school. By now, we in the class of 1957 have established our reputation. But it is the class of 2007 that will take what we have done with our lives and build a new agenda for the next century’s woman in full.

I’m optimistic.

back to top

other speeches

What is My Time

Ten Tips for Making the Most of My Time

Community Needs for Aging Well

To Be a Woman in the 21st Century.

Contact Abigail

If you would like Abigail Trafford to speak to your group, please send her an email.

High Time

High Time by Abigail Trafford The life of an adventurous journalist navigating her way through new territories—professional and personal in diverse locales

» more about High Time
» buy High Time

As Time Goes By:

As Time Goes By by Abigail Trafford Boomerang Marriages, Serial Spouses, Throwback Couples and Other Romantic Adventures in an Age of Longevity

» about this book
» buy this book

My Time:

My Time by Abigail Trafford Making the Most of the Bonus Decades After 50

» about My Time
» buy My Time

Crazy Time:

Crazy Time by Abigail Trafford Surviving Divorce & Building a New Life

» about Crazy Time
» buy Crazy Time
Abigail Trafford - Author, Journalist and Public Speaker
© 2024 Abigail Trafford
created by APART