Not So Silent

The trajectory of "Silent Generation" women who overcame adversity and thrived.

Posted May 01, 2020

As the new decade continues to unfold I’ll reach my 80th birthday. The number caught me off guard. The years pass all too fast. 

But after reflecting on the significance of 8 decades, I was surprised to learn that I am a member of the silent generation which ended just before the Boomer era began—1946. Who knew? The "silent" designation, so coined in 1951 by a Time Magazine artist, supposedly began in 1928. 

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the silent generation “tends toward conformism or restrain in their outlook and behavior.” But that doesn’t sound remotely like me or the trajectory I followed. The designation silent irked me enough to learn more about living American women born during this period whom I perceive as courageous, and anything but silent. Unlike Boomers, the silent ones were born into the darkness of post-depression recovery, as well as WWII, marked by scarcity and fears, as opposed to post-WWII optimism. Adversity and deprivation marked our timeline. Add to that the societal low regard for women as change-makers and independent thinkers. And yet, maybe in defiance, we persevered and thrived!

Your list of amazing women might be different or overlap somewhat with mine, but I chose to delve into my heroes’ histories in search of any similarities in their upbringing or life experiences that could account for their tenacity, drive, and determination that made a difference—despite the prejudices of the day against women. I was particularly interested in their early years and upbringing, anything that might help explain their climb to greatness.

You might expect that as a psychologist I would focus on family history and life experiences that shaped them—and I did. I wanted to know what gave these women the moxie to forge paths that wove through hostile environments—like discrimination against women seeking equality in the workplace or higher education

The seven women whose histories I explored weren’t singled out because they alone challenged the culture or traditions in the 50s and 60s. Their names are all familiar to us but not necessarily their childhood circumstances or stories. Countless other lesser-known women of the silent generation could also have been celebrated here. But these are my seven picks, the first two of which will be the focus of today’s blog. The remaining five will be blogs 2, 3, and 4.

Rob Crandall/Shutterstock
Source: Rob Crandall/Shutterstock

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice, Lawyer, b. 1933 was born into a Jewish working-class family in Brooklyn, New York. She might have had a typical upbringing except that her older sister, age six, died when Ruth was only fourteen months old. The loss of a first child can have devastating effects on a mother, especially when she also had several miscarriages. We can only speculate how that event sensitized her to the needs of her remaining daughter.  

We know that Justice Ginsburg excelled as a student. A harbinger of her future writings was her authorship of an impressive column in her elementary school newspaper, of which she was the editor, at age thirteen. She wrote about the then-new United Nations and how it followed other great documents, from the Ten Commandments and the Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights.

I attended and graduated from the same grade school as Ruth, P.S. 238 in Brooklyn—and I don't know about you, but when I was thirteen, I was thinking and writing about much less consequential stuff, like the dress that all graduating girls needed to sew—a common practice and requirement in the home economics class that many of us dreaded, including Ruth. She recalled that after making a mess of her dress, her mother took it to a dressmaker to get it finished. (I had no such luck!)

She credits her mother’s support toward her intellectual curiosity and independence. Her mother’s inability to get a higher education may have caused her to invest heavily in her daughter’s future. When Ruth was fourteen, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and died four years later, a day before her high school graduation. How might that have affected her future drive and determination? Perhaps some of her efforts and energy were a tribute to her mother’s memory.

Like many women of her generation, she married right after college graduation, but somehow maintained her focus as a scholar. She beat the odds and found her way into and through law school. With her mother’s nurturance no longer available, her husband and her father-in-law became her champions—an unusual combination of support during that period in history. At 87, she continues to fight for justice and women’s rights. The rest is history!

Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock
Source: Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock

Gloria Steinem, Women’s Rights Advocate, writer, public speaker, b. 1934. She had her own early struggles, traveling as a young child with her mother and restless father in a house trailer, and not settling in one place nor attending school on a regular basis until she was twelve. During her subsequent school years, she also served as caregiver for her severely depressed and poorly functioning mother, with whom she lived after her parent’s divorce

Until she was seventeen, everyday life was a hand-to-mouth existence financially. She did odd jobs to make ends meet. She dreamed of a better life, and escaped into reading and school activities, finding ways to catch up with her spotty education. Does such an upbringing create stamina, independence, and courage? I think so. It may help explain her trajectory as a women’s rights advocate. 

In exploring her life, I learned that her paternal grandmother had been a community leader who served on the Toledo Board of Education during an era when women held no power positions, and she also campaigned for women to be included in more history books. Grandmother Steinem also supported women’s right to vote. Gloria’s mother, long before she became ill, had been a pioneering reporter and then editor of a major newspaper. 

Whether inherited, influenced by her mother and grandmother, or strengthened by surviving adversity, Gloria became an author and later editor of Ms., the first magazine for “liberated women.” Her name is synonymous with the women’s movement of the 1970s. Steinem provided the foundation and building blocks that continue to support women today.

What Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Gloria Steinem have in common is their fierce tenacity born of early life circumstances and experiences. These silent generation women overcame the prejudices of their day and thrived. Read about Nancy Pelosi and Joan Baez in the next blog, coming soon.