Not So Silent

Part 2: "Silent Generation" women who overcame adversity and thrived.

Posted May 08, 2020

This series of four blog posts honors #OlderAmericans Month. If you read my first post, you might want to skip this introduction unless you need a refresher. Otherwise please keep reading.

My 80th birthday is a month away. The years pile up much too fast and the number caught me off guard. While reflecting on the significance of eight 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 definitely not 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 these particular 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—in spite of the prejudices of the day against women. I was especially 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 the 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. Highlighted from oldest to youngest, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Gloria Steinem were the focus of Part 1. Posts #3 and #4 will focus on additional champions of the silent generation. 

Public Domain, Author Unknown
Nancy Pelosi, Official Portrait U.S. House of Representatives
Source: Public Domain, Author Unknown

Nancy Pelosi, politician and current Speaker of the House of Representatives was born in 1940 to a religious Italian Catholic family in the Little Italy enclave in Baltimore, Maryland, the youngest, and only daughter, of six children. Whether she was spoiled as the baby sister or had to fight to be heard above her big brothers—we’ll never know, but she did grow both confident and tough. So maybe a little of both! When she was 7, her father was elected as the first Italian American mayor of Baltimore. How’s that for a role model?

In her family, it was an honor to join the church and her mother hoped she would choose to be a nun. Pelosi, in an interview, offered this observation, “I didn't think I wanted to be a nun, but I thought I might want to be a priest because there seemed to be a little more power there." Did this play a role in shaping her orientation to the world? Does the youngest of six, and the only girl in a traditional Catholic family, give you an edge or does it require fight and grit to stand out? Did growing up in a political family shape her future interests? Most likely. And, by the way, let’s leave politics aside for now as you read these portraits. Regardless of your views and beliefs, all of these women did help shape 20th-century America. 

By the time Nancy was 29, she was the mother of five children—in six years, and she still found time for political causes. Her energy, focus, and fortitude continue to serve her well decades later as the first woman Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and third in line to the Presidency of the United States!

Jim Gilbert, Jtgphoto, Wikimedia Commons
Joan Baez in concert, 2016
Source: Author:Jim Gilbert, Jtgphoto, Wikimedia Commons

Joan Baez, singer, songwriter, musician, and activist, b. 1941, was the middle child of three girls in a middle-class Quaker family. Her mother was a homemaker and her father a well-respected college professor—all the makings for a traditional but stable early life. Yet, Joan remembers being taunted at school because of her Mexican surname and dark skin, which compounded her self-criticalness and envy of her light-skinned, younger sister’s fair beauty. According to folk music legend Pete Seeger, after she heard him in a live concert as a teen at her high school, she looked herself in the mirror and said, “I can be a singer, too.”

Up until then, she played the guitar along with her sisters—but not seriously. Her family’s social justice values, combined with folk music’s ideals, as expressed in the lyrics of the 1950s-1960s, provided a platform for her political activism and extraordinary voice for the downtrodden. Perhaps her earlier experience with prejudice sensitized her. Joan’s antiwar sentiments, expressed through music and consistent with her Quaker beliefs, eventually led her to vigorously support an end to the Vietnam war—not a very popular stance at that time. Add to that her defense of the free speech movement. It’s not surprising that she was arrested twice while blocking entrance into an armed forces induction center. 

She sang “We Shall Overcome” while on the Martin Luther King Jr. walk in 1963, again expressing her social values through song. In her metamorphosis from a young girl who lacked self-confidence, to a potent force in the civil rights movement, Joan has demonstrated her strength of character and commitment to lifelong Quaker principles: “The foundation of my beliefs is the same as it was when I was 10. Nonviolence.” She has never been silent about her views!

Both Nancy Pelosi and Joan Baez grew up with siblings in stable, loving families. Nancy’s Catholic family and Joan’s Quaker family, observant in their respective religious orientations, provided lifelong values that guided both on their quest for justice. Nancy’s choice was via politics as an elected representative, and Joan found her calling through music and activism. Born a year apart, right before the U.S. entered WWII, they both had the tenacity to follow their passions to improve society in their own ways. That took lots of courage for women, whose views were often disregarded, during those years.

Post #3 is coming soon, featuring Doris Kearns Goodwin and Billie Jean King, both born in 1943.