Not So Silent

Part 3: The trajectory of "silent generation" women who overcame adversity.

Posted May 15, 2020

This series of four posts honors #OlderAmericansMonth. If you read my first and second 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 that 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 WW II, marked by scarcity and fears, as opposed to post WW II 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 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 post #1, Nancy Pelosi and Joan Baez were my picks for post #2. Post #3, today, profiles Doris Kearns Goodwin and Billie Jean King. Next week find post #4, featuring another exemplary woman of the silent generation—still advocating for her causes. 

 Rododendrites/Wikimedia Commons
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Book Expo 2018.
Source: Rododendrites/Wikimedia Commons

Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian, writer, presidential biographer, b. 1943, had her first foray in history when she was only 6 and narrated baseball plays and recited scores for her father, relaying these when he returned from work in the evenings. The process of researching and summarizing her findings was the precursor of her commitment to historical writing. She also became quite an authority on baseball—an unusual pastime for girls and women in that era. 

Doris’s mother suffered from a chronic heart condition that kept her homebound but she read widely to experience the world vicariously from home. She died when Doris was 14. What does this profound loss do to a young girl? Did the premature loss of her mother brace her for the fights ahead as a professional woman? Certainly, the reading habit she adopted from her mother bolstered, nurtured, and prepared her for excellence in higher education.

As a scholar, author, and presidential historian, Doris, like most writers, has been more of a back-room person researching the lives of others, rather than a spokesperson for a cause . Her excellent writing, especially best sellers about U.S. presidents, brought her the honor of a Pulitzer Prize for history related to her book about President Franklin and his wife Eleanor Roosevelt. 

Years of being curious about others’ lives gave her a powerful voice that she charmingly continues to share with the public. Hearing her speak about herself, I know that she was not taken any more seriously as a graduate student than I—disdained by faculty for taking up a slot that should have been occupied by a man! Nevertheless, we both worked for and achieved a Ph.D. in 1968. As I also recall, getting into graduate school was the hardest part, followed closely by the male scrutiny of women scholars who may have threatened the academic fraternity. I don’t know if this was Doris’s experience but I had to promise my doctoral committee that whatever else I did with my life, I would remain a psychologist/scholar. I’m still at it!

 Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons
Billie Jean King, Iowa event, 2016.
Source: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Billie Jean King, athlete—tennis star, and fighter for equal pay for women athletes was born in 1943. In 1972 she won three Grand Slam titles (U.S. Open, French Open, and Wimbledon). The following year she took on male tennis star Bobby Riggs in a match that became a cultural phenomenon, and she won! In that process At that point Billie Jean started the break-down of gender barriers in sports. Since then she’s been a champion of equality for women athletes and a crusader for social justice. But how does being born in a middle class, traditional home inspire the tenacity and grit that she’s displayed on and off the tennis court? Fortunately for her, her family was athletic and understood her pursuit.

When she was 10 she discovered tennis, thanks to a wealthy friend, also in fifth grade. In those days, tennis was an exclusive game reserved for the affluent. However, when she was 11, in order to secure a racket, her mother insisted that she earn the money by doing jobs in the neighborhood—imagine if she hadn’t followed through! But she did, and shortly after her first group tennis lesson, she told her mother, “I knew what I was going to do with my life—I was going to be the number one tennis player in the world. And I meant it.”

Billie Jean's father, a firefighter, played basketball in the Navy and was good enough to turn pro. According to Billie Jean, he understood “my own dreams of success in sports.” And her mother was “big on perseverance and seeing things through.” In reflecting on her early years, “Everything I’ve done in my adult life has stemmed from or was influenced by those very basic lessons I learned around the dinner table in Long Beach.” The family’s social justice values were instilled during these family meals. Her growing up years fortified her for the fights ahead as a woman athlete. A whole generation of women has benefited from her actions—including the recent achievement of women players and coaches in men’s football and baseball.

On the surface, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and athlete Billie Jean King seem to have little in common except that they are both women born in 1943, toward the end of the silent generation. Each excelled in their own fields at a time when women had difficulty bucking the tradition of all-male academia and sports. Both seemed to find their footings as young girls in their respective families. By age 6, Doris kept baseball scores for her father, tracking plays, wins, and losses over time. This is history in the making on a small scale. Her love of reading, the backbone of a scholar’s life, came from her mother.

Billie Jean came from an athletic family, where her love of sports was supported and nourished—even by her father and brother. The challenges in their lives were mainly from the outside world where women were taught to stay in prescribed roles, which clearly neither was willing to do. Each made their mark on the world slightly differently. Kearns Goodwin succeeded as a role model through her words, as a presidential biographer and public speaker. King fought for equal pay for women athletes and also paved the way for women to compete in professional sports—a battle that continues to this day. 

Next week, the final post in this series will feature Angela Davis, civil rights activist, scholar, and author.