Not So Silent

Part 4: The trajectory of "Silent Generation" women who overcame adversity.

Posted May 22, 2020

In honor of #OlderAmericansMonth, this post is fourth in a series about not-so-silent women of the "Silent Generation" who’ve impacted and improved America, at least from my perspective. 

The unfolding of a new decade marks my 80th year. As one often does in this life stage, I'm reflecting on exactly where I fit into history. That’s how I discovered that the Silent Generation, so-designated in 1951, was an after-thought about the folks born between 1928-1945. Just a few months ago, I knew nothing about this generation that was sandwiched between the Great Depression and the Baby Boomer eras.

My curiosity led me to explore the early lives of a few 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. This was a time marked by scarcity and fear as opposed to post-war optimism. Adversity and deprivation marked our timeline. Add to that the societal low regard for women as changemakers and independent thinkers. And yet, maybe in defiance, we persevered and thrived!

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 profiled Doris Kearns Goodwin and Billie Jean King and today’s post recognizes Angela Davis. 

Regardless of your views and beliefs, all of these women helped shape 20th century America. If possible, let’s try to leave politics aside for now.

Hunter Kahn/Public Domain
Angela Davis, 2006
Source: Hunter Kahn/Public Domain

Angela Davis, civil rights activist, scholar, author, was born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama’s segregated “Dynamite Hill,” so designated because homes in that community were targeted for bombing by the Ku Klux Klan.

Angela struggled with the effects of racial inequality from a very young age, having attended segregated schooling throughout her teen years. And she knew several girls who were killed in the Birmingham church bombing of 1963. 

Her early life sensitized her to injustice and the plight of blacks in the South and later to inequities in the criminal justice system. Even her attempts in high school to create interracial study groups were broken up by the police. Her mother, a teacher, spent summers in New York City studying for a master’s degree. Angela accompanied her and these visits provided an expanded version of life and its possibilities. It was an eye-opener. 

Born out of her early life experiences and beliefs, Angela’s career has never shied away from risk. Tough and unflappable, she charted her course first to higher education, where she eventually received a Ph.D., and then as a champion of criminal justice reform.

As a civil rights activist, her outspoken views led to some dangerous circumstances and outcomes. Still, she persevered and later took her voice to the university setting where she was a professor in the years before her retirement. She’s still at it—giving talks around the country. You could hardly call Angela silent by any measure!

So there you have it. Seven exemplary women as outspoken advocates for social justice. Absolutely not silent! What do they have in common?

Some may have been strengthened by early losses of loved ones or difficult early life circumstances. Remember the cliché: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” This was true for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gloria Steinem, and Angela Davis. But clearly, that’s not the only route to greatness.

Nancy Pelosi, Joan Baez, and Billie Jean King grew up in families that did not experience an early loss, had traditional values, and stay-at-home mothers who were homemakers. So, how do we explain their rise to greatness?  

Well, they seemed to have had heroes who were excellent role models. Nancy’s father, a politician, became an important public official, as did an older brother. Joan’s opportune meeting of Pete Seeger and other folk singers sparked her interest and illuminated the way forward for her. Billie Jean’s father was a basketball whiz and her brother became a major league baseball player—good role models, but also very supportive of her athletic pursuits.

But role models alone don't totally explain who we are. Developmental psychologists might say that we are formed like a three-legged stool: One-third of our makeup is based on DNA or inheritance. Another third can be explained by our early life experiences in our families, but the final third is our innate uniqueness, as one-of-a-kind as eye color or fingerprint. That's the part that's more mysterious and totally up to our own determination.

Regardless of what propelled these silent generation women in their formative years, the road to greatness is full of potholes. This was especially true for women—then and now. Yet they survived and continue to thrive due to their own tenacity and commitment.

When you look back at your own history, what do you see as an early sign of your own strong voice and commitment to something you believe in? Who might have inspired you to take a stand? Were you fortunate to have a gutsy grandmother who took strong outspoken positions, like Gloria Steinem’s grandmother? Or maybe it was an aunt, teacher, or clergy member who modeled risk-taking for righteous causes.

Just because you didn’t achieve the same fame and acclaim as the women featured here, doesn’t mean you aren’t a hero in your own life, to your family, and also your community. It’s time to celebrate the Silent women among us! We’re still here. We’re still engaged.