What if women ran the world?

To quote my grandma Sylvia, We’d all be fat and sassy

Last week, I had a job interview.

Last week, I had a job interview with an amazing woman.

Interviewer: What do people get wrong about you?

Me: They say I’m intimidating. Well, men say it. Women do not.

Interviewer: You mean you are focused and results driven?




Me: Yeah, I am really nosy, which helps, I guess, with getting to know people via Zoom and email. It’s harder when you can’t talk to people in person.

Interviewer: You mean you are curious and engaged?




I keep thinking about our conversation – how she was not willing to let me use pejorative terms to describe myself.

How she isolated the attribute from my sex and described me in a way that many people would describe a man with the exact same characteristics.

How I describe myself in ways that are negative.

How I incorporate the language of the patriarchy to convert that what is positive in a man to that which is negative in a woman.

And I didn’t even see it.

A friend of mine – an engineer – has just been promoted to director level at an engineering company.

“My mom seems angry. I think she is jealous of me,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“I think she is angry that I get to have all these opportunities that she did not have.”

Which makes sense.

We have not really come that far. Her mom grew up in a time when women couldn’t even get a credit card in their own name and, in many cases, had to quit their jobs when they got pregnant.

White women have had the right to vote – wait – our right to participate in our democracy has been recognized for only about 100 years in the US and the UK. For Black women, it’s even less time.

[And take everything I say here about women and amplify that by a gajillion for all that has been lost to the world because of slavery.]

And we had to fight for it. Literally fight.

I read Death in Ten Minutes: The Forgotten Life of Radical Suffragette Kitty Marion, by Fern Riddell. The suffragists in England blew up buildings and train stations. They went on hunger strike and were force fed with tubes down their noses. To draw attention to the cause, one woman threw herself in front of the horses at a major race and died of her injuries.

This drawing is from my grandmother’s 8th grade workbook.

What has been lost to the world because women didn’t have a chance?

Against her wishes, my Grandma Helen had to leave school after 8th grade. She said,

I graduated (from 8th grade) in May 1926 and that was the extent of my education.

I would have loved to go on to school, but there were no school busses in those days to take me to Owen 7 1/2 miles away, and my parents could not afford to pay board for someone to keep me.

Before she married, my grandmother, who grew up in northern Wisconsin, worked as a maid in Milwaukee and Chicago. In Chicago, on her day off, she would walk the miles into the city rather than pay for the streetcar so she could use the money to buy chocolate instead.

Which – yeah. Genetics.

When she was 28, she married my grandfather, who also did not get to go past 8th grade, and they had a dairy farm. It’s not the quaint, sweet life many people imagine – the people who say, “I just want to move to the country and have a small farm with some cows and some goats and a garden.”

It’s a hard life that requires that you get up every single morning to milk the cows. Eery single morning. Every single day. Cows wait for nobody. It’s a hard life that consumes all your time, even more back when my grandparents were farming and my grandmother had to line-dry laundry, including diapers for her seven children, and made bread from scratch and canned their food and sewed their clothes.

Grandma and I didn’t have intimate conversations. She didn’t talk about how she felt. I didn’t know what her dreams were. She just got on with things.

She expressed herself through food, showing her love through cooking and baking.

She did have one big hobby – she painted. She took painting classes for years.

I asked her what she would have done if she could have done anything.

“I would have gone to Paris to study art,” she answered.

My grandma was prolific, making hundreds of paintings. This one is a copy of a painting of Segovia my mom bought when we lived in Spain. My grandparents visited us in Spain – the one big vacation they took in their entire lives.

Have you read the book, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marçal?

Think about it. It’s always been in the back of your mind, somewhere – the question, “How did all these scientists and artists get anything done? When did they cook? When did they do laundry? How did they get clothes?”

Someone was doing the work.

My grandma Sylvia grew up in Milwaukee. She left school after 8th grade as well.

She was always very proud of her great-aunt Katie. Katie never married. She was the head housekeeper for some rich family in Milwaukee – the boss of several other employees.

Sylvia worked at the Milwaukee Public Library. When she married and moved north with my grandfather, she helped run his business – an auto-repair shop and a gas station. She also volunteered at the library.

When my grandfather died, leaving her a widow in her 50s, she ran the gas station by herself.

She was smart and funny and sassy. When I would go to the grocery store with her, she would buy the National Enquirer, which I found mortifying. She had plastic over her sofa and she was an indifferent cook. She really didn’t care about that stuff. She wore dark red lipstick and had her nails done and she smoked. And she wore pants. Which was not so common back then.

My mom is brilliant. She went to the University of Wisconsin on an academic scholarship, but dropped out her freshman year to get married.

It’s hard to be a scholarship student with no money for fun.

“I didn’t even have a dime to buy a cup of coffee,” she told me once.

My mom is super smart and artistic and creative – and has looked her entire life to find outlets for her talents.

If she had been able to finish college, I am pretty sure she would have ended up one of the first female CEOs of a Fortune 100 company.

When I was junior high, she started studying photography.

My mom has always had a good eye.

She learned to develop film and make her own prints. She built a darkroom at our house.

When I was in high school, she took computer programming classes. She got an associate’s degree in computer science. When I hear people talking about how older women don’t understand technology, I roll my eyes. My mom programmed in Fortran and COBOL.

Like my grandmother, my mom is an excellent baker.

She started a bakery business out of our house. People would call and ask when she was baking again. They couldn’t wait for the next batch of bread, of kuchen, of coffeecake.

Then she started researching family history.

In the past 20 years or so, she has written – sheesh, I can’t even count them – five? six? detailed, meticulously researched, beautifully illustrated books about our family.

She has interviewed primary sources, transcribing hours and hours of conversations. She has found and restored photos. She has dug into immigration records, birth certificates, certificates of naturalization.

Now she is creating in another way. She gardens. She is a volunteer gardener at her church and a guerilla gardener in her neighborhood, ruthlessly weeding the common areas and planting flowers because the HOA won’t do it right and hire gardeners.

In her wonderful book More Work for Mother, Ruth Cowan shows how technology for homemaking tasks has made life easier for men but has not eased the burden for women. Indeed, in some cases, it has increased it. Women do more work at home than men do.

And it’s not because we are better suited for it, as one man suggested when he informed a friend of mine that their daughter’s diaper had leaked and there was poop on the floor.

“Well clean it up,” my friend said.

“But – you’re so much better at it!” he replied.

Women are not better than men at cleaning poop off the floor.

What if all that brainpower and energy – my two grandmothers, my mom – had been directed toward curing cancer? Solving hunger? (World hunger, not grandchild hunger. My grandmothers solved that one.) Eradicating disease? Developing art museums and parks and children’s programs? Inventing new products? Running the symphony?

It’s not that their efforts were wasted. Our society could not function without these women. They provide a tremendous amount of unpaid labor. They do the things that keep the wheels greased for the rest of us.

My grandma Helen volunteered at her church. She made sure her nephew with schizophrenia was fed after the nephew’s mother, my grandmother’s sister, died. Her gardens – both vegetable and flower – were works of art admired by all. Her paintings hung in the local bank.

(I once had to cash a check at that bank. I asked what ID they wanted from me and the teller said, “Oh I don’t need anything. You’re Helen’s granddaughter, right?”)

My grandma Sylvia volunteered at her library.

My mom has been a Brownie troop leader, a soccer coach (when she didn’t even know how to play soccer – but my city started a soccer league for girls and I joined and she coached my team), a Sunday school teacher.

These women make our lives – our communities – better. They are the unsung heroes of society.

A friend wrote on facebook that her son’s orthodontist can’t give after school appointments to all his patients because of “working moms.”

Because it’s so beyond the pale that a father might be expected to take time off from work to take his child to the orthodontist?

Women have been and are, for the most part, the ones making these sacrifices.

What would the world look like today if my grandmothers had been able to pursue more education?

Would my grandmother’s art be exhibited in museums?

Would my mom be retired from leading the company that found a cure for cancer?

Would my grandma Sylvia have created a convenience store empire? (Not that the world needs that – so perhaps this one is not such a loss.)

How much better would the world be if everyone’s talents were recognized?


3 thoughts on “What if women ran the world?

  1. Another post that’s right on target. I never think of myself as being the first in my family to go to college, but Mother only got one semester, so I sort of am. She wanted me to finish more than I really cared, and cheered every better job I ever got. And, when she proudly told me that she was earning $25k as manager of a medical practice with four docs and more than 20 staff, I nearly wept for her, since I was making double that in job that was barely above entry level. And, imagine if we – you and I – had been African American. Then my mother would have been lucky to make $25 per day.

    The world we live in is better, but still not one that values the skills and contributions of women in general.

    I hope you get the job for which you interviewed (if you want it), but if not you’ve learned to repackage your skills and experience in a stronger, more positive way. Good luck with the search!


  2. And imagine also, if our fathers and grandfathers and all the other men before them had spent more hands-on time with their children. Imagine if they had taken on more of the work of child-rearing, while their wives took on more of the work external to the household, so that there wasn’t this pernicious idea that there’s paid work that counts, and then all the stuff that women do. Imagine the dividends in family relationships. Imagine the dividends in what the men we married would expect and do. There’s a fascinating profile in last weekend’s New York Times magazine of Silvia Federici, an Italian-American academic and activist who has, for decades, written about wages for housework, and the way that capitalism is structured to devalue and make invisible what she calls “reproductive labor”–not just actual gestation and birthing, but all the cleaning, cooking, laundry, and care work that is essential to the literal continuation of the human race. Highly recommend.


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