“Sometimes the big barriers in life,” writes award-winning author Carolyn Howard-Johnson, as she remembers her first attempt to get a writing job at Good Housekeeping Magazine in the early 1960s, “can’t be seen and acknowledged. Because we may not even know that those barriers are there.”
After a 1950s childhood in Utah, during which her mother advised her to “become a teacher, because you can be home the same hours as your children,” Howard-Johnson went to college, majored in English Literature, and dreamed of writing a novel like Gone with the Wind. But it wasn’t until she applied for work as a writer that the invisible barriers facing women became — not visible, exactly, but nearly tangible.
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When I applied for a job as a writer for the Hearst Corporation in New York at age twenty, and was told to take the typing test, I politely pointed out that I wasn’t applying for a job in the typing pool.
“No typing test, no interview” was the immediate retort. So I took the test and was offered a job as a typist. Surprised, I somehow found the courage to insist upon the interview I’d been promised. Not that it made any difference. What I didn’t realize was that typing skills were only required of women — not men — seeking employment at a Hearst magazine.
Much later, I realized that this kind of institutionalized prejudice feeds on the ignorance of its victims. Sheep-like, they accept the status quo because they don’t understand what they’re really facing, and because no other options seem available.
Something similar was at work when I married and had children. I left my writing career (by then, I was a staff writer at The Salt Lake Tribune) with hardly a backward glance, since I was doing what was then expected of women — by nothing less than the entire culture.
As we all know, things are different, now. So much so, that if you’re younger than your mid-fifties, you probably can’t remember a time when women didn’t know they had choices. “You can’t be a nurse,” I remember my mother saying, while laying out my limitations, “because your ankles aren’t sturdy enough.” And of course I couldn’t be a doctor; that “wasn’t a woman’s profession.” But, she advised, “Learn to type. Every woman should be able to make a living if her husband dies.”
My young husband’s career took precedence, because that was how it was done. We had two children, carefully planned – also how it was done. But by the 1970s, we both wanted to spend time with our kids while being in command of our own lives, so we built a business. After that, we lived through floods and moves, enjoyed traveling. And, during all forty of those years, I didn’t write — even though the culture gradually changed in ways that impacted me and others like me. Women acquired the right to have choices. More importantly, we became aware that having choices was itself a kind of choice, an open door.
Finally, at sixty, I realized that the place in my life which my children used to fill was many times larger than the space they actually left behind. I knew I needed to write; the time had come. But after four hundred pages, I saw that something major was wrong. Writing a novel wasn’t as easy as writing news stories. There were certain skills I didn’t have. So I took classes at UCLA and attended writers’ conferences. I listened to teachers, revised, and listened again.
In time, my novel, This Is the Place, “fell into place” on the page. Much of it was my own story — the warp of it was real, while the woof was imagined as fiction. After my first book was published, I went on to write a series of nonfiction books for writers, and to teach at UCLA myself, but I know that the novel I was able to produce at sixty-something contains more well-lived insight than it would have had I succeeded in writing it at twenty.
So, in some sense, I managed to turn those invisible barriers — the cultural prejudice I faced as a young woman — to my advantage when I, at last, became a mature novelist.
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Carolyn Howard-Johnson is the recipient of eight awards for her novel, This Is the Place, available on Amazon.com: http://tinyurl.com/26u22ru Her main website address is: http://www.HowToDoItFrugally.com Her blog address is: http://www.SharingWithWriters.Blogspot.com On Twitter, you can find her at: http://www.Twitter.com/FrugalBookPromo