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Women Who Broke All The Rules

Women Who Broke All The Rules

by Susan Evans

Life turns out in ways you never expected.

The eighteen million women born in the first years of the baby boom grew up anticipating a life of rules—go to college, get married, have a family. But when the time came, the cultural, social and political tumult of the late 1960s catapulted them into options that no previous generation had even considered.



Life turns out in ways you never expected.

The eighteen million women born in the first years of the baby boom grew up anticipating a life of rules—go to college, get married, have a family. But when the time came, the cultural, social and political tumult of the late 1960s catapulted them into options that no previous generation had even considered.

The Women Who Broke All the Rules is the first book to celebrate the ordinary but extraordinary women who made decisions that have changed every woman's life. Against extreme odds and without role models, these women made unprecedented life choices—in marriage, childbearing, education and work. By breaking every rule in the "good girl" handbook, they defined new ways for adult women to live. You will recognize yourself, your family and your friends in these pages.

Editorial Reviews

Rebecca Maksel
Specifically tailored for a general audience, the book would benefit a sociology or women's studies course, or provide the foundation for an oral history project.
ForeWord Magazine
Library Journal
Using oral histories, Evans, a University of San Francisco professor, and Avis, a licensed psychologist and director of the Life Transitions Institute, piece together the stories of everyday women of the baby boom generation. Born between 1945 and 1955, these "torchbearers" discuss marriage, careers, delayed child bearing, female friendships, and family relationships. The authors examine adult female psychological and professional development through interviews with over 100 mainly white, heterosexual women from supposedly diverse backgrounds. The analysis is rather thin and contains some language that oversimplifies women's plight, e.g., "they were programmed to follow a lockstep sequence from school to marriage." This is a popular study aimed at a general middle-class professional audience; readers looking for more detail might turn to Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America 1945-1960 (Temple Univ., 1994) and Generations: A Century of Women Speak About Their Lives (LJ 7/97). Recommended for public libraries only.--Jenny Lynn Presnell, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A feeble attempt to explain how women got where they are today. The women's movement is still evolving, yet already people are analyzing what really happened way back in the 1960s. Evans and Avis, experts in interpersonal communications and psychology respectively, both at the University of San Francisco, interviewed more than 100 women who came of age in the late '60s and early '70s, their theory being that these "torchbearers," who broke new social ground and crushed certain accepted gender conventions, could help shed light on how women forced social change. Unfortunately, the authors reduce this intriguing idea to pap, resorting to clichés under the guise of "new truths" such as "You've got to have friends" and "If it's a trial by fire, don't forget to bring marshmallows." In attempting to consolidate a lot of information, Evans and Avis trivialize individual women in stereotypical caricatures. Joyce, for instance, was a radical leftist who created coffee houses near military bases to encourage soldiers to question the Vietnam War. Later she tried to join the army to better organize from the inside. (Her father secretly sabotaged the attempt by calling the FBI.) Her ultimate decision to marry a conservative, apolitical man and live a "settled middle-class life focused on family" is evaluated by noting "she did so with a deep sense of satisfaction, knowing she had been true to herself and had contributed to stopping social injustice." Is that all there is to say about such an original life? The book also traffics in the worst sort of New Age-isms: "Create balance in your life." This is a woman thing? The authors' annoyingly simple explanations don't do justice to a timeperiod deserving of better analysis.

Product Details

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I See Myself as an Accidental Pioneer

"If you could talk to the women who came across America in covered wagons, they'd say they weren't very tough either. I did what I had to do. That was the case for most of my generation. It was all timing. We never set out to blaze trails, yet in so many ways, we did."

The generation born between 1945 and 1955, the first decade of the baby boom, is the first in which vast numbers of American women chose to deviate from conventional patterns of education, marriage, childbearing, and careers. Raised with the traditional female expectations of the 1950s—to go to college, get married, and have a family—they encountered unanticipated events in adolescence and early adulthood which changed the course of their lives. Like Sleeping Beauty, an entire generation was awakened by the collective energy of the radical counterculture, the civil-rights movement, and second-wave feminism. Because these women entered young adulthood in the late 1960s, a time of enormous social change, their thoughts and actions directly challenged society's narrow and stifling rules for girls. They became accidental pioneers in the process, going where women had never gone before.

    Remarkably, this generation went beyond conventional limits and rules in their twenties, thirties, and forties, not just during adolescence. As teenagers and young adults, they began the lifelong process of being risk-takers, bold in their pursuit of both professional and personal success. When the doors to traditionally male professionsswung open, they were among the first women to take advantage of emerging opportunities. When they weren't challenging the assumptions about who could enter certain occupations, they were breaking every rule in the "good girl" handbook. They defied the sanctions against interracial and interfaith marriage, abortion, single motherhood, divorce, and unmarried cohabitation which, at one time, were big violations of social mores for middle-class females. They led the way by showing that women could engage in such conduct and still be respectable people, by any standards.

    The story of this transitional generation is a contemporary version of the classic pioneer tale of self-transformation and triumph over adversity. Like early pioneers, these women took different roads, made distinctly different choices than their predecessors, and learned that those who "go first" face difficult times when they reject established social and cultural conventions. Unlike early pioneer women who left home with their husbands and families, these women had only each other to buffer what they encountered along the way and their journey still continues to have profound and far-reaching implications for how society views women. Despite relentless efforts over the last thirty years to rein them back in, this generation boldly refused to accept second-class status on the basis of their sex and created unprecedented life options for all women, not just for themselves. Because we see their lives as prototypes for a women learning how to survive and thrive, we call the women of this generation Torchbearers. Torchbearers initiate, originate, break new ground, and scout unknown trails. As transmitters of the light of knowledge, they also have the responsibility to pass the torch to those who follow.

    The women of this generation were forced, out of necessity to meet the challenge of integrating valuable lessons from the past with abundant new ways of being. Through the course of their adult development, they pioneered previously unheard of freedoms and choices for women that most now take for granted and constructed empowered lives by devising new ways to love and work. As a result of their efforts, women today are truly free to become fully self-actualized persons, without the constraint of gender. We want to honor this amazing and resourceful generation for their sense of spirit and adventure, their ability to triumph over obstacles, and their creativity in crafting an entirely new model for female adult development. Theirs is a living legacy that must be shared with women of all ages.

    The bold statements we just made about the generation of women who broke all the rules may seem obvious to some, but if they are so obvious, why haven't we read about their incredible inspirational lives in the media and popular press? In fact, the opposite is the case. With the exception of some feminist writers, few have publicly extolled the virtues of this generation Apart from articles about famous members, such as Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Diane Keaton, and Amy Tan, we found very little in the popular literature that commends this generation as special and unique. Instead, they have been characterized as selfish, anti-male, unappealing and unattractive, neurotic, narcissistic, and anti-life, to name just a few. While we knew intuitively from our personal experience that this picture was distorted, it wasn't until after we finished our interviews with one hundred ordinary but extraordinary representatives of this generation that even we fully realized the extent and depth of their impact on womankind.

Where Are the Men?

Six years ago, an event took place which initially brought the contributions of this remarkable generation to our attention. Susan went to a friend's "ladies only" birthday party. A dozen women, all in their late thirties to forties, had been invited. Although most were strangers, among women this is never a barrier to lively conversation and instant self-revelation. Halfway through the evening, Susan turned to a friend and said, "There are twelve smart, interesting, attractive women here—how come everyone is single?" That was the first of many questions to follow.

    When Susan met Joan for lunch the next day, this observation from the previous evening became Topic A. Like most women, we had read the flawed, yet highly publicized, Yale study about the man shortage for women over age thirty-five. Were these dozen vital, financially secure, successful women living proof of the lack of available men or was their (non)marital status merely one element of a far more significant phenomenon? Being social scientists and in that age group ourselves, we decided to explore the issue further.

    We began by examining the few facts we had about the women at the dinner party. First, they were all leading-edge baby boomers. Born in the decade after World War II, they came of age during the social, political, and cultural tumult that occurred in America in the late 1960s. Although much of society was playing by the old rules, young adolescent women recognized the real revolution that was taking place. Women's lives were about to be transformed forever and they would be both the agents and beneficiaries of that change. What was the process that transformed these young women into healthy, resilient adults?

    Second, while these women had been continuously in the workforce since completing their education, not one was working in her original career. The social worker was now a computer executive. The art teacher was in marketing. The dancer ran an executive search company. And so on. All had chosen different careers after trying more traditional female options and discovering they could hold their own in "male" occupations. The broad framework of adult development emphasizes that growth occurs across the life span. What could be learned from women whose lives present models of continuous growth and change throughout adulthood?

    Third, the lives of these women contained both highly conventional and highly unconventional experiences. As a generation, they encountered the discrepancy between the traditional choices of their mothers and the nontraditional choices of their peers at every social, political, and cultural turn. Because they had few role models, women had to look to their own experiences and feelings to determine what was right, what was possible, and what to do next. In the process, they became a generation of adventurers, experimenters, explorers, and leaders. Like modern day wagon-train pioneers, they led the way into the uncharted territory between the narrowly defined landscape of the 1950s and the unexplored radical terrain of the 1970s. How had they reconciled and integrated the incongruous messages from these two eras?

    Several months later, we happened to talk informally with some women who had been at the birthday party. We confirmed that they were professionally self-made and psychologically healthy. Not surprisingly, most had been married or had lived with a partner at least once. More significantly, we discovered that the majority were involved in happy, loving relationships. One forty-one-year-old was engaged and about to marry for the first time. Another had a long-term monogamous yet non-cohabiting relationship. Still another was about to move to Europe with her partner.

    By now, our curiosity had moved beyond the original question that sparked our interest and the experiences of a dozen women to a much bigger picture—the picture of an entire generation. We wondered how the women in this age group had emerged from a confusing and conflicted historical period into healthy and fulfilled adults, how they created meaningful lives they never envisioned as children, and how they transformed their old ways of thinking about themselves as women. Our personal experiences and conversations with friends informed our thinking about what directions we might take to find answers.

    Many lunches and discussions later, we decided to apply our professional expertise and skills to the topic. Soon we had developed a set of questions that would enable us to gain insights into two key areas: women's adult development and the impact of a unique generation. After a year of identifying and interviewing women, most of whom we had never met before, we began to analyze and synthesize their individual stories and to identify the old rules and new truths which captured the continuity of their learning from childhood to the present. In the process, we gained a broader perspective on their significance as a generation.

    We suspect that every woman of this generation has a story to tell—an untold story in most cases—that chronicles her choices, her hopes and dreams, her fears, and her efforts to do her best and evolve new truths from old, outdated rules. That is, of course, the point. This book provides a vehicle for many of these stories to be heard. By including our interview questions in the Appendix, we invite you to tell your life story and to listen to the reflections of your friends. But more importantly, our purpose is to frame these individual stories in the context of female adult development which results from having lived during a unique historical period. Our hope is that you will gain new appreciation of your own life choices and feel increased pride for your place in the generation of women who broke all the rules.

Do Women Grow and Change In Adulthood?

Daniel Levinson's Seasons of a Man's Life and Gall Sheehy's Passages brought to mainstream America a new idea—that development doesn't stop after childhood ends but, in fact, continues across the lifespan. They proposed that adults had defined "tasks" to accomplish for each stage and decade, with revisions of one's life course resulting from age-defined periods of reexamination. Other views of growth, such as William Bridges' Transitions, suggest that more fluid, complex patterns of development based on life events and self-initiated transitions are the major sources of change in adulthood. In reflecting on this generation, we hypothesized that their development was shaped not only by their chronological age and life transitions, but also by the unique historical circumstances they encountered along the way.

    From our examination of their lives, we concluded that these women not only contributed to challenging the old rules about adulthood, but significantly advanced the shift in our collective thinking about development over the past few decades. The old static definition of adulthood as a time of limited change and consolidation has been replaced with a new realization that life presents an extended opportunity for learning. The growing interest in healthy aging, wellness, psychological well-being, and positive mental health all point to this new view. Researchers Carol Ryff and Corey Lee Keyes, in a 1995 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article, identified six dimensions of well-being in adults: self acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growth. Not coincidentally, we discovered that the women we interviewed possess all of these characteristics. Why have we read or heard so little about their positive attributes?

    Popular literature and the media have devoted little attention to the strengths of this generation of women. Instead, we found countless self-help books that claim many successful women have "female problems," including burnout, infertility, spinsterhood, and codependency. This finger-pointing at the lifestyle choices made by contemporary women presents an erroneous image of this generation and undermines their hard-won gains in both professional and personal arenas. Because of what we learned about the resilience, resourcefulness, and life satisfaction of the women we interviewed, we felt compelled to document, illustrate, and celebrate this generation's positive contributions to defining healthy female development.

The Generation of Women Who Broke All the Rules

In order to function effectively in a changing world, the women born between 1945 and 1955 had to let go of almost all their childhood expectations and create a new reality. In the course of meeting the challenge to construct meaningful lives, as a generation, they evolved new principles for living to replace the old rules. They used creativity, courage, and determination to redefine womanhood in the process. In fact, their hard work has become so much a part of every woman's experience today that it is too easy to forget that there was a time when most women valued conformity, were afraid to take risks, and lacked self-confidence.

    Born into a time when assimilating new experiences into old structures no longer worked, these women were forced to construct new frameworks for thinking about themselves as adults. Along the way, they gained inner strength and an ability to problem solve in a wide variety of situations. We believe that every woman who remembers when her future was defined by limited opportunity and inferior status has spent the last thirty years on a personal mission to redefine and transform female adulthood.

    Moving back and forth from disequilibrium to balance, the lives of Torchbearers revealed insights women of all ages can use to lead productive, satisfying lives. By gathering their stories, we came to see how these women gained increased self-confidence and an ability to continually redefine themselves as they encountered new and sometimes daunting situations. Through reflecting on their stories, we affirmed our expectation that ordinary women can be quite extraordinary in the ways they create meaning in their lives. From analyzing their stories, we confirmed that female adult development is not just about who we are inside, but also about the influence of historical and cultural events on the collective experience of women.

    We discovered that women of this generation are persistent workers and risk-takers who recognized opportunities and took advantage of them. Women, in general, have great difficulty taking credit for their success. Cutting-edge baby boomers who walk the tightrope every day between the worlds of femininity and feminism are particularly prone to self-effacing statements, even when all evidence points to the contrary. Men have less trouble taking credit for their achievements. This book was written to encourage Torchbearers to take pride in their incredible accomplishments and contributions to healthy living for women of all ages.

    Our decision to focus the book on this generation as viewed through a developmental lens has been both rewarding and educational. We traced the process by which new principles for living evolved from their young adulthood to the present in order to capture the on-going nature of their learning. We found that contemporary women could incorporate very different aspects of themselves into functional personal identities, including roles and attributes traditionally associated with being male in our society. Women of this generation have expanded the world of possibilities not only for themselves, but for all women. We hope we have done justice to the diverse individual approaches they used to effect change in themselves and in society and that we have provided a fresh perspective on their immense contributions which have yet to be fully acknowledged and appreciated. Finally, we encourage all women to see themselves in the stories we chronicle, to gather in informal groups of friends to share their own stories with each other, and to never forget those who helped them become more than they ever thought they could be.

Meet the Author

Susan B. Evans, Ed.D., and Joan P. Avis, Ph.D., are professors at the University of San Francisco. Susan teaches graduate courses in special education, survey research and data analysis. Joan is a licensed psychologist who specializes in adult development and life planning and is the Director of the Life Transitions Institute in San Francisco. They are both members of the generation of women who broke all the rules.

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