I was blessed to be raised by parents who believed that their children could be anything that they put their minds to. While this is not a revolutionary idea, it is somewhat exceptional in the world of my upbringing because my dad’s culture—certainly at the time—didn’t really support that for women.
First, in order to ward off any upset due to my generalizing, let me say that I speak from my own experience and surroundings, okay? So relax if you think I’m saying this about an entire culture. I’m not. Exhale. Get a coffee.
Okay, so…my dad understood the value of education. He put himself through college during the latter part of the Depression, and he simply knew that his kids were going to college. Period. I grew up knowing that college was a part of my official schooling. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal today, but as two of his kids were female, it kinda was. In the Italian-American “world” that my dad came from, girls usually graduated high school and then began their “grownup” lives—often seeing marriage as the main goal. My sister and I were the first women in our entire extended family to graduate college.
My dad’s support went beyond just providing for our education, though. He also gave us encouragement and confidence that we could do anything, and that we should pick something we love since we’d be doing it for a good chunk of our lives.
He didn’t push any particular path for us, either. All he wanted was for us to be the best that we could be. Not the best—but our best. He would say, “I don’t care if you’re going to be a ditch digger, but if you are, be the best damn ditch digger you can be.”
Because of all of this, I grew up thinking the world was my oyster—with surely a pearl or two to enjoy.
Yet a woman’s right to vote in the U.S. is less than 100 years old. And while I was a kid (I’m not all that old), the Equal Rights Amendment was fought for…and lost. It still hasn’t passed, and today women make 77 cents to a man’s dollar—and too many face the reality of the glass ceiling—the term used to describe the invisible barrier that bars women from upward mobility in their profession.
But even while this maddening inequality exists, my upbringing fostered in me a belief that the sky was the limit.
Which is why it is totally paradoxical that I ended up spending fourteen years of my life working at one of the few places that outwardly and clearly discriminates against women and says, “You can’t be this” flat out.
No, I wasn’t a professional football or baseball player—I worked for a church. A church that doesn’t believe that women should lead a congregation or become pastors. There was no glass ceiling—there was a solid, fully formed concrete ceiling.
Mind you, I didn’t agree with the stance or keep quiet that I didn’t, but since I never planned on being a member of the clergy, I tried to think that it didn’t affect me. After all, what I couldn’t be I didn’t want to be. In reality, though, the work culture reflected that women had a “place,” and it wasn’t at the top. It is in the fabric of the institution, and there’s no pretending it away.
Volunteering one Sunday morning as a communion assistant, I even had a male coworker refuse to accept the wafer from me because I was a woman. It felt like a punch in the gut. The injustice I felt about banning women as clergy felt distant compared to that moment. The direct discrimination stung brightly, but given the environment, why should I be surprised?
Now that I no longer work there, I shake my head that that was my situation for so long. It feels good to be back in a world where I can once again breathe deeply and be anything I want. Okay, well not anything, as just evidenced, but at least the concrete ceiling no longer hovers over me like a dark cloud.
My dad died long before I made the decision to work there, and I wonder what he would think about my choice for that chapter of my life. “Really, Lis? With all that you could do you picked that?” More likely, knowing his support, he would have rooted for me to try and knock that ceiling down. “Don’t let them tell you that you can’t!” (But they can…and they do.)
No, I didn’t crack the ceiling, Dad, but I did speak up. Maybe that’s a part of why I am no longer there. And although I left sooner than I had planned, I do know he would be glad, as I am, that it is a part of my past and not my present.
“It was time, Babe…more than time.”
UPDATE: After writing this post, my husband shared this with me. It is a powerful piece by former president Jimmy Carter about his decision to sever ties with his church because he could no longer tolerate inequality. Definitely worth a couple minutes of your time.