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Generations of Women in the Workplace

I’m in Washington DC this week, the guest of my fabulous daughter, Sarah Istel, who serves our country as Deputy Counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Yep, she probably knows if there are UFOs, but she’s not talking. I had a business friend, his wife, and their fifteen year old daughter, who hopes to be a lawyer one day, join us. We dined in the Senate dining room, toured the Capital in a way I will remember forever, and went to the West Wing of the White House at 9:00 pm for a small tour that included… well, the Oval office. I watched my daughter in her hood, with her colleagues that clearly like and respect her, and I watched her confidence in doing what she does and respecting those around her. And her generosity in showing us around and far and above what was expected. It was something to remember forever.

It also brought me back to my own business life. I tell clients and customers that every person you are selling to needs to see a mirror of themself and a window into that which they aspire to be in order to want your product or service. My daughter, and fifteen year old, Addie, see themselves everywhere they go in today’s world, in all kinds of jobs and missions, and there isn’t much they can’t aspire to call their own. Or, maybe I should say there is much they can aspire to in this day and age. Not that it’s a level playing field, but they can get to the goal line.

When I arrived in New York City in 1975, fresh from the University of Nebraska hinterlands and my college experience, my dad summoned me to his New York apartment, where he would hold court once every month or so when he had business in the city. He flew in like the Shah on his lear jet, and I still remember pushing the button to the floor of his apartment on the upper east side with a feeling of anxious hope that we would feel good after the visit was over. Both of us. I was still on the Parent Payroll, which in fairness to him I didn’t treat with much respect or regard. It just was. On this particular day, he informed me that he had enrolled me in Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School. I was shocked.

“Why, Dad, would I do that? I have no intention of being a secretary.”

To be honest, I didn’t have much of an intention to be anything at all. Ah, to live those years over again. Seriously. It’s one of my largest regrets.

Dad replied, “Because, Christine, no matter what happens in life, you can always get a job as a secretary.” That is how he saw me. A mirror of all that he knew about where women belonged in the workplace.

“Well that may be Dad, but I’m not going.” I was so insulted. Insulted I tell you.

“If you do not go, then I will cut you off.”

“Frankly Dad,” I said with great bravado, having just finished Gone with the Wind, “I don’t give a damn.” I stood up with every ounce of unearned dignity that I could muster, and I walked out.

I was never on his payroll again. I immediately found a job answering phones at Marymount Manhattan College. “Marymount Manhattan College, how may I direct your call?” That lasted a few days, until I simply took off the headphones and walked away from the switchboard, leaving an “I can’t do this job, but thank you” behind as I shut the door on my way out. I ended up at a financial management company, where my “clients” (I paid client’s bills and did their bidding) included Don Imus, who was in forced financial management for not paying taxes and used to yell at me on the air because the management firm wouldn’t give him all his money to spend on photography equipment, women, and drugs. Until the taxes were paid, he was on an allowance.

But I digress. The long range point is that I can say I have done all right for myself, and while I do not have a Katherine Gibbs certificate, I think I gained my independence, and a dose of reality that probably saved me from never really trying to earn my own way. I own my own company. I employ others, and I give back. It’s a good life and a successful business career.

I am so very grateful that I got to see my daughter’s world this week. I am grateful that Addie could see herself this week in so many places, giving her a mirror of herself and a window into that which she may choose to aspire to be. I’m so very grateful I had the strength to stand up to the standards that were set for my generation in the early seventies. What a week. I will never forget it.


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