Pretty Little Girls and Strong Women

“What it lies in our power to do,

It lies in our power not to do.”

-Aristotle

Men do not want solely the obedience of women,

they want their sentiments (so that a woman is)

not a forced slave but a willing one.”

-John Stuart Mill

I grew up surrounded by women. I had two older sisters, and there were two more that came as I reached my teen years. My mother’s cousin Blanca helped to raise me. My sisters were popular, so there were dozens of their friends around on a daily basis. And there were my father’s students…

My dad was the math department chairman at the local university. From the time that he had enough rank (power) to make significant decisions he made it his life’s work to prove a revolutionary idea: that women were just as smart as men. In particular, that there was no reason to encourage “girls” to pursue professions such as nursing and secretarial work just because that’s what society had decided that they were best suited to do.

My father taught many of the introductory college math classes. Whenever he ran into a woman with talent he would move heaven and earth to encourage her to enroll in the science faculty. The world missed out on many potential good secretaries, but it gained dozens of sharp mathematicians. These women became his protégés: they had access to our house much as we did. They opened the door without knocking, and when I saw them come in I kept on doing whatever it was that occupied me at that moment, because I saw them as I would one of my sisters.

On the negative side, this “overdose” of exposure to women made me a softer man than what was expected from the average Puerto Rican male. I never enjoyed horseplay, or getting into wrestling matches with my friends.  I rarely got in trouble (at least, I never got caught), which kept me from being exposed to many situations that I had trouble handling later in life. On the positive side, I grew up looking up to women and the positive role that they played in society. I learned how to talk to them; what they wanted; how to listen. This “plus” far outweighs the negatives I discussed above.

When I became a doctor and I had the opportunity to hire employees I was impressed by the number of capable, bright women who were happy to work for the relatively low wages that I could pay. Their stories were different but bore one common denominator: they had not pursued their education to the utmost of their capability.

I decided that I would try to emulate my father. I tried to hire bright young women who had some ambition. If they turned out to be good workers and had warm personalities, I offered to help them to go to school. I had no problem rearranging their work hours so that they could make it to their classes. I have paid for textbooks, computers, overdue electric bills, even dental work. The only condition being that they must agree to seek a job that paid better once they got their degree, so that others could take their place.

One day I had been given notice that another one of “my” protégés had found a better job. While I was at a pizza parlor that evening, I began to mull over who would be new employee. The young woman at the cash register was pleasant, sharp, and had a beautiful smile. I figured that she was a college student who was making extra money in her spare time.

Where do you go to school?

I was rewarded with her smile.

“I don’t go to school.  This is my job.”

You are smart. Why aren’t you in school?

She briefly looked down at the register.

“Maybe I’m not that smart.”

Nonsense. I can tell.

I took out one of my business cards and gave it to her.

Give me a call. I think that you can do better than this.

To my surprise, she called the next day. She was off work that afternoon, so I asked her to come in after the last patient had left.

Her story was sad but not unusual.  She had done well in high school. There was no money for her to go to college, and because she was cute her parents were not too worried that she may not be able to support herself.  She had a boyfriend who went to college: some day they would marry.  She took a series of odd jobs, whatever was available, waiting for him to propose.

The moment never came. Eventually he found her conversation boring, and he moved on. The pizza parlor offered a full-time job. Within weeks she had become involved with the store manager, who was married. She got pregnant and kept the baby. Her boss refused to acknowledge the child, at the same time that he gave her the most undesirable shifts. He did not pay child support, or tell his wife about his affair. She was barely making it, and only because her parents helped as they could.

Come to work for me. I will pay you more than what you make. Only two conditions.

“Anything you say.”

I will give you the name of a lawyer. You talk to her about your situation.  You agree to sue this jerk. Do not worry about the lawyer’s bill; we’ll make him pay for it.

“OK. And the second?”

You promise to go to school. Anything that you want to study. I will give you flexible hours and pay for your books. As soon as you get a degree you have to quit our office and get a better-paying job.

It took some restraint for her not to jump up and down with joy.

She did unusually well. I was right about her smarts. She started out by answering phones, but within weeks she could serve as my assistant, or help with billing, or draw blood specimens. I was thrilled: I had a great employee and she was responsible and grateful.

There was only one problem. Every time that I told her that she had done something well she would respond by saying something seductive, or she would give me a coy smile, or move closer to me and pat me on the back.  Why else would anyone say something nice to her, if it wasn’t in expectation of a sexual reward?

I made a mental note to discuss these matters with her, but this was an awkward subject and I did not want to say or do anything that would scare or discourage her. Weeks went by.

There came this day that my regular nurse had to leave early. She took up the slack with minimal disruption to my schedule. She stayed late to make all the usual phone calls. By 7PM I was sitting at my desk, going over some lab tests, when she walked into my office.

“Is there anything else that I can do?”

Not at all. You did great. I am almost done. Thanks.

“No, I mean, is there ANYTHING else that I can do?” She closed the door to my office. She had “the look.” The suggestive smile. The coy, very slight swing of her body.

I took a deep breath.

Yes, there is something else that WE can do. But if we do, everything that I have told you for the past six months goes out the window. All your hard work.  All those long hours.

I let my words sink in. I smiled; I did not want her to think that I was offended. I had to be very careful at this moment.

You are beautiful. I am sure that it would be wonderful to be involved with you. But this is not how I want you to think of yourself. At some point the beauty fades, but your character does not. I like you for who you are, not what you look like. In the future, your bosses will come to rely on your work. So: it would be nice, but no, there’s nothing else that I want you to do. Go home; enjoy your daughter; study hard.

She almost ran out of the office. I vividly remember her bewildered look. She must have wondered why I didn’t like her.

There were no more instances of seductive behavior. She continued to work for me; the longer she stayed the more she learned. I was proud of her.  After a few years she finished a degree in management and HR. The last time that I saw her she was a successful executive at a local hospital. Her daughter was doing well. She was dating several men, but was not ready for anything permanent. When I first saw her at her new job, she looked to the floor in embarrassment. I fetched the kindest, most harmless smile that I could. She smiled at me, after which we had a “normal” conversation.

Girls. We teach them to be pretty. We discourage any assertive behavior that they display. At some point these girls become women, and we seem to lose any notion of how to treat them as independent adults. Even these days we tell them that it’s important to marry, and marry well. And if they manage to finish their degree, we don’t pay them as much as a man would make to do the same job.

Is this what we want for our daughters?

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  1. Cordell Webb

    Our young people are in a different world than we all grew up in. They are all smarter and a lot more demands are made of them. There are more women executives and more men staying home to raise the children. That was unheard of in my work days. Opportunities have changed but they are there. You no longer can ask age or gender on applications and this can be good or bad. It is great that someone (you) is willing to help a person achieve their potential. I read just this week that the cost of college is getting so high that some colleges now have food pantries because the students are hungry on campus.