Monday, November 5, 2012

He said to me "That doesn't seem very fair."

This is a series of posts about discrimination that happened to me as a girl and woman in the 60s-80s.  See the first three entries at:
When we had to wear dresses to school
Look around the room, you don't belong here
Anyway, we wanted a man for the job
He stomped his foot in anger at my taking charge

This is a record for my kids, and for others so we don't forget how it was and what we can't go back to.

So in late 1987 I got out of the military, done with proving myself just because I happened to be a woman and went back to college.  I did not go back full-time until the fall of 1988 since I got out so late in 1987.  But it couldn't have been more different from what I experienced in high school.  Only on the odd occasion would I get a whiff of the discrimination I faced before.  

I started in computer science, but switched to mathematics and statistics part way into my second year after taking Abstract Algebra and Theory of Computer Science, I loved both of these classes and I was drawn to abstraction.  I love doing proofs.  (Call me crazy!)

But there were a few incidents that highlighted what was still lurking around out there.  One of the classes I wanted to take in the computer science department was "Linear Programming" actually a mathematical technique for optimizing under constraints, but it was taught in the computer science department.  It was only available from one professor and he had a bad reputation. 

Word came to me that this professor singled out women in his class and would give them a difficult time.  Fortunately I didn't need this class for my major at the time, and as it was this was shortly before I changed majors anyway.  But I decided to live by what I had vowed when I left the military.  I just wouldn't take the class.  I didn't have anything to prove to this professor and I wasn't going to endure any more treatment like this.  His loss.  In the long term I'd end up taking the class in graduate school, no muss, no fuss.  

But what stood out more were the reminders that women just can't live the same lives as men.  One of my delights was biking to school from the rural countryside very early in the morning.  By the farms and fields, watching sun rise, the trains go by.  I stuck to small country roads on the way, avoiding the busy state route.  But this all came to an end.

One morning on my way to school a car slowly approached me from behind, I tried to move over to give him space to go by, but he drew up right beside me, window down and started saying things, making noises. revving the car, I was terrified.  This guy could do anything to me out here alone in the country and nobody would know.  

I kept going while this guy threatened to hit my bike, followed me and intimidated me.  I finally got to a home and I turned into the driveway, got off my bike and turned to face him.  I figured if he continued to approach I'd run to the door of the house and start screaming for help.  Instead he backed down the road to the nearest turn off and sped away.  I never rode my bike to school again.

There were other smaller things, but over overall my experience was extraordinary and so positive.  I had a department that mentored and supported me completely.  I took every senior level math class the university offered and aced them all and in most cases trounced all the guys too.  I was selected to participate in the math competition team my last 3 years and ended up graduating summa cum laude as well.

(I chuckle every I think about graduating summa.  I always remember the Cheers line from Diane Chambers to some pretentious guy bragging about graduating cum laude.  "What? Couldn't make summa?" Ha ha!)

The icing on the cake?  I was awarded a 6 year national fellowship to graduate school, one dedicated to women and minorities in science and mathematics.  And you know what was funny?  Once of the white male students that was a friend of mine says to me.  "That doesn't seem very fair, having a fellowship just for women and minorities!"

I just shrugged, but inside?  Oh my God, I was thinking, you have no clue whatsoever.  This is just desserts, this is payback, this is what I deserve for everything I went through and how hard I've worked.  And I swear, this is the attitude of so many who have never gone through these kinds of trials, who never have been looked down on the moment they walked into a room.  They have no idea how it feels, how it was.

So I went to graduate school for 1.5 years, and learned more about myself there.  It was fall of 1993 and I was 32 years old and I was ready to work, to start my true career.  I decided to jump back into the world and get a job and start my next adventure.  Some final words on that next time, and a short wrap up of this series.  

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