When my dad turned down a job, they called my mother and accused her of hindering his career
By Jessi Miller-Webster
Throughout my life, my mom has always joked about bringing my sister and I to work in a snuggly just weeks after we were born (if you’re like me and don’t know what a “snuggly” is, it’s basically a sling type of carrier). She did obstetrics and gynecology research for a major medical university in Chicago. She explained no one had ever gone on maternity leave, so they didn't know what to do with her. It was amusing, but I knew my mom faced a lot of adversity being a woman in science. A field that still is highly dominated by men.
In 1969 Jo Miller got her bachelor’s from the University of Pennsylvania, with ambitions of becoming a doctor. Being accepted into only one of the medical schools that she applied to, she told me that people joked there were 4.5 medical schools in Philly. The half referring to the all-women’s medical school and the only one that accepted her. She felt confident that if she was a man, she would have been accepted to the others, at a time when women made up only 9% of the enrolled students. She decided to try again the next year; taking classes at FSU, and working in a research lab. It was there that she found a love of physiology, received her Masters, and dove deeper into ovarian research. Continuing on to get her PhD from the University of Michigan.
(On a side note: my grandmother got her PhD 6 months before my mom, at the age of 51. When she first graduated from college in the late 30s, she wanted to go to law school and her father told her "women don't go to law school!" So she didn't go, but she was a badass and got her PhD in History 30 years later.)
In the mid 70's, my mom was accepted into a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Mayo Clinic, where she was one of two women in her program. It was there that she met my dad, also doing a postdoctoral research fellowship in a different department. After their fellowships ended they were looking for jobs in different areas of science, but in the same city, which proved to be quite difficult. My mom applied for a position at a major university in New York, for which she was very qualified, having already done the same type of research during her post-doc. They offered the job to my father who had no experience in this type of research. He turned in down and questioned why they didn't hire my mom. After he said "no," the school called my mom, and told her that she was "hindering" my father's career. While my mom said these words, she let out a little laugh. The tone wasn't amused, she was offended, still after all these years. And I was offended, too. My jaw dropped hearing this for the first time and I felt a little grateful that my father was concerned about my mom's career as much as his own. But it was still the early 1980s and women just weren't considered for as many opportunities, even when they were more qualified than their male counterparts.
Unfortunately, this still rings true today. (Hello, wage gap!) After being offered separate jobs in different cities all over the country, my dad finally accepted a job in Chicago and my mother was hired as an instructor at the same University. Shortly thereafter becoming an Assistant Professor, writing and receiving a research grant to doing obstetrics and gynecology research, giving lectures to grad students and medical residents on ovarian and endocrine physiology. She received a career development award and a 5-year grant, which was not easy to get. But eventually grant money started to dry up and the grant approval process became very political. As abortion became of greater controversy, grants given for reproductive health were fewer and far between. But mom kept going and she kept doing her research as best she could.
When I asked my mom about anything notable regarding the women versus men, she told me she was on the Committee of the Status of Women at the University. They found that while salaries between men and women weren't too different, it was very clear that women were not being promoted and considered for more senior positions as quickly and as often as the men. A report was submitted, but my mom felt it wasn’t given much regard. (Oh hi again, wage gap.)
As time went on a new chairman was hired. My mom continued to struggle to get grants of her own to do research in Reproductive health and worked off other's grants. So much of her salary and growth was tied to grants and after many years, she decided it was time to move on. She retired early and went back to school receiving a Master’s in Health Informatics. At a time when technology was changing the way hospitals kept medical records, records related to child birth were still hand-written and made it difficult for new mothers to access. My mom saw an opportunity to help to improve a flawed system, that limited women's access to their own records. She later went again back to school to become a Physical Therapy Assistant. Now living in North Carolina, she works part-time at the young age of 70. Still taking classes, going hiking, and making quilts.
2 STEPS FORWARD AND 1 STEP BACK -- A FEW THINGS I LEARNED FROM MY MOTHER:
1. WE STILL HAVE A LONG WAY TO GO REGARDING REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS. How can it be that we have come so far and yet not far at all? While the number of those who still see women as second class citizens has drastically decreased since my mother's career began, it still seems the voices against women, the wage gap and reproductive rights are just as loud as they were twenty or thirty years ago. Still facing intense stigma surrounding abortion, I drew so many similarities to my mom's difficulty to get grants to the current conversations about Planned Parenthood. The mere association with abortion seems to blind so many people of all the other value that scientific and medical research, and Planned Parenthood do for women and families.
2. MATERNITY LEAVE POLICIES HAVEN'T CHANGED IN 30 YEARS. Once she did figured out the University’s leave policy, she got 6 weeks paid disability. The maternity leave policy at every job that I've had in my adult life is exactly that of my mother's in the early 80s. While there are many companies, like Facebook improving their maternity leave policy and extending that leave to the fathers; still so many companies have archaic policies that haven't been touched in decades.
3. KNOW WHEN TO KEEP GOING AND KNOW WHEN TO MOVE ON. I remembering feeling a little sad for my mom when she retired. I was in high school and didn't fully understand why she retired early, but I knew in many ways it was because she didn't feel appreciated and her research was being held back. She made a choice to move on. She didn't quit, she didn't fail, but she recognized when it was time to invest her time and energy elsewhere.
4. DO WHAT YOU WANT. My mom always supported me and my sister and our chosen paths. When I questioned changing careers last year, my mom was one of many encouraging me to try something new. She was an amazing women who led by example and seeing her make turns in her career and life, always showed me that I could do the same.
Jessi is an Accessories Designer living in Brooklyn; trying to find the balance between being an advocate for women's rights and working in an industry with which she has a few morale and ethical issues. You can follow her on Instagram at mabelamelia and jmillerwebster, but more importantly you should follow her dog on Instagram at oztheweredog.