What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?

Ah, early May. Flowers emerging from recently frozen ground. Ducklings and goslings learning to navigate the water on their own. Final exams at colleges across the country. Mother’s Day.

And, I have realized in recent days, weeks in honor of two careers: Teacher Appreciation Week runs from May 5 – 9 (just the school days, of course) and National Nurses Week is slated for May 6-12.

I’m not sure if it’s just coincidence that these two celebrations overlap, or if some powers-that-be decided to send an organized shout-out to stereotypically female careers. Why spend more than a week appreciating the “women folk” for these oftentimes thank-less jobs? For, indeed, teaching and nursing have been the most obviously “feminine” of all jobs for many decades.

Elizabeth Boyle provides a comprehensive and fascinating look into the historical and contemporary feminization of the teaching profession. She notes how limited career choices in the 19th and early 20th centuries led highly educated women to the career but that the very fact that women dominated the profession served to maintain its low salary and social status.  Patterns of employment in nursing have been similarly dominated by women for decades.

My mother certainly understood these patterns when she was considering her career options as a young woman. As she told an interviewer in 2011, 

When I went to college, this was the 1930s, the end of the 30s. If you were a woman going to college, you pretty much were going to be a teacher or nurse. I didn’t want to be a nurse and my mother had been a teacher … So the first day of school there was a notice that there would be a meeting of people who wanted to work on the school newspaper so I went to that, and it was pretty well up from there.

Some of the women journalists I’m studying knew early in life that they wanted to be journalists – Dorothy Jurney was born into a newspaper family and Vivian Castleberry decided on a career before arriving at college and “never deviated a jot or a tittle.” But all understood that their options were constrained and that the fall back positions were obvious. Marj Paxson’s recollections were very similar to Mom’s: “I can remember thinking about what I didn’t want to become, which was a nurse or a teacher. I wanted no part of it.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

So I come to that classic question: What do you want to be when you grow up?

It’s a query we pose to children from the time they start processing the idea that adults do different things than kids. When we ask, we don’t really expect answers like “happy,” “smart,” “nice,” or “loving.” No, we’re asking these 5-year-olds about their career aspirations.

Flash forward 17 years to that same kid in cap and gown, walking across a stage, diploma clutched in a sweaty hand. All grown up (sort of), the question now takes on more urgency: “What are going to do now that you’ve graduated?” “What job will help you pay back those college loans?” “Will your career be fulfilling in years to come?”

For Mom, Marj, Dorothy, Vivian, and other women coming of age in the early decades of the 20th century, answers to these questions were severely limited. They bucked the “teacher or nurse” trend and entered the masculine world of newspaper work. Other women were breaking barriers in other careers – medicine, law, business, engineering – and the challenges were often even more challenging than journalism.

By the time my sisters and I were choosing careers in the later decades of the 20th century, we had lots of options. We went in a number of initial directions including journalism, the ministry, engineering, and the military – Mom was a bit chagrined in late life to find that we had all worked our way to careers that involved teaching.

Next year, my daughter will be one of those new college graduates contemplating a career. The push now, of course, is to encourage young women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professions. My daughter isn’t going that direction, but I’m happy that there would be many options for her in these careers and that there is a wave of women putting their own stamp on these jobs. This bodes well for reshaping the masculine profile of these careers – as a recent article argued, these are not your father’s STEM jobs – and we need to continue to widen the pipeline for women who want to enter these careers.

But I think we also need to place a higher value on those traditionally female jobs. Mom may not have wanted to be a teacher or a nurse (or a social worker, or a host of other traditionally feminized jobs) but I know she would want to be respected – and paid fairly and given wide-ranging opportunities – if she had chosen one of those jobs. We should expect no less for Mom’s daughters and granddaughters.

So … Happy Teachers Appreciation Week to my sisters and all the other male and female educators I know. Happy National Nurses Week to my good friends Matt and Cathy and to the men and women who have chosen this challenging and rewarding profession. Your work deserves admiration and thanks every week of the year.

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