Commentary: Lessons I learned from the silent generation

By Dianne Ryder

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The advent of Women’s History Month has prompted memories of the women in my own life and the personal and professional lessons they’ve taught me.

My first role models were my mother and older sister, and they remain my primary influences in all areas of life — but we’ve followed very different career paths. I always got along famously with my mom, but she was born in what is termed the “Silent Generation.” Mom is a gifted artist and writer who chose to be a stay-at-home mother for most of her life to raise my four brothers, my sister and me. Truthfully, I wanted to be just like her — but I also wanted to have more choices.

My father was (and is) a wonderful man, but also very much a product of his and my mom’s generation. When I graduated high school in 1981, he urged me — not toward the arts or journalism, but to a certificate program at the local community college called — ready for this? Secretarial Science! My first thought was, “Why do I need science, or even a certificate to qualify me as a secretary?” Please understand, I don’t cast aspersions on those in administrative positions — as I discovered firsthand, they are among the most pivotal roles in any office. I should have told my dad that I just didn’t want to “study” to become a secretary!

Fast forward three years — I’d dropped out of college, held several retail jobs and was engaged to be married. Ever since my fiancé (now husband) began his government career in 1982, I knew I wanted that kind of job security — something I could proudly call a CAREER. In October 1984, after completing the requisite Civil Service exam, I officially began working for the Defense Fuel Supply Center at Cameron Station in Alexandria, Virginia. I was hired as a GS-3 clerk typist and slowly worked my way up to a secretary — the job I never wanted!

Over the years, I learned — possibly more than I ever could in school — what being a woman in the workplace was really like, especially during the ‘80s. There were times when I was subject to sexual harassment, inappropriate language and unprofessional behavior. It was demeaning, yet widely justified or overlooked completely by others.

Between the 1990s and the “new millennium,” I learned from the best (and the worst) of my female supervisors what I wanted my legacy as a “career woman” to look like. Even television shows and movies were reflecting the complex issues of women struggling to “have it all.” I’d given birth to three sons and thus, had no one to pass on my vast womanly wisdom to — yet I knew I wanted to raise them as enlightened men who respected women (spoiler alert — I can count that goal among my successes).

In 2002, when I finally got a job in my niche career field (public affairs) at the Defense Contract Management Agency, I began to see a definite shift in how the world viewed women in the workplace. In addition to advancing my own career (sans a college degree), I witnessed many of my female colleagues and friends continuing their education, raising families, deploying overseas, battling cancer and becoming senior leaders. Some of them did these things in quick succession or simultaneously — they are forces to be reckoned with! Most of them speak their mind, too, which reminds me of the best advice I’ve ever received. When I became a Toastmaster, a recurring staple of constructive criticism is when you make a mistake while speaking — DON’T APOLOGIZE! Although it’s advice given to all successful public speakers, it’s something that women need to incorporate into a permanent mindset. Generally speaking, women apologize too much and often when they’re not at fault!

Fast forward again to current times. Amid turmoil, injustice, violence and ignorance of those who still refuse to proffer respect when it’s due, women are finally saying, “ENOUGH!” And that’s a good thing. I greatly admire women who are no longer willing to be silent — it’s why our female ancestors marched and made their voices heard — and why women are still fighting for equality in the workplace and raising awareness about sexual harassment and assault.

Women continue to close in on traditionally-male dominated fields from filmmaking to finance, military service to ministry and sports to science. Now it’s not necessarily about women “having it all,” but choosing what “having it all” means to them.

And that’s something ALL women can celebrate.

 Note: The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Defense Logistics Agency or the Department of Defense.