Karen Spindel

“Generations of Girls Were Lost to Math and Science.”

Interviewed by Rebecca Lubetkin, VFA Board

[Transcript, part one of three videos]

RL:  Welcome to New Directions for Women, a program of the Morris County, New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Women. My name is Rebecca Lubetkin and I and the entire production crew are members of this chapter of NOW. And we are all volunteers. We put this show together every month, and all of us, the people here in the studio, the floor manager, the camera people, the people in the control room, the producer, the director, audio, graphics, all of us are volunteers and all of us have day jobs or are looking for one. We’ve been doing this for more than 16 years, probably very close to 17 years together.

We have a very good show for you today. You know, there’s an old expression, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. There is a natural corollary to that, which I’m going to make up so it doesn’t sound as profound, but if you don’t know where you’ve been, how can you be sure you’re on the road to where you want to go?

We’re going to talk today about where we women have been. We’re going to explore issues related to gender in the last decades of the 20th century. We’ll look at topics related to school, marriage, parenting and career as seen through the eyes and memories of someone who was not only there for it all, but was alert and aware to what was going on. When the rest of us might have been looking at these inequities as, “Well, that’s life,” she was working to do something about them, even as a small child.

We are so fortunate to have, as our guest today, Karen Spindel, whose knowledge and expertise and personal experience offer us extraordinary insights. Karen Spindel, whose uncle promised to eat his hat if she became an engineer, graduated from George Washington University in 1969 with a degree in mechanical engineering. We’ll have to find out whether he really ate his hat.

But Karen is a feminist activist, a longtime officer of her local chapter of NOW. She was honored to have been selected as the Pioneer Feminist of the month in July 2009 by the Veteran Feminists of America. She’s a proud mother of two feminist daughters, Samantha, 38, and Rachel, 21, and is currently writing her memoir. So, we’re getting on the ground floor of that memoir. She wants to share what it was like for her and her two daughters to grow up feminist in a sexist society. Welcome, Karen.

KS:  Thank you for having me.

RL:  I’m delighted. I’d like to start by asking you to think back to the beginnings, to your earliest feminist awareness and share with us how and when you knew that things would not be the same for you as they would be for your male peers. Thinking way back to early childhood, if you can, is there a specific moment that stands out?

KS:  Well, I remember maybe as a child of 8 years old or so playing ball with my father. My father would throw the balls to my cousin Joey. He’d always throw him a fly. And then when it was my turn to get the catch, it was always a bounce. And, you know, I go, “Dad, you throw Joey flies, throw me flies.” And, you know, usually he wouldn’t. But every now and then he would. And of course, I would miss because nobody ever taught me how to catch a fly ball.

RL:  And maybe it was because you were supposed to miss, because you were supposed to be catching bounce balls.

KS:  I was supposed to be a girl doing girl things and playing ball wasn’t one of them. I guess in a way this was okay, because as a result of this, I really never did pursue sports. And therefore, as I got older and I got into high school and I got into college, I really, at least in this one area, was not disappointed by what I couldn’t have, because in reality, there was no place for girls in sports. There really wasn’t. And when my daughter Rachel chided me years later – Rachel’s 21 now – about how come I didn’t play sports in high school, because she played everything.

She was a volleyball player, skier, ice hockey, wrestling. She even tried football, everything. I said to her, Rachel, we didn’t have it. We just didn’t have it. And she didn’t believe me. So I took out my high school yearbook and I showed her the sports pages and there was one page for girls – cheerleading. That was it. I surprised myself, because I took out my college year book, too. I really thought I would see some women. But again, cheerleading. That was it.

RL: And that wasn’t just the engineering school. That was all of George Washington University?

KS:  No, I’m talking about my first high school yearbook, which was Passaic High School, which is a pretty big high school. And George Washington University, the yearbook for the whole university. If it was just the engineering school, it would be no surprise there wouldn’t be girls, because I was the only one anyway.

RL:  What about other kinds of informal play with boys or with girls?

KS:  Well, again, my cousin Joey comes into it. Boy, he probably doesn’t realize what a story he’s becoming at this moment. But also, he had an electric train set that my sister and I loved. We just adored it. I didn’t realize how much my sister liked it until recently. We talked about it and she told me she really liked it, too. And my parents always said, “Electric trains are too expensive.”

I guess I understood that until one year for my birthday my mother gave me a doll carriage. Imean I was a kid so I don’t know, but thinking back, it must have been the most expensive doll carriage in the history of the world. It would have been a great gift for somebody who played with dolls. But I didn’t play with dolls. It ended up actually being a place when my sister was born that we would put her to nap. That’s how big it was. They ended up using it as a carriage for her.

RL:  Did you ever get a train set?

KS:  I never did. It’s interesting, because years later, doing some research for the book, I found out really that Lionel in the ’50s, right around the time that I was looking at and coveting my cousin’s train set, actually came out with a pink and pastel train set for girls. How bizarre is that?

My sister and I wouldn’t have wanted a pink train set any more than my cousin would have wanted a blue train set. We wanted a train set that looked like real trains. That was the whole point of a train set, it was so realistic and just like a miniature of the train that actually back in those days, ran through downtown Passaic.

RL:  The real ones were just miniatures of trains that you saw all the time. Not a pink one.

KS:  Yes, my cousin’s set. Not the pink one. I was thinking about it and I thought, you know if Lionel really wanted to reach out to girls and sell train sets to girls, maybe they should have included girls in the advertising. Maybe they should have let our parents see from the advertising that girls play with trains. Not by making trains pink.

RL:  I was visiting a Lionel store very recently and they’re still selling pink trains. I don’t know whether they’re supposed to be vintage trains or whether they’re still making them. But I saw it there.

KS:  I wonder if it is just the vintage, because in what I was reading, they did say that it was a total failure back then – unless they’re reviving it. A lot of things that were failures back then are coming back.

RL:  How about school? When you entered school, were there ways in which you realized that the expectations for boys were not the expectations for girls.

KS:  Well, in the games we played, in the clothes we wore, in the doors we entered.

RL:  The doors you entered?

KS:  Yes, because above the lowest grades we had a girls’ door and a boys’ door and the boys played ball and whatever they played. Johnny rides a white horse, whatever boys played, and what the girls played – we basically played jump rope and maybe occasionally hopscotch. The doors were on different sides of the school. So you didn’t necessarily go through the door that was nearer to your house, you went in the door that was the right gender.

RL:  You played in the play area that was nearer to your door. So that means that the girls were playing with girls and the boys were playing with boys.

KS:  And if you look at a lot of the old schools today, you’ll actually see above the doors where it actually is engraved, where it says girls door and boys door.

RL:  So that was just one of your earliest awarenesses.

KS:  But there was one day that the boys came on the girls playground, May 1st, Petticoat Day.

RL:  What’s Petticoat Day?

KS:  That was the day that the boys could come on the playground and pull up our skirts to look at our petticoats.

RL:  Who said that they could do that?

KS:  It wasn’t exactly sanctioned, but kind of everybody knew about it and went along with it. It’s not that popular anymore, thankfully, now that girls wear pants to school.

RL:  It’s interesting because you wore skirts or dresses to school.

KS:   As we had to.

RL:  I remember there was a boy, I’ll say his name too, Robert Burns, the same name as  the poet, who used to sit in a tree near our school with a fishing rod, so that he could hook on to our skirts and pull them up so that he could see our panties. It was scary. What else did you notice in elementary school that was giving you a separate message?

KS:  Well, the boys had different kinds of jobs in school. The boys would be the window monitors and the blackboard monitors. And it was always like the boys were stroked by being referred to as big, strong boys. And the girls got to deliver the papers to the office or collect the papers or hand out the papers. The adjectives that most described us were the teacher’s helper.

RL:  It’s interesting that you say that the girls were the messengers to the office, because I remember a girl telling me that her teacher, she was in third grade, they were in a portable classroom, and she said, my teacher always picks a girl to go to the office, except when it’s raining.

KS:  Because girls can’t get wet?

RL:  Right. They will melt or something. Did you go home for lunch?

KS:  We went home for lunch. And this was just so bad on two levels. It was bad being a student and it was bad being a mother. I think about how women back then had absolutely no life during the week. My mother was expected to be there when I got home for lunch with a hot lunch when my sister and I came in every day. We had a hot lunch or if not a hot lunch, something that she had prepared in advance. And basically, I guess that’s the reason women didn’t have cars back then and didn’t have jobs. They were really tied to this life.

RL:  What was your mother doing?

KS:  She was ironing, generally. When we would come home, my memory is the soaps on the TV and my mother standing at the ironing board. And it was interesting, because part of the reason she was ironing was because of the clothes that we had to wear that oppressed us as students. We had to wear skirts. We wore petticoats. And of course, this necessitated a certain behavior. We had to sit with our feet either flat on the ground or crossed at the ankles so people couldn’t look up our skirts.

RL:  Did you wear shorts under your dress?

KS:  I didn’t do that. But on the cold days, we had to wear leggings.

RL:  And leggings weren’t like leggings today, they are two different things.

KS:  It’s totally a different thing. And I think actually along those lines, if a lot of the women who shopped at Victoria’s Secret today, if they knew the origins and the misery of some of the original garments that are being reproduced now, they might not be that anxious to wear them. But leggings were something that we had to wear to keep our legs warm on cold days because we weren’t allowed to wear pants. You put them on at home, you took them off at school, put them on to go home for lunch, took them off, put them on coming back.

RL:  Didn’t they have a bib?  Sort of a farmer front?

KS:  They could have.  Some of them couldn’t go over your skirt because your skirt had too many crinolines so you couldn’t really tuck your skirt in. You had maybe something that went under your skirt with an elastic or a zipper. In the original draft of my book, this was just a short paragraph and my sister read it and she said, “No you have to do a chapter on leggings. They were the misery of my life. If you knew how many times I cried over my leggings because I couldn’t get them over my shoes.” If you had boots that could make them even worse. In those days she had the boots that went over your shoes anyway, so you had to take off your boots – your red rubber galoshes.

RL:  What were your observations in high school? Probably the same as what I experienced.

KS:  You mean clothing wise?

RL:  Not necessarily clothing.

KS:  In junior high, with the electives, the girls took cooking and sewing and fine arts and the boys took woodshop and metal shop and mechanical drawing. I certainly didn’t need to take a course in cooking and sewing, things that I feared the most having to do as an adult. But we had to take it. And I remember that the boys would make these little footstools or mailboxes and they actually had something to bring home and keep it. And it was really nice. In cooking, we made stuff that mostly tasted so horrible. I remember baked custard or roasted bananas, stuff like that. That ended up right in the garbage. And I remember the one thing I made in sewing happened to be a pink straight skirt. That was about the ugliest skirt you could ever imagine.

RL:  We had to make aprons.

KS:  Aprons are good because then you can use them in cooking.

RL:  But you decided that you wanted to be an engineer at some point, and yet you were not allowed to take drafting or mechanical drawing. So, you had never taken those?

KS:  At the time, what I really wanted was the woodshop and the metal shop, because this was junior high back then, middle school now. But it was called junior high back then. And the one thing where we took fine arts and the boys took mechanical drawing, I would have preferred mechanical drawing. But that didn’t mean as much to me at that time as the woodshop and metal shop.

But then when I got to high school and I knew I wanted to major in engineering or I thought I did, I figured I really needed to learn. So then in high school, as a course, I could sign up for drafting, which I did. I was definitely the only girl who took drafting that year. And I think it was safe to say I was probably the only girl who had taken drafting for many years prior and many years in the future, because there was no attempt made to interest girls in that. Even for my physics class, there were two other girls besides me.

RL:  Physics wasn’t something that the girls tended to take.

KS:  If you wanted to take it, they let you. But there was no attempt made to steer you to that. If you were good at math, ok, that was fine. But if you weren’t, you didn’t stand a chance, because you were just told that doesn’t matter. Girls don’t have to be good at math. Forget it. Don’t worry about it. Generations of girls were lost to math and science because of parents who handed that [out] generation to generation.

RL: But not only parents and not only schools, but peers themselves would put you down and wonder why it was that you needed to do it? And did you just want to be with the boys?

KS:  I guess that might have been in people’s minds, too. I know it was certainly in the admission officer’s mind when I went to GW. When I applied to GW, I had this brainstorm that if I applied to the School of Engineering, that might cause me to not be accepted. So I applied as a Russian major, figuring I would switch. I had liked Russian, so it wasn’t like I just pulled something out of the air. I had good grades in Russian. I knew on that basis I would probably be accepted. I just was a little leery about the engineering.

During the summer, when I had to go for my admissions interview, the admissions counselor just didn’t want to hear it when I told him I wanted to switch to engineering. He said, “Women only major in engineering to find husbands.” It’s odd he could say that because how many women majored in engineering? Had he ever found one before?

RL:  What were the numbers in your class?

KS:  I was the only one. I was the only woman in my [engineering] class at GW. There were some women in other grades who came and went. I think when I was a freshman, I think Judy was a junior. So she was floating around there for a couple of years. The year I was a sophomore, three freshmen came in. I think they either switched majors or transferred out. So basically, going through I was pretty much the only one. I had one class with Judy. And that was the only woman I ever saw in a class.

RL:  You know, I would like you to tell us the story of Bethlehem Steel, because it is so, so instructive in terms of giving us clues as to what life was like for an engineering major in those days. And we’re not talking about so long ago. We’re talking about the late ‘60s.

KS:  It was in Spring of ’69.

RL:  What happened at Bethlehem Steel?

KS:  I was about two months away from graduating. I was feeling I had done really well in school. I was more interested at that very moment in getting married than in getting a job. But that’s another sexist story. We’re taking this class trip to Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point, Maryland. It was the student chapter of the Society of Mechanical Engineers that was sponsoring the trip. The trip was open to anyone from the engineering school. We could bring friends if we wanted, but I don’t know whether anyone did. I surely didn’t.

We get to the parking lot of Bethlehem Steel. We pull into the parking lot and we’re with a student advisor and classmates on the bus. And the tour guide came on the bus to give us our hardhats and escorted us off. The man gets on the bus, takes one look at me and he says, “You’re not getting off the bus. You cannot take the tour.”

RL:  Your college was willing to send you.

KS:  Yes, but Bethlehem Steel was not going to let me off the bus. My professor, who was the advisor for this trip, didn’t say a word. I was twenty-one and I said, “Why can’t I get off the bus? Why can’t I go on this tour?” He said, “The tour is kind of too dangerous.” So a couple of my classmates came to my rescue. They said, “If it’s dangerous, we don’t want to go either so we’re not going to get off the bus.” I don’t know if they really were afraid it was dangerous or they were trying to help me out. I’m not sure.

But then he said, “It’s not really dangerous for you guys. I’m going to give you a hard hat. You’ll be fine. You can all go.” So I said, “If it’s not the danger, what’s the real reason I can’t get off the bus?” He said to me, “You’re wearing a skirt.” Of course, I had to wear a skirt, because we weren’t allowed to wear pants. No one had told me to wear pants, but I was wearing a skirt. And he said, “We’re going to climb catwalks. And so guys in the factory and the plant will be able to look up your skirt.”

Well, you know, this sounded like it could’ve been real. And although I knew I would never be able to come back, I asked him. I said, “If I come back in pants, will I be able to take the tour?” And all this man would have had to do was say to me, yes, you come back in pants and take the tour.  I never would have come back. I would have had no way to get there. I would have sat on the bus while everybody else toured. But I would have had peace in my heart.

But no, he said, “No, don’t bother. Don’t come back. That’s not the real reason. You can’t get off. You can’t take the tour even in pants. Forget about it.” 

RL: So you actually stayed on the bus while they took the tour?

KS:  Yes, they took the tour. But I wasn’t going to let him off the hook that quick. So I said “Give me the reason. Give me the reason.” Finally, he’s had enough. So he says to me, “I want you to know the majority of the Bethlehem Steel stockholders are women. You should be happy to hear that.” I said, “Not really. Not any more happy than they would be to hear this.” So then he had it. He handed out the hardhats, got everybody off the bus without a word. And my advisor got off the bus, too.

RL:  And was anything said about it when you got back?

KS:  He never said anything to me. I actually think I remember, though, that we were told that GW would no longer be welcome. That we were troublemakers and we should not plan any more trips there. But, you know, years later, very recently, I met a young feminist. And, you know, a lot of the stuff has been in the back of my head for so many years. But because I’m working on this book, it’s dredging up a lot.

I was talking to her about it and I said to her, “Isn’t this a bizarre story?” And my advisor just sat there and I’ve tried to even actually contact him. I tried to find him because he had been on at one point, but he never responded and maybe he’d died. I mean, it was a long time ago.

So, you know, she said to me, “I think I have a theory. Picture a father taking his young daughter to an amusement park and they get to the amusement park and he finds out she’s too short for all the rides. He’s not mad at the amusement park. He’s mad at himself. He knows he made a mistake. He never should have brought her. And he feels responsible for her sadness and disappointment. But there’s nothing he can do. And he’s certainly not blaming the park. That’s how I bet your advisor felt. He was upset at himself for not knowing enough and not thinking to not take you along.”

He never said anything to me. And nobody told me to wear pants. That had never come up. And it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

RL:  That’s a fascinating story. And I’m sure it’s a lead in to our talking about your first job, your job applications, and, of course, your marriage. Unfortunately, we’ve almost run out of time. But we can continue talking. I do want to make sure that you’ll come back. We’re up to 1969. We’ve a long time to go. Probably can’t do it in even one more. But I do want to get to your applications for jobs as an engineer, your marriage, and all of the other things that have to do with establishing yourself as an adult in the community inspite of the fact that women and adults often were two different things…