Thanks to a manuscript about some women artists in Houston, I now know I am a member of what is called the Silent Generation. The women I read about came of age in the sixties, caught between the traditional world of their mothers and the oncoming force of feminism and Betty Freidan.
They believed themselves failures if they didn’t snare a husband by the time they graduated from college, and they thought their mission in life was to keep house for their husbands and raise their children. But something was missing. They turned to art and eventually formed a collective which held yard sales and often profited handsomely. They never claimed to be fine artists—theirs was decorative art. In spite of this self-imposed limitation, many of them produced some fine paintings and showed real talent. (There may well be a corollary here to how women authors thought of themselves—second-tier talents.)
Strangely enough, about half of these women, dedicated wives that they were, ended up divorced. Several were still pursuing their art late in life, and all looked back on the days of the collective as the happiest time of their lives. They talked of being like one big family, and they talked of joy.
The birth years generally given for the Silent Generation are 1925-1945. All of this hit home with me. Born in 1938, I was very much of my mother’s generation. When I used to speak to school children, I’d tell them that I majored in English in college because I knew I was going to get married and some man was going to take care of me, while I spent my days reading novels and eating bonbons.
For my generation, I married late—at twenty-six. And marriage did not work out according to my plan, for either of us. I was a doctor’s wife in the sixties, expected to do all the things doctors’ wives did—join the auxiliary, volunteer, but not have a life or career of my own. I rebelled by getting my Ph.D., and the older wives often regarded me as a kind of cute aberration. Once when I wore a denim pantsuit (from Neiman Marcus no less) to a dinner meeting, the wife of one of my husband’s partners felt obliged to identify me as belonging to “our younger partner.” Hey! I wasn’t his property—or is that my 2019 sensibility kicking in?
But there was that traditional side to me. Not sharing that desperate need for children, I found myself the mother of four. And I loved every minute of it. Indeed they became and still are central to my life. I liked the housewife-ly aspects of our family life, from trying to broaden childish gastronomic preferences to entertaining at fashionable dinner parties. I was a happy camper, but I was also a frustrated author.
Oddly enough, my then-husband, the one who was desperate for children, ended up leaving both me and the children. By that time, the new situation sited me just fine, and I was, for the most part, a happy single parent.
But I think I felt that pull between domesticity and liberation at least until my children were well launched into their independent lives. And I think of many other women of my generation who weren’t able to reach a middle ground between the two. I feel very fortunate.
Having found my generational niche, I looked for where my children belong. No surprise that, now in their forties (one just turned fifty), they are Generation X, just a bit too old to be Millennials. Once latch-key children (a couple of mine were), they are generally now described as healthy and happy, having achieved a good work/life balance. My grandchildren are Gen Z, the internet and social media generation, more inclined to diversity, less traditional.
I don’t know if it’s comforting or disturbing to know the characteristics of the group with which you are associated. Does it reassure to know we are like others? Or do the descriptions become molds to which we think we must conform? Jury is still out, but I found it all most interesting.