Excerpt: 'Generally Speaking'

A few weeks later, the postman found a copy of Cosmopolitan with a missing mailing label in his bag. He knew a college girl lived at my grandmother's house, so he put the magazine in the box. I read about the hot fashions and rather innocent dating advice, then happened to spot a full-page advertisement showing a photo of a dancing couple. They wore Army green uniforms. "Be an Intelligence Analyst," the caption read. The ad sought enlisted applicants for the Women's Army Corps. Intrigued, I sent in a postcard and received information about the WAC summer program for college juniors considering becoming officers after graduation. Suddenly I remembered the WACs I had seen near the gate of Fort Hamilton when I was on the way to high school. They had looked sharp and purposeful in their summer cord uniforms.

The WAC College Junior Program, I learned, was a four-week orientation held each summer at Fort McClellan, Alabama, for 150 college women between their junior and senior years. From this group, the WACs hoped to select about ninety potential officers who would be paid $200 a month as Army corporals during their senior college year, then be commissioned second lieutenants and return to Fort McClellan to begin the four-month Officer Basic Course the next summer. Once commissioned, they would have a minimum two-year service obligation. Looking at the brochures, I saw photos of women officers leading formations of WACs and doing staff work in offices. To a young person raised near Army posts, it seemed natural that women officers were the counterparts of their male colleagues: leaders. For the first time in my life, I recognized the possibility that I might enjoy being a leader.

But I was still just twenty years old, and I didn't want to take the plunge alone. So I approached one of my friends and a sorority sister in Kappa Delta, Marilyn Gates.

"What are you going to do this summer, Marilyn?"

"I guess I'll work at TG&Y," she said unenthusiastically, naming a local drugstore, "just like always."

I showed her the WAC College Junior Program brochure. "If you'll do it, I'll do it."

"I think that would be neat," she said. Now I was committed.

I had to obtain faculty references to complete my application. When I approached one of my science professors, he wasn't very receptive. "I don't approve of the military," he honestly admitted. "But I do believe it's important for women to work. Have you read Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique?"

"I've never even heard of her."

"I think you ought to read the book."

I did, and found it very courageous for Betty Friedan to say out loud what many thought but were unable to put into words, that it simply was not enough for a woman to devote her life to being a wife and a mother. Every argument she made was not only rational, but captured the sense of what is the essential struggle in our lives, the two competing demands of family and work. I grasped her viewpoint instinctively-as did countless millions of other young American women over the coming decades. We were not inherently less capable or ambitious than the boys and young men we had grown up with. But until Betty Friedan spoke out, women as a group were simply expected to truncate their lives due to their gender, not fulfill their individual talents or aspirations.

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