I asked my ambitious mom about her trailblazing career, and her response made me cry
For Women’s History Month, we asked our writers to sit down with their unsung heroes — their moms — and explore a topic the two don’t normally discuss. Our writers dug deep into subjects like careers, finances, and gender roles, and were shocked by what they learned. We hope you’ll be inspired to have a new kind of conversation with your mother or mother figure.
I remember when my mom earned her Doctor of Health Sciences degree (D.H.Sc.) in 2017 at the age of 66. At the time, I was visiting my parents at their home in Charleston, West Virginia. My brother Rich felt we should mark my mom’s academic — and personal — achievement in a special way, so my three brothers and I all chipped in to buy a bottle of expensive bubbly and we surprised her with an impromptu champagne toast.
As we stood in a circle together, glasses raised, my mom’s eyes began to well up. “I thought nobody cared,” she said, choking back tears. I was dumbfounded. How can my mom — my hero — not know how much she means to all of us? That she inspires us. That she makes us proud. That we are in awe of her ambition, intellect, and fortitude.
But my mom grew up in rural West Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, in West Virginia and across the country, girls and young women were raised to prioritize marriage and children over professional aspirations. For a young woman like my mom, who dreamed of becoming a medical doctor one day, the pressure to conform to society’s established gender roles put her career ambitions forever at odds with the status quo. And being a woman, no matter her accomplishments in school or in the workplace, she received little to no recognition for her labor.
Nevertheless, she persisted. And despite the social and systemic barriers, including limited educational opportunities for women, employment discrimination, and everyday sexism, my mom went on to earn her R.N. (registered nurse), J.D. (law degree), M.D. (medical degree), and most recently, a Master’s in Public Health (M.P.H.) and her D.H.Sc.
So, when HelloGiggles asked if I’d be interested in recording a conversation with my ambitious mom about the challenges she faced as a trailblazing career woman coming of age in the 1960s for Women’s History Month, I jumped at the chance to talk to her about her feminist inspirations, finding her power, and why Wonder Woman is the movie we all need right now.
Kitty Lindsay: What were the expectations for young women when you were coming of age in the 1960s?
Pamela Tabor Lindsay: Get married and have babies. That was it. That’s what everybody did. In junior high, girls were required to take sewing and cooking. It was mandatory. And boys took shop. I didn’t do well in sewing and my mother took me to [see] a woman in our family who gave me sewing lessons to try to teach me. The only thing I ever learned how to do was hem. And cooking was not about nutritional value. It was about how you prepare a meal for your family, which I wasn’t really interested in either. Those things I sort of marked off. I had to do them and that was it.
Now, in high school, if you were a girl, you were either college-prep or you had to take typing and stenography. Most of the women who graduated got married right away and/or went to work for the telephone company. Back then, there were live operators and the telephone company employed a lot of women.
There were job opportunities for women as secretaries, too, but I never wanted to do either one of those. One of the best decisions my mother ever forced me into, though, was taking a typing class even though I was college-prep and I didn’t want it. She said, “Well, you’re going to college, you’re going have to type papers, so you need to learn how. It might come in handy.”
KL: Wait. So Maw-Maw supported you going to college?
PTL: She didn’t have a real choice because I just wasn’t interested [in domesticity]. And honestly, I don’t think that she cared one way or another. No one in my family outside of my grandfather ever said, “You’re going to college.” To my brother either. I didn’t hear that at my house. That’s not what they valued. I was the first person in my family to go to college.
KL: And were there other women in your class who aspired to go to college, too?
PTL: There were other women, but not many. Because that wasn’t the goal. There was this idea that women who went to college were going to get their MRS., to meet the man they’re going to marry. But I, on the other hand, I honestly loved the school work. I took advanced placement English, biology… I just liked it.
KL: What did you dream of becoming after college?
PTL: I really wanted to be a doctor. But that just wasn’t available. For women, there were really only two options: teaching or nursing. That was it. So the nursing was about science and that’s what I liked, so it was the nursing that I [pursued].
KL: Do you recall any of your feminist inspirations during that time?
PTL: Well, in 1962, Helen Gurley Brown wrote Sex and the Single Girl. That was a really big thing for me, because one of the things I love about her is that she was a petite woman, too. And she was highly successful. She was the editor of Cosmopolitan.
But in Sex and the Single Girl, she talked about how if you don’t have the look, if you’re not gorgeous… then you’re a mouseburger. That’s what she called it. And I’ve never forgotten that. Because that was me. I was a mouseburger. The little sister. I didn’t look like a woman. Other women looked like women. They had hourglass figures. But Brown offered another look [and] possibilities for women and I told myself, “Don’t be a mouseburger.”
PTL: [Also], Gloria Steinem. Now, at that time, Gloria Steinem wasn’t in the same category as she is now. As a teenager, I don’t even remember [hearing] the term “feminist” ever being used. But I do remember it was a huge deal when she went undercover as a Playboy Bunny and wrote about it. People got mad. People were angry about it. People said nasty things about her. [But] I thought what she did was the greatest thing in the world.
KL: When did you decide you were going to blaze your own trail?
PTL: I think I kind of blazed my own trail all along. Once I got into college and started living my life, I just went for it. And things along the way, I just didn’t pay any attention to.
KL: Like what? Like micro-aggressions in the workplace?
PTL: You know, you’ve got to realize, I didn’t think of things as micro-aggressions. I thought that’s just the way it was. Society presumes that males are superior, that’s how I was brought up. So in high school, when I starting working at Memorial Hospital off and on, and physicians had a lot of power, I didn’t question it. Men ran the nursing department, not the nurses. Not until [around] 1986. So we were accustomed to men saying, “You will do this, you will do that.”
But I was never afraid to… [talk] back to doctors. I kidded with doctors. They [supported] me when I needed them to. I really didn’t feel the differences in the workplace. [Rather,] I felt them in the inequities of how women bare all the burdens of society and men just go to work and come home.
Years ago, Judy Brady Syfers wrote an article [called] “I Want a Wife” and I always thought, well, that’s what I need. I need somebody to manage everything so that all I have to do is go to work and come home. Those are the inequities I saw. And you know, if you get pregnant, it was all on you. And all the stigma that goes along with that. Those are the things in society that I felt more early on than, “You’re regulated to being a nurse and you’ll do what the men say,” because back then, I accepted the presumption that men were superior and what they said goes.
But I had a nursing license in 1974 and I felt like I knew what I was doing, so I wasn’t afraid to speak up. In 1975, I was going to school full-time for political science. And the more education I got, the stronger I was at standing up to people. I never worried about ramifications. [Around] 1976, I had a prospective employer [for an administrative position] look me right in the face and say, “You’re the best person for the job, but I’m not going to hire you because you’re a woman.”
PTL: And I said, “Fine.” And six months later, the guy they hired worked out terribly and they came back and offered me the job and I said, “Pfft, no. No. Forget it.” I never thought, “I’m going to be fired and I’m never going to get a job again.” That never entered my mind. I didn’t take any crap from anybody.
KL: In the early 1970s, around the time you were entering the workforce, the Women’s Liberation Movement was hitting its stride. What did you make of the women’s rights revolution?
PTL: I loved the Equal Rights Amendment. I thought that was the greatest thing. And that’s what made me come to know about Betty Friedan and looking at the Constitution and you know, what rights we were missing out on. I thought the Equal Rights Amendment was very important and I identified with the women who were standing up and saying that they wanted equal rights, that they wanted to go to whatever schools that they wanted to, that they wanted control of their bodies.
On the abortion issue, I’ve always been pro-choice. And I’ve been pro-choice since I knew about abortion. Because I don’t think anyone else has a right to say that I must carry a pregnancy that I don’t want. And the [birth control] pill changed the world. It really did. Because just having that allowed women to control their destinies. It gave women opportunities. So for me, that was a really big thing.
KL: How did women’s newfound sexual freedom and power inspire you?
PTL: It wasn’t that I wanted to do this myself, but to me, Erica Jong’s book Fear of Flying was a great book because she talked about how wouldn’t it be great if women could just see a guy, sleep with him, and walk away no strings attached.
Well, that’s kind of what men do all the time. Men have one-night stands, but for women? Unheard of. Particularly from my generation. “Good” girls don’t do that. And if women got pregnant, [as a result], they went to the unwed mothers’ home.
But when the pill came along, it took that out of the equation. And then, Marilyn French’s book The Women’s Room [came out and] her heroine divorces, picks up and moves with her kids, and gets a Harvard degree. And I read it and thought, “Yes, that’s what I would do!” I can do that. I can do anything I want. That’s what’s in me. If I decide I’m going to do something, I’m going do it. I’ll find a way to make it work.
KL: More and more, women are finding their power and speaking out. You’ve accomplished so much both personally and professionally. What advice would you give to women to overcome the challenges at home, in the workplace, and in society at large?
PTL: I think a lot of women today do not value feminism [like they should]. I’ve met young women who think feminism is a dirty word and believe that to be a feminist means you hate men. This is appalling to me, and I am deeply disappointed that some young women assume they don’t have to worry about [losing] the rights that they have.
They’ve never lived in a world where they didn’t have reproductive freedom, where they didn’t have the pill available, where they could go to any school or have any job they want. They don’t understand that that can be taken away. Women need to read, they need to be engaged, and they need to know the history. They need to realize their power.
And as long as some women sit on the sidelines… it’s very easy to get sucked into marrying well, having money, and not having to do anything on your own. And I think a lot of times, women get sucked into that and then, when they do try to work or explore other things, they have the [added] burden of doing all the housework, arranging childcare, and trying to be competitive in their workplace. And that’s very difficult to do.
PTL: To me, Wonder Woman is one of the best feminist movies that I’ve seen. The reason why I love Wonder Woman — aside from being directed by a female — Wonder Woman is not overly sexualized. Not overly musclebound, either. Well-educated. With a delightful innocence and a depth of thinking that I wish I had.
When Diana and Steve are on the boat, he asks her about her father. She says, “I don’t have a father,” and he says, “Yes, you do. Everybody has a father.” And she says, “No, my mother molded me from clay and Zeus gave me life.”
If you want to analogize that, “My mother molded me out of clay” [is like] “My mother built my body by herself.” “Zeus gave me life.” What did Zeus give her? Power. Power that she did not know she had. And then, in the first battle when she’s in no man’s land and she jumps out of the bunker and she runs out there, the opposing forces are firing on her and she kneels down and holds her shield up in front of her. And Steve says to the other men in the bunker, “We have to help her. She’s taking all the fire.” That’s women. We take all the fire.
(PTL chokes up.)
PTL: I’m sorry.
KL: Don’t be. It’s true.
PTL: You know, I’m a feminist from way back. On a daily basis — every day — women offer proof rebutting the presumption that men are superior. It’s a very tiring job. Constantly proving that you as a woman are as good, as smart, as successful as men… It’s a tiring job. But the benefits are great. It just takes a lot of stamina.
But if you want to be successful, you got to decide what you want to do and then, you just throw yourself into it. You got to go for it. Gloria Steinem has a great quote: “Power can be taken, but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment in itself.” So my advice for women today? That’s it right there.