David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

Goes without Saying

The Sami People of Northern Norway have hundreds of distinct words for reindeer. These words can refer to a reindeer’s fitness, personality, or the shape of its antlers according to David Robson. (Click here for the original article.) People who live where reindeer are important have lots of words for reindeer. Makes sense to me. But what about people who live where reindeer aren’t important at all? Would people who live on the 32nd floor of a building in Manhattan have multiple words for “doorman” for example? And fewer words for reindeer?

My grandmother finished the eighth grade in 1910. Then she went to work typing envelopes. The invention of dot matrix printers was some decades in the future. She typed a thousand envelopes every day for which she was compensated the princely sum of one U.S. dollar. Her expenses included a nickel for the subway and a nickel for lunch. She gave the remainder of her income to her mother and thanked her mom for allowing her to go to work. The alternative to ten hours a day of envelope typing was endless housework, taking care of multitudes of younger siblings, cooking, cleaning, carrying buckets of water up five flights of stairs, that sort of business. Disposable diapers and jars of baby food were also the stuff of science fiction.

In my grandmother’s generation there were no words for “my brothers all got money for college but girls didn’t.” The Sami probably don’t have a word for “doorman.” My grandmother likely didn’t imagine our world of 2017 where medical students are 49.8% women. Engineering graduate schools enroll more women every year. But in 1910, women went to work. Their male siblings went to medical school. There wasn’t much money. But what money there was went to the men.

My grandmother’s brothers went to graduate school and embarked on careers. My grandmother continued to work at administrative and secretarial jobs. My grandmother’s brothers got married and were able to afford suburban homes and new cars for their wives. Growing up, I didn’t understand why my grandmother never had anything good to say about the women that her brothers married. It wasn’t until recently that my sister explained the situation to me. “A portion of those homes and cars belonged to our grandmother,” she said. “A share of the money that paid for those educations should have been hers.”

It seems obvious in retrospect. In a very real sense, our grandmother bought those wives their middle class lifestyles.  Every piece of jewelry, every generous anniversary present was purchased with her hard work. Now that I am 60 years old and can put my grandmother’s life in a historical context, nothing could be more clear.

Is there something going on in your home that will be obvious to you once your kids are grown and gone? Were the personification of the unfairness a monster would it devour your entire family? I don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish. What is blatant to an observer that is hidden from you? Do your children have resentments? Is there some connection with your kids that could be stronger? Do your kids even have the language to express what would make your relationship better?

My grandmother had four children, all of whom went to graduate school, all of whom have taught college. A pretty impressive academic bunch, all four of them have published books. The dedications of these volumes are all similar: “To mom, with love.” I have to imagine my grandmother enjoyed looking at these volumes. But I also think that she would have been even happier to have had the opportunity to have studied on her own. What would she have said if she had had the words? “I would appreciate the opportunity to study medicine. I have the ability and the motivation. I am as able as my brothers my lack of a ‘y chromosome’ notwithstanding.”

What would your kids say if they had the words? If all the unspoken assumptions of your household could be put aside for a moment, what fundamental changes would your children invoke?

Is there something as blatantly apparent as a woman not being allowed to have an education? Is there something going on in your home that is desperately worth discussing? Would today be a good time to have that conversation with your children?



4 thoughts on “Goes without Saying

  1. Martin

    Good piece. Very personal.
    It’s hard to see or know what is unseen and unknown because it’s so understood and
    accepted as to be invisible. In your grandmother’s case, it was evident that she was not
    being treated fairly in not being allowed to pursue the education she wanted and was fit
    for. Not because the money was unavailable, but because it was understood and obvious
    (certainly to her father, who made the decision) that “boys can (and should) become
    professionals and move up in the world but girls either tend the house or go out to work,
    until they are old enough to get married.” Not money as in a considered decision of which
    investment in education would pay off better for the family, but just “Girls don’t go to high
    school (much less college, much less graduate school). Period. End of discussion.”

    So your challenge is a good one. But it’s very hard to take up. Easy for us now to see what
    we even have words for (“gender inequality”). But before we have the words? How do we
    even talk about it?

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