When I graduated from high school fifty years ago I received a coupon entitling me to a miniature Lane cedar chest. The idea behind the promotion was to get young ladies and their parents into the store where they would see the full sized models and consider purchasing one as a special gift. Back then coming of age for many girls meant owning a “hope chest” that they would begin to fill with special items that they might later use in a future home once they were married. In a sense it was a way of creating a kind of dowry.
I only took the freebie chest which I turned into a container for trinkets like campaign buttons and old pins but I dreamed of one day having one of the beautiful full sized wooden boxes with its enchanting interior cedar aroma. My dear sweet husband eventually bought me one when I graduated from college and to this day I use it to store blankets and seasonal items. It sits in one of my extra bedrooms looking as shiny and new as the day we brought it home and I hope that it will one day become an heirloom for one of my children or grandchildren.
Most girls today would scratch their heads in confusion if someone were to ask them if they have a “hope chest.” The idea of storing away linens in anticipation of getting married soon after high school would sound quaint and outdated to them. Instead they dream of careers and putting first things first like getting an education and building a resume. Marriage is a distant goal that is way down on their checklist of things to accomplish. Besides, a registry at Bed Bath and Beyond will be sure to bring in all of the needed items when its time to think of settling down. At least in this country the “hope chest” has mostly gone the way of the buggy whip and arranged marriages. With a woman in contention for president it is doubtful that we will ever again see teenage girls lovingly accumulating linens for a future homey nest.
So much has changed over the decades. Raising girls is far different from the past. My granddaughter is as comfortable on a robotics team as she is getting a pedicure. When she speaks of the future the idea of husbands and babies is rarely mentioned. Instead she dreams of producing films or doing scientific research. She has enough confidence in herself that she would even consider running for political office. She has little idea that such goals were once thought to be beyond the grasp of women. She senses that the only barriers to fulfillment of her dreams might lie within her own heart but she is determined to stay strong and compete with her male counterparts on equal footing. She pushes herself to go well beyond expectations and proves time and again that she is made of steely stuff. Amazingly she is far from being alone. Women everywhere are accomplishing feats that might have been unimaginable back when I was her age.
There are now more women graduating from universities today than men. They are represented in virtually every field of endeavor. Women from the USA dominated the summer Olympics. They head multi-billion dollar corporations and hold the highest political offices in countries across the world. They have evolved quickly into movers and shakers. They are housewives if they choose or stock analysts if they prefer. There seems to be little territory that they are unable or unwilling to conquer and yet there are still vast swaths of the world where they are thought to be the inferior half of the human race. It is an enigma that their domination continues in some corners even as they rise above the forces that have traditionally held them down in others.
I can only hope that the evolution of women will continue in the places where their plight seems the most hopeless. There have always been pioneers among us who dared to go where no women had gone before. They were unwilling to accept the norms that were so irrationally used to define them. Marie Curie engaged in scientific research in a time when female thoughts and opinions were rarely considered. Amelia Earhart strode into a traditionally man’s world and demonstrated the potential of the future. Abigail Adams dared to engage her husband in political dialogue on an equal footing. Such women and the many others whose names we may never know pushed past barriers to create paths that today’s young girls take for granted. Hopefully there are people like them working to overcome prejudices in places where their rights are sorely limited.
As women chart new courses and eschew the old ways of doing things new questions and problems arise. Any woman who works understands how difficult it is to take care of business and a family. Time, resources and energy are stretched thin in a balancing act that is far more difficult than it may appear. With a generous income a woman has the option of employing nannies, maids, landscapers and other helpers to ease the load of responsibilities but most jobs don’t provide enough money to afford such luxuries. It falls on the women and their partners to shoulder the tasks together and studies demonstrate that the ladies are still doing much of the heavy lifting at home, especially when it comes to the children. It is up to us as a society to begin to educate both our girls and our boys in the new ways of doing things.
I still believe that family is at the heart of society. Ultimately we need children to forge the future. In our enthusiasm for freeing women to develop all of their talents we also need to remember to honor their efforts to raise the next generation. As a society we cannot be guilty of underestimating the value of a happy and loving home. While the modern family may not look exactly like the one that grandma knew the basic needs and foundations are still the same. Today’s parents are quite busy juggling hundreds of objects in the air and we need to consider innovative ways to make their struggles less difficult while supporting their choices as well.
Traditions come and go. Our daughters are still romantic and dream of finding true love just as in fairytales but they no longer see themselves as extensions of their soulmate’s dreams. They have become equal partners who support one another in reaching personal goals. If they were to have something as old fashioned as a “hope chest” today it would be filled with roadmaps to grand possibilities and adventures.