Why I Didn’t Feel Guilty When I Went to Work Part 3


Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


I had been honed by keen competition all of my life.

My parents were, in many ways, fabulous. They saw females as equal to males and held the same assumptions for my education as they did for my brother except that he was required to go to an Ivy League school.  They knew my brother and I were very smart and they worked very hard to encourage us to become well-rounded people, interested in the arts, theater, sports and a robust social life.

When I was in the 3rd grade and my brother in the 1st, New York City created a special program for gifted students in the public schools.  That was the beginning of our very special education which continued through high school.  Steve and I went to The Bronx High School of Science – I was in the first class that admitted girls – and it was (and still is) always ranked in the top 5 high schools in the country.

Bronx Science was the hardest school I ever went to; it was so difficult that I figured if that was high school, I’d surely flunk college. (Each of the three universities I graduated from was a piece of cake after Bronx Science.) Every student’s IQ was probably way above 140 and some were really gifted as well as brilliant.  Two of my classmates went on to win the Nobel Prize in physics.  No one was regarded as the best. You could be in the very top in one or two subjects but no more than that.

Bronx Science kept us humble. There was no king or queen of the prom; in fact, there was no prom as the student body had voted against athletic teams and any other frills.  Over the years as I ran into other graduates from Bronx Science it became clear that no one who had gone there started to be confident before they were in their 30s.

It wasn’t until my brother was 38 and I was 40 that we fully realized how our parents had set us up in competition with each other.  Besides assuming we would be best, they never complimented either of us on our achievements. Instead, they complimented the other so I grew up hearing, Steve is brilliant and he heard, Judy is beautiful.

The revelation of why we were so competitive relieved my brother and me from the automatic competitive stance we adopted with everyone.  That insight allowed us to selectively compete – or not.  Competitively speaking, our childhood and adolescence were a harsh training ground.  But the result was neither of us was ever afraid of competition nor were we strangers to the discipline of always striving.  Our personal strengths were established in those early years.  As adults  those qualities enabled both of us to challenge barriers instead of flee from them.

In my growing up years which were extremely competitive, no one was always best and no one was ever perfect so I never believed in the myth of perfection. The one lesson I did internalize was Be good. Be quiet.  In today’s pursuit of fame and visibility, I find my modesty an anachronism.  So be it.

I was affirmed in my professional life as someone who mattered.

It’s probably hard for someone who doesn’t know me well to accept my statement that I was never ambitious in the traditional sense of wanting power, money, status, recognition…and having a goal, planning for it and then making it happen. But that’s true.

In my generation women had one goal:  to find their male partner and marry him.  We didn’t have goals or plans or daydreams because everything depended on whatever direction your husband’s career took.  The assumption was his work – and earnings – were the most important thing to the family and everything else was secondary.

And, excepting only those women who became nurses, teachers, secretaries or librarians which were viewed as okay for women and mothers to do, the entire family was dependent on the husband’s earnings. Women’s real job was to nurture their man and secondly their children and the man’s job was to create an upwardly mobile lifestyle for his family who were realistically called his dependents.

Since I wasn’t ambitious I was free. I could, if I had enough guts, do things that were way out there and considered really eccentric.  Deciding as a graduate student that the prevalent view of women in the sacred turf of psychoanalysis was wrong, was worse than eccentric.  In the beginning lots of people thought I was nuts; later, over time, some women became visibly successful and among them, I became a heroine and a role model which I found embarrassing.

I wanted to tackle big issues that were important problems for many people and change them. And I saw work as a place where something you achieved might have a lasting effect. Most of all, if I believed the issue was an unrecognized but very major problem that was enough of a motivator.

 The first time the Psychology of Women seminar was in Michigan’s course catalog I received phone calls in which people said, What are you doing? There is no such thing.”  And I remember quietly replying, But there will be. When I submitted the manuscript of Psychology of Women to publishers most just sent it back with a form letter of rejection.  But one publisher wrote, This is very interesting. But who will read it? 

Unexpectedly to me, the master of political naiveté, the feminists hated The Psychology of Women – and me. The book accepted the position that gender differences begin with the physical and that was abhorrent to politically ambitious feminists. Their position was that while you can see physical differences, they don’t matter. “In today’s world we wield computers, not pick axes.” They were fearful that any differences that were acknowledged would become an excuse for discrimination. I understood their position but the data told me there were differences and scientists cannot distort or deny the facts in the data.

To put it mildly, there was no recognition or rewards coming my way but that was okay with me.  It was obvious that I was off the chart somehow and I didn’t expect any.  Imagine the surprise and sense of acceptance I felt as Psychology of Women and my papers were published in peer-reviewed journals and I was asked to be on many important committees and paid to give lectures…that was heady stuff.  It said, many people see what you’re doing really matters and therefore, you matter.

For a serious academic whose yardstick was the truth, that was more than enough.

All aspects of my life gave my life purpose and meaning.

I never bought into the Feminist view that being a wife and mother was a waste of your potential and therefore, your life. Every aspect of my life was filled with purpose and meaning.  When the kids were really young and I had part-time help twice a week, I asked myself if things would be even better if my helper came every day.  I was surprised at how angry that idea made me:  I discovered I would not give up any more time than I already did in raising my own children.

John and I were about as absorbed with the kids as we were with our work and when we combined our very different personalities, I think we were really good parents.  He was much more easy going than me which I’m sure was a good thing.

There were aspects of women’s traditional work that I found to be both challenging and a source of fun as well as achievement. In our house, everyone ate dinner together.  No exceptions. We had dinner parties about twice a month and that was as much of a gourmet treat as I was able to achieve.  Every Sunday we had “Sunday Supper”, a gathering of close friends who were like our family.  While Saturday Dinner was my doing, Sunday supper was a family event where we all cooked and kids were as welcome as adults.  While all this was work, it was also fun.  It also knit us together as a family.  And in that way all three kids experienced cooking  and entertaining skills that have proved useful in their own families.


*Check in on Thursday, January 14th for the last blog of this four part series.

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