Why Didn’t I Feel Guilty When I Went to Work? Part 1



Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

The University of Michigan became a center for the new study of women: I published the first post-psychoanalytic book on the psychology of women and clearly articulated the view that psychoanalysts saw women-as-not-men forever pursuing a phantom penis. Since I had a very busy uterus I concluded that that emperor was stark naked. My book, Psychology of Women, published in 1971, unapologetically and clearly stated we must study women-as-women. I also started the first seminar on the Psychology of Women and in class discussions which included faculty as well as grad students, we started to form the basic ideas of a psychology of women. Imagine how we felt as we were creating a field from scratch.

Around 1968 five of us from Michigan’s Psychology Department gave the first symposium on the subject of the Psychology of Women at a meeting of the Midwest Psychological Association I remember we arrived early and when I saw the huge, empty lecture hall I got really worried that because there’d never been a psychology of women there’d only be a few curious people in our audience and we’d be very embarrassed. To our shock and delight it was standing room only. How heady that was!

Instead of feeling guilty or intimidated in the face of resistance to our moving into “men’s work”, we pushed back…and back…and back…and battered but never broken, we earned our way into the sphere that had been closed to us. As with any major social change we succeeded by force of numbers, incremental political and educational steps, and by a slow evolution of acceptance in many people’s values.

I never did feel guilty or ambivalent about this journey. Instead of uncertainty those hard won successes in the face of both subtle and overt sexism were a triumph. A triumph! I knew what I wanted to achieve and when I did, success was delicious.

But nothing is without cost; and while there was no guilt; there was exhaustion. I, and many of my friends and colleagues who were also married, mothers and pursuing careers, lost the ability to know when we were tired. I think that happened because if we ever acknowledged how chronically weary we were, we would probably have had to choose to give something up. In all likelihood, that would have been work. We had pushed so hard and endured so much in order to get in – there was no way we would voluntarily take ourselves out.

How did we manage? Literally, by taking one step at a time, one day at a time. If we had allowed ourselves to see the larger picture of omnipresent sexist barriers or how long the journey would take, or let down our guard and confessed to exhaustion, many of the pioneers might have given up. And we just couldn’t do that.

Studying and reminiscing about these issues I asked myself, What else explains my lack of ambivalence or guilt about not staying at home? My hope is that readers might get some ideas and take something away from this very personal list. Just remember, these are observations about my experience – and they are not prescriptions.

What else might explain my lack of ambivalence and guilt about not staying home?

Battling sexism made me more resilient and courageous.

When I returned to school I had been honed by harsh experiences which had made me older than my years though I was and have remained cautiously optimistic.

Early in our marriage death had become a vital part of our life. I had an ectopic pregnancy and the mortality rate had been 90%, a statistic my surgeon shared with me that took me a year to get over. John crash landed his F-86 in the Las Vegas desert on a training flight. Other pilots died or washed out of the program. An Air Force funeral with “the missing man” flight into the sun is unimaginable and unforgettable…

There is nothing like living with death and really surviving to increase confidence, resilience, and toughness. Even in childhood I think I had never retreated from my goals. As a young adult, I became more able and much more determined during the early years of our marriage.

I never questioned what I was doing.

I was never an idealist and I’m not introspective. Instead, I was and am pragmatic, preoccupied with doing what needs to be done. I am also not prone to fantasize. I am always prone to focus and prioritize.  It’s natural for me to automatically consider what absolutely needs to be accomplished now and what can be postponed. I create mental walls between activities and between places. As a result I have hard-focused tunnel vision which frees me from the frustration of a myriad of tasks which get done later…or not at all.  When I work I’m totally focused on the matter at hand and am oblivious to anything else.

Interestingly, I saw that behavior when one of my grandson’s was 2 and in preschool. His teachers marveled at his ability to focus on anything that interested him for 30-40 minutes. That’s me too though now I do that for hours.

Truthfully I kind of laugh at my friends who go into a tizzy of detail about their office furniture, where it’s placed, the music they’ll play while they work and the routine they get into in order to work.

I can’t explain it, but when I enter my office I’m simply ready to work and when I work all I see is the computer screen or the papers on my desk.  I don’t see anything else; not the photos of family or books or piles of shelved finished papers or power points…

After I earned the Ph.D. degree and was a half-time lecturer I asked the chairman of my department what parts of my job were most important.  He replied, They’re all equally important. Your research and publications, your teaching, and your service to the department or the field, they’re all important and equally so.

I remember my immediate but silent response: That’s a lie! In a great research university, research and publishing is by far the most important.  So that’s what l decided to concentrate on.  With three small children I can’t run large scale research projects and manage all the people and get the money.  No.  That will not be for me.  Besides, I’m better at creating theory than running projects.  I’m going to be a darn good teacher but I’m not going to be the students’ friend.  I don’t have time and besides, we have fired people who won awards for teaching because they had no publications.  And service…you can forget about that.  And that’s exactly what I did…until years later when the 1200 people in my college’s faculty voted me in as a member of the college executive committee.  Gosh.  I didn’t even know there was an executive committee.

Not being an idealist I never expected anyone to help me.  I never looked for a mentor because I never knew one.  In the last years of my academic career when I was an associate dean and a full professor the dean became my mentor.  Among my women friends, that was a notable first.  Basically, we pioneers didn’t expect a rose garden and we certainly didn’t get one.  But not expecting one, we weren’t disappointed.

My life was filled with tasks.  When I accomplished those that really mattered, I felt really good.  And that was enough.

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