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Smashing the Silence of the Silent Generation

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

In 1964, everybody was getting married but Janet, who spent the year attending her friends’ showers and weddings. After finding their mates, women registered their preferences for sterling, crystal, linen, and china. Full-page ads in Seventeen, geared for the teen market, revealed blissful couples atop the slogan “You get the license…I’ll get the Lenox.” By 1974, few of those friends were still married to their first husbands, and the Lenox was presumably packed away.


Always out of step, Janet didn’t marry until 1965, a full year after graduation. Her marriage began to disintegrate in the 1980s and dissolved in 1988. After twelve years in a limbo that she calls her interregnum, she ushered in the millennium with a man she calls her beshert, her meant-to-be mate.


Love Atop a Keyboard: a Memoir of Late-Life Love is about second chances, in life, in work, and in love. It is Janet’s story, but it also mirrors the stories of the women she grew up with who reinvented themselves after marriage, divorce, and career cataclysms.


These women, born during World War II, were at the tail-end of the Silent or Traditionalist Generation, and they are a small cohort. They straddle the Greatest Generation, which survived two world wars and the Great Depression, and the numerous post-war Baby Boomers, who availed themselves of opportunities that were denied to the Silents in their youth.


On the traditional side, Silents were groomed to believe that nice girls remained virgins until marriage, that college was a place to find a husband. Remember the “PHT” degree, as in “putting hubby through”? Although they were told to marry young, they were also advised to prepare for a career they could “fall back on”—teaching, nursing, social work, librarianship— and they had better learn to type, “just in case.” In New York, where Janet interviewed for positions after college, employment agencies required typing tests—for women.

Remember the “PHT” degree, as in “putting hubby through”?

Gender discrimination was rampant in the 1950s and 1960s, along with racism and Jewish quotas. Corporations placed male college graduates in executive training programs and women as secretaries, executive assistants, or, in Janet’s case, manuscript typists at a prestigious magazine. Employment agencies routinely asked married women “What are your plans for a family?” It was assumed that women would quit work once their pregnancies became obvious, and they would be unlikely to return to the workplace.


Silent women were groomed to be helpmates to their husbands and to move where and when the husbands’ jobs required because husbands were the primary breadwinners. IBM was shorthand for “I’ve been moved.” At the time, women’s earnings were viewed as gravy, to help pay for the downpayment and the washer, dryer, and dishwasher. Like their mothers and grandmothers, they were taught that marriage was forever. Few experienced parental divorces, even though they may have been raised in less-than-happy homes.


Up-and-coming husbands sometimes viewed a wife as a decorative career asset, like first lady Jackie Kennedy: dressing well, hosting dinner parties, and peppering conversation with amusing tidbits about books, theater, and art. In short, the woman behind the man.


Then came the liberation movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which provided opportunities for the Baby Boomers that the Silents did not have until long after they graduated from college. Casting aside the core beliefs and expectations of their youth, Late Silents stepped forward and fomented a cultural revolution. Think Erica Jong, Nora Ephron, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Alice Walker, and Angela Davis.


They transitioned, went back to school, became doctors and lawyers, divorced, dressed for success, and came out of the closet. The widowed Jackie Kennedy became Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, living apart from her second husband and pursuing a career as an editor.


Raised as a traditionalist, with an out-of-date set of expectations, Janet followed her first husband to an upstate New York city that afforded her few professional opportunities, so she had children. A move to California opened new possibilities, and she finally found a job in in journalism: as a fashion writer, a bit of an anomaly for an Oberlin grad. Then as that first marriage was disintegrating and the newspaper business was in freefall, she reinvented herself once again as an editor and memoir writer. Now, with this book, her husband is determined to be the man behind the woman.


Change is a constant, providing new stories and opportunities to share them: This is Janet’s blog, her musings. She invites you to write your own.

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