THE BLOG
10/03/2014 12:45 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2014

The Hinge Generation: A Profile of Pre-Boomer College Educated Women

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The ongoing retirement of Baby Boomers has focused national attention on the generation that brought us post-war prosperity, Viet Nam protest, rock and roll, and the women's movement. As they moved through the last half-century the Boomers have shaped American culture toward experimentation, individualism and social movement. They were on the cusp of social change.

My Wellesley College classmates and I are members of the generation that came just before: we are a hinge generation, the cohort born before the war. We began our adult lives with the conservative expectations of the fifties and emerged onto the stage of adulthood before the women's movement transformed opportunities. The fatherly speaker at our l959 commencement predicted that our education would provide us with interesting thoughts while doing the dishes.

My classmates and I gathered at Wellesley this summer for our 55th reunion. Prior to our reunion we conducted a survey, the results of which show how the specific timing of the women's movement played out in the lives of our pre-World War II generation of women.

The expectations with which we started careers, marriages, and families were very different from those under which we lived most of our lives. Out of our 284 classmates that responded to the survey, all but four of us married, at an early average age 23. Two-thirds are married now and over half have been married 44 years or more. Building a family was common as well; all but ten have children. Those with biological children produced 535, for a fertility rate of the proverbial 2.1 each. Altogether, counting in grandchildren, they have contributed 2000 citizens to US population totals. No sign of fertility decline here.

Then, in the late sixties, everything changed. At Wellesley, Hillary Clinton, in her l969 commencement speech, publicly rebuked the speaker for his endorsement of housework as a goal for educated women. Hillary and her classmates were on the cusp of the change brought by the women's movement.

When opportunities for women began to expand, the Class of 1959 joined in. By age 35, 61 percent of us had started or resumed work, or changed careers. Many of our marriages did not survive these cultural changes. As a class, we had a 33 percent divorce rate, higher than the national average for our generation, and higher than the Wellesley classes above or below us. A large proportion attributed their divorces to the women's movement and its accompanying changes.

46 percent of us worked for most of our lives, a higher proportion than our age group nationally. But our earnings were relatively modest: only 20 persons ever earned more than $125,000 in a year. This is partially explained by the career choices we made--largely in educational and caring occupations. One-third of our class worked in a college or school, fewer in business, and very few in professional firms.

These choices must be understood in historical context. In 1959, medical schools accepted very few women, only those able to answer the daunting question "why should we educate you when you will probably marry and leave the profession?" Law schools were accepting only the most determined, and Harvard Business School accepted none. Therefore the most intellectually ambitious entered Ph.D. programs. Others seeking an advanced degree opted for a Master's program in the context of anticipating or raising children from their early marriages. A few entered law or MBA programs as these became available.

The educational profile that emerged from our class shows 51 Ph.D.'s and Ed.D's but only 34 with degrees more commonly viewed as "male-identified degrees," MBA (11), MD (9) and JD (14). The Wellesley Class of 1979, in contrast, has four times the number of male-identified degrees as Ph.D.'s and Ed.D's, 145 compared to 36.

The Class of 1959's career choices came at some cost; 91 percent of respondents reported feeling that they have not fulfilled their potential, though two-thirds feel they have done so in part. Typical of many women, their most common explanations are personal, not structural, failure: they were not assertive enough or lacked vision. Child rearing and their spouse's career diminished accomplishment for many as well. About a third reported experiencing gender discrimination at some point in their careers.

The respondents' current view of the women's movement reflects the complexities of its impact on their lives. About a third report that it changed their lives, making them feel stronger, stimulated to enter education and a career, but the overall endorsement is less enthusiastic. Over half declare themselves only somewhat committed to feminism, though they are eager to differentiate feminism from support of equal opportunities for women, which they resoundingly support.

The most surprising findings arise from the political opinions expressed in the survey. In contrast to our national cohort, these women vote overwhelmingly Democratic (61 percent) and identify themselves as liberals (69 percent), similar to the politics of "Millenials" (voters 18-29). Their liberalism is demonstrated in their opinions on issues, for example, acknowledging growing inequality and believing government should guarantee every citizen food and shelter. Their greatest passion is for environmental issues, both in support of government policies and in personal life style. They systematically recycle, have taken steps to reduce their carbon footprint and have reduced consumption to live more simply.

The politics of our class represent a shift to the left, largely in the 60's and 70's. While some cited particular reasons -Vietnam, the civil rights and women's movements- the more common triggers were "growing up, learning more about the world and exposure to diverse societies." Only two mentioned the influence of a college professor or their liberal arts education.

One can surmise that more was at work in shaping their views. While we might expect that the substantial resources of their spouses would have placed them in conservative politics, these women formed their own opinions based on their own experiences in the working world. One might infer that the openness of their liberal education to divergent views and the women's college environment encouraging them to form their own opinions prepared them for this change.

These women have undoubtedly been influenced by their families adopting liberalizing changes in our culture. While almost three-quarters stayed home with their children until school age, two-fifths now have at least one household in their extended family in which the husband plays the major housekeeping/parenting role. More than half report having daughters more ambitious than they were, and sons more feminist than their fathers. 37 percent have a gay or lesbian family member, 15 percent have a family member who is either biracial or of a different race, and a similar number have children who had their own children before or without marriage. More generally, 71 percent have no objection to marriage between people of different races, in contrast to 27 percent of their national age group.

Given their strong political opinions, with the noteworthy exception of classmate Madeleine Albright, Wellesley's 59's have not been active politically. As members of the Eisenhower generation, few joined government as a career. Since then they have been active locally in volunteer work, largely educational. While a high proportion report discussing politics, fewer than 25 percent in the last twelve months having done more activist things like persuading others, working for a candidate or attending meetings. They are somewhat more likely to have given money (up to 43 percent) to political campaigns and environmental issues, but the amounts are low, generally less than $500 a year, a third of their contribution to charitable causes.

The picture that emerges is of a well-informed group, with strong opinions and defined commitments to national issues, who are active primarily in local communities through volunteer work and financial support of organizations. We have not been as noisy as the Boomers, but we certainly are not passive or silent.