Woman’s History Month: “The Road Not Taken”
By Jan Bernath, Chelsea
Editor’s Note: March is Woman’s History Month. To help recognize and celebrate this Chelsea resident Jan Bernath has contributed her essay, “The Road Not Taken.” Jan is integrally connected to the city’s history.
Jan was born in Chelsea in 1940 at the private hospital located in a house at 138 East Middle Street. The house was lovingly restored by John and Jackie Frank, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Jan was a member of the last class to graduate from Chelsea High School in 1958 when it was located on Harrison Street, a street on which she currently resides. She returned to Chelsea after being away for 67 years.
Jan is the president of the Chelsea Area Historical Society and enjoys writing about the historic buildings in town. She facilitates a group of seniors who write about their memories at the Chelsea Senior Center. She wrote this piece in response to the writing prompt “the road not taken.” Jan encourages others to write about that which they know best - their lives.
The Road Not Taken
I wasn’t unique in not taking the importance of pursuing a profession seriously in the 1950s. Going to college was a given when I graduated from Chelsea High School in 1958, but not all females grew up in a house where that was an expectation or affordable. My dad dropped out of high school six months before he was to graduate having concluded that he was smarter than his teachers. My mom went to Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University) for two years to earn a teacher’s certificate and taught for several years before she married. When Mom and Dad married, she had to keep it a secret or she would have had to leave her job immediately. Was that because marriage meant children would most likely follow, and women couldn’t handle both a job outside the home and raising a family? Why didn’t her male colleagues live under that same rule? I suspect this was an expression of the cultural norm that men were responsible for supporting families financially while women took care of the children and managed the family. I grew up where roles were clearly defined.
My chosen field of study was Speech and Hearing Pathology and during my senior year, I and two other female students in the program were summoned to speak collectively with the chairman of the department. He appealed to us to study for a Master’s degree, but this assumed we were focussed on our careers. It wasn’t required for certification, and I remember thinking: But, whatever for? Why would I do that? My goal was to ensure that I could fend for myself should my husband die. Clearly, I was on the “just in case” route.
I graduated from MSU in 1962 - one year before Betty Friedan published her book The Feminine Mystique. I didn’t fully understand her message about female agency.
I wasn’t unique when I followed the PhT degree - putting my husband through graduate school for his PhD. When I chose this path, my only consideration of where to work and live was based on what school would provide my husband with a program that interested him: snow hydrology - that means measuring runoff from snow as it melts. And so we ended up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada where the wind swept prairie defines what one can do at least six months a year.
I plugged our car into a pole with electricity so the engine block heater would warm the engine to start the car in the morning. I drove to work on square tires. Our car had an orange flag tied on top of the antennae to ensure that it was seen over the snow piled at least six feet on the median of the road. Even in the city the streets had ruts made by tires that created a treacherous luge-like ride. I shopped on my Friday lunch break hoping the eggs and lettuce wouldn’t freeze before I got home that evening. I knew that the meat and ice cream wouldn’t thaw.
Edmonton was where I learned different perspectives from the international graduate students at the University of Alberta. I met people from Scotland’s Isle of Skye, Ireland, Sweden, Germany, England, Australia, and New Zealand. They challenged my belief that the US was the greatest country on earth, and the Canadians looked south for social ills that they could not see in their own country. The students I met opened my eyes to what was happening in Vietnam in the early 60s before the US protests took hold. I learned these valuable viewpoints early in my life while hitched to someone else’s dream and for that I am extremely grateful.
Nevertheless, I often wonder how different my life would have been had I seriously pursued my chosen profession with more purpose, drive and direction. During that nascent time of the women’s movement, I was an observer. Indeed, other women blazed the trail and added new lanes of possibilities for my daughter and granddaughters. And for that I’m extremely thankful. Thanks, sisters!