Born in 1949, I grew up in the 50's. Those were the days of Gracie Allen ("Say goodnight, Gracie." "Goodnight, Gracie."), Lucille Ball, and Alice of the Honeymooners, for whom "To the moon, Alice!" did not mean that she could ever be astronaut. These were the models for the 1950's woman.
I was always bright and precocious. Before starting kindergarten I taught myself to read the Dick and Jane books that were being read to me. My parents didn't believe that I could read so they bought a book I had never seen and I read it to them. From then on my mother's mantra was, "Karen, no one is ever going to love you if you don't play dumb." Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot. Not Myrna Loy in The Thin Man.
I wore glasses (from the age of 5) in a time when the chant "Men never make passes at girls who were glasses" was often heard.
Being smart and being female is still difficult in our culture. Esther Dyson, who for long has been one of the cultivators of deep thinking around technology, was introduced as "the most powerful woman in American business", to which she replied that she considered herself at least one of the most powerful people in her field. She's right. But being saddled with the "woman" category it means that she can be considered apart, not a threat to the status of any men who might otherwise be lessened by her success in "their" world.
I was fortunate to have a few high school teachers who appreciated intellect in a girl. (I was unfortunate to also have the local high school lech who paid girls A's to sit in the front of the class in mini-skirts but without panties.) It wasn't really until I hit college that the discrimination against smart women became intense. I can only imagine that it is because college professors see themselves as grooming the next generation of college professors, while high school teachers instead had the task of helping us learn what they had to teach, then leave. In my first semester at college I had one of those introductory courses that was held in an auditorium -- probably a history class of some sort. After class one day I walked with the professor toward his office and chatted with him about some idea that had come to me from his lecture. He was friendly and encouraging. At the next class meeting he began by saying: "After class last time, a young man presented me with a very interesting idea." He had not mistaken me at the time for a boy. This was a small private college and there was a dress code. I had long, flowing hair, wore makeup, and was wearing a dress. Instead, his memory turned me into a boy because it would have been impossible for him to have received a new and interesting idea from a girl. You can imagine how likely it would have been for him to become the mentor to a bright woman looking to pursue an academic career.
You may also be able to imagine how this statement made me disappear, not only in his eyes and the eyes of my classmates, who would never know that I was that "young man," but also in my own eyes. Psychologists call it "loss of significance" -- that your very being is denied; you are erased, post facto. I don't wonder that so many women suffer depression, because there is nothing more disorienting or more discouraging than having your own experience denied, pulled out from under you, and to be made invisible.
The stories, of course, abound; I couldn't begin to tell them all. This one, though, must be told: There was the boss who had hired me as the only woman holding a management position in the organization. He chuckled in surprise and disdain when I asked to be included in the meetings that he held with the otherwise-all-male management staff, which he had not thought to invite me to. He was even more surprised when I spoke up at the meetings. One day he called me into his office and praised me by saying "We're lucky to have found you. If you were a man we'd have to be paying you twice as much."
With great pain I realize that I experienced all of this from a position of great privilege, as a white, middle-class, educated American. I cannot imagine the prejudice of race or caste that others must live with, nor how that affects their sense of themselves as whole human beings.
I'm glad I went into librarianship, with all of its warts. I have spent my career surrounded by smart women. I got to create technology with women. I hope to do more of that. My main message here today, though, is this: if you can help a young woman understand her own worth, to appreciate her abilities, and to see being smart as a positive, please do, in whatever way you can. Whether it's encouragement, scholarships, or raising a daughter who never hears "no one will ever love you if don't play dumb." Let's make sure that the fifties are behind us.