Just A Girl In 1972

Sherri J. Bale

© Copyright 2023 by Sherri J. Bale

Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash
Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash

Physics terrified me. It was only the really smart kids who took physics in high school. But I knew I needed a well-rounded transcript for my college applications because I planned to be a scientist. I was one of only three girls in the physics class. I studied hard, spending more time on physics than any other course in my senior year. My boyfriend, who was in Advanced Placement Physics, tutored me. I got an extra workbook and did all the exercises. I did well in the class, acing the exams, and by the end of the year, I was tied with one other student for the highest average. During the last week of class, Mr. Lynch called me over to his desk.

Sherri, I know you worked really hard in the class, and you and Ken both have a 99% average. But I can choose only one student for the annual physics award, and I have decided it will be Ken. He plans to be a doctor, and it will give him an advantage when he applies to medical school after college to have the physics award on his applications. I don’t think you will need it as much in your future. But, congratulations on your performance in class.”

The student who had the next highest grade told Ken he should tell Mr. Lynch I deserved the award, too, and they should just give two awards. Ken did not take the suggestion, and when he went to the stage to receive the physics award at our final assembly, I felt like crying. But I pushed the feeling of disappointment away and determined not to think about it again. I even congratulated Ken on his award.

I needed to find a job for the summer if I was going to be able to buy books when I got to college in September. The unemployment rate in my Western Massachusetts industrial town in the ’70s was nearly 10%, so jobs were hard to find, especially for teenagers. I searched the ads in the Sunday newspaper, which was divided into two sections: Help Wanted/Female and Help Wanted/Male. The ads for females sought women for clerical positions, Gal Fridays, switchboard operators, and salesladies in dress shops. I was not qualified for any of those jobs. The ads for males were much more diverse and among the positions in the trades, was one for a gas station attendant - no experience necessary. But I actually did have experience! I knew how to pump gas, and even change a tire. My dad made sure I had those skills as soon as I got my driver’s license. I decided to apply for the job thinking my experience would win it for me, even though my mother shook her head and said, “They won’t hire you”. I wore one of my nicer skirts, the checkered one in pink and white that I wore to school on special days (no pants allowed for girls), and took the city bus to the gas station. I walked into the office and asked for the manager.
I’m here for the attendant job.”

How old are you?”


Look, Sweetie, this is a job for a man.”

I am quite capable of doing the job. I will graduate high school in two weeks. I can pump gas, make change, wash a car window, and check tire pressure.”

I’m sure you can, Sugar. But I’m not hiring no girl.”

With that, he dismissed me and turned back to his work. I wanted to argue but implicitly knew it would do no good. Maybe if I had been bigger, taller, or worn slacks I might have looked more capable. I hated that my mother had been right and I fumed on the bus all the way home. My mother’s raised eyebrows and I-told-you-so smirk said it all.

My dad eventually pulled some strings and got me a job in a tiny factory assembling trolling motors for fishing boats. After a couple of weeks, the owner of the factory took me off the factory floor where the workers were all rowdy guys a couple of years out of high school, and moved me into the office to do accounting work. He said I was the only one he trusted to use a calculator properly.

When I got my first paycheck, my mother took me to the bank to open a checking account in both our names so I could pay for things when I got to college. When the bank manager asked how to title the account, I said, “My name, Sherri G. and my mother’s name, was Mrs. Charlotte G.”

My mother immediately came to attention.

Don’t you ever tell anyone my name is Mrs. Charlotte G! I’m not divorced. I’m a married woman. My name is Mrs. Melvin G,” she said.

This was the first time I realized that a woman did not have the same privileges as a man. Her worth was tied to her husband; she was not an entity in herself. That enlightenment immediately made me reconsider the physics award. At the time, though I was disappointed, I did not think it unusual for Ken to get the award rather than me. You win some, you lose some. And I certainly never considered making a formal complaint or even internalized that I had been discriminated against because I was female. But I woke up to it now, and I was angry.

This happened as I prepared to go to college, in 1972. Title IX would be passed that summer, but I knew nothing about it. That bill went a long way to even out the playing field (figuratively and literally) for girls and women. Though I had not benefitted in high school, and my mother had not benefitted ever in her life, Title IX was supposed to assure that I and the girls who came after me would be legally protected from discrimination based on gender in any future school or other federally-funded activity.

The next girl who didn’t get a science award because the boy with the same grade “needed it more” would be able to fight for what she knew she deserved. A woman could use her own name on a legal document, and a woman with skills and experience could compete directly with a man for any job. The women of my generation owe a tremendous debt to those who came before us and fought for our rights.

I vowed to do my part whenever I could. I ran a company for 16 years and I filled 75% of the senior positions with highly qualified women. It’s my guess a few of them were passed over for the Physics award, too.

On the heels of Title IX, it was in January of 1973 that Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court, further advancing the cause of women’s rights. It makes me heartsick that in 2022 the Supreme Court reversed that decision. Amy Coney Barrett, the only female Justice who voted to overturn Roe, graduated from a private all-girls Catholic High School in 1990. She was born in 1972, the year I graduated from high school. One wonders if her vote would have been different had she experienced what I did growing up. One can only hope.

Sherri J. Bale is a 68-year-old medical geneticist and part-time personal trainer to seniors (men and women). She holds a Ph.D. in genetics and a second-degree black belt in judo. She retired from employment in 2022 after 16 years working for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, USA followed by 22 years in a genetic testing company she founded in 2000. While she has an extensive CV with over 160 scientific articles, she has not previously published any creative writing. In retirement, she now writes primarily flash fiction and short stories and has a historical fiction novel in progress. She has two grown children and one grandson. She lives with her husband and COVID rescue puppy, Petey in Chevy Chase and Ocean City, MD.

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