Campus History

An Independent Woman

Barry Roal Carlsen

It was 1959, and I was in the first semester of my senior year at the UW, where I had a part-time job working at WHA radio station.

She was over sixty, absolutely stunning — six feet tall, lanky, poised, and as beautiful as any model I’d ever seen in magazines. And she was the first professional woman I’d ever known who wasn’t a teacher or nurse. I was curious about this stately woman named Miss Arlene McKellar, who was an associate professor of radio-television education at what is now the UW Extension, as well as associate director of School of the Air at WHA. How did she get chosen for her job? How did the men working for her feel about having a woman as their boss? Why hadn’t she married? Did she regret not ever having a baby? Was she lonely?

My main job was to type the words to the songs that would go into the 1959 School of the Air songbook and then paste these words underneath the musical notes in the book. It was tedious work that I enjoyed because I’d sung songs from this very same songbook when I was in grade school. I’d always wondered about Professor Edgar Gordon, the music teacher on School of the Air. He’d say, “Oh, that sounded wonderful, just wonderful,” whenever my class sang the songs he’d asked us to sing. I always thought he’d heard us sing just like we’d heard him sing over the radio. Some of the songs in the 1959 songbook, such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” had been in the publication since the 1940s, when I was in grade school.

While fitting words underneath notes, Miss McKellar and I sometimes got to talk. I knew not to pry, but I was curious. She was a confident, self-assured woman who’d never married, and she had an important job. This was unusual.

One day it seemed to fit into our conversation, so I asked for her secret to success. “Oh, no secret, really,” she said. “I guess I’ve achieved in the workplace for the same reasons I failed at finding a man to marry.”

“What would that have been?”

“To begin with, I intimidated most men because I towered over them. And I refused to settle for someone who didn’t meet my standards, nor would I comply to his ways when mine made more sense. That’s exactly what men don’t want in a wife.”

“A really smart man wouldn’t mind, would he?”

“I gave up trying to find him when I turned thirty. And now, well, I just can’t imagine myself as anything but an independent woman. I think I’d have been unhappy as someone’s wife.”

I had never heard another woman say that, and I liked how she called herself an independent woman rather than an old maid. Besides being beautiful, she was graceful, poised, refined, cultured, and highly intelligent. She was everything I aspired to be, but I also wanted a husband and children.

“Have you ever wanted to have children?” I asked, knowing this was a sensitive question.

“I have my nieces and nephews. That’s enough for me.”

“I’ve heard a few coeds say that they wanted a career while also being a wife and mother,” I said. “Did you ever think about doing both? You know, having it all?”

“Women who try usually end up divorced.”

“There’s no way to have it all without risking divorce?”

“Teaching is a possibility,” Miss McKellar said. “You can teach until your first pregnancy starts showing, and then go back when your kids are all in school. You’ll have summers off, just like your children, so it can work. My advice, however, is don’t earn more than your husband. A man needs to know that he wears the pants in his family.”

My dreams about other types of careers besides teaching school started to sound impractical. Very few women got accepted into journalism at the UW, for instance. Also, who would take care of my kids when I had to go to work and they weren’t at school?

Miss McKellar was full of sensible advice that she claimed to have ignored when she was young and making her choices. While pasting words under the correct notes, I watched how she dressed, walked, greeted business associates, talked on the phone, drank coffee, listened, praised, and critiqued. I was fascinated, even by how she straightened her desk before leaving her office for the day.

Imagining myself as an independent woman helped me feel free to flap my wings a bit more, without always thinking that I had to be looking for the perfect man to marry. I was a better person for having known her. Miss McKellar and I wrote letters to each other for years after I graduated and she retired. Then one day, I received a handwritten greeting card from her sister saying that Arlene had died and had always spoken kind words about me. It helped me to see the possibility that I might have been an important person in her life, just as she was in mine.

This essay was adapted from Head Over Heels — Stories about the 1950s (RemArt Publishing), Donna Van Straten Remmert’s memoir about attending the UW. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Published in the Spring 2014 issue


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