War stories — we all have them, and we all have heard them.
When I think of war stories the image that first comes to mind is a bunch of guys hanging around a bar, telling their buddies not only what happened in their latest corporate skirmish but also what could have happened — with the two becoming hard to distinguish as the drinks keep flowing.
My first mental image is not of a group of women gathered around that bar. That’s why I was a little skeptical as I headed off to the last month’s breakfast at Jasna Polana honoring the Princeton Chamber’s “Women of Achievement” award winners. I came as a guest and I didn’t even bring a notebook. But I did wonder 1.) what could a winner say other than thanks and appreciation to the people who made her success possible, and 2.) why should we single out women for their own awards when, by and large, they are competing with men on fairly equal terms?
The first question was answered right out of the box. These women had war stories to tell, and the enthusiastic audience, which included a few men, but not too many, was delighted to hear those stories.
My colleague Barbara Fox, who has reported on the Princeton business scene since she first joined U.S. 1 in the 1980s, has reported on hundreds of prominent business people in her career.
Taking the long view of her life, Fox related not one of her more recent journalistic triumphs but rather her earliest. She was a freelance writer, trying to make the transition from stay-at-home mom to part-time (at least) professional. She had pitched a story to the Baltimore Sun for which she seemed to have absolutely no credentials: A profile of Elizabeth Hanford Dole, the wife of Senator — and aspiring president — Bob Dole, but who held her own impressive power position on the Federal Trade Commission.
Fox had a card to play: She had gone to Duke with “Liddy” Dole and they knew each other. Fox dogged Liddy Dole’s trail for days and eventually broke the story that the Senator’s wife would do the lady-like thing and give up her job to campaign for her husband in the 1980 presidential primaries.
Like most freelance writers, Fox had to cover her own expenses. She spent several hundred dollars for a story that would only pay her $25. A loss? Not at all. As one woman in the audience (a financial planner) told me later: Fox invested that money in herself and proved to herself that she was a professional in her field.
Another recipient, Denise Taylor, related the story of how she opened her new business, Great Looks Hair Salon at Mercer Mall, in 2009. It was the height of the recession, skeptics told her that there were too many competitors, and the space she was looking to transform was reminiscent of “your grandparents’ attic” with the added touch of “overflowing toilets.”
But, as I heard it, that wasn’t really her war story. It was, rather, her commitment to help others after she had helped herself get established. The list of organizations Taylor has supported range from HomeFront to One Simple Wish to a group of 15 central New Jersey hair salons that she brought together to help victims of Hurricane Sandy. “As a business owner,” Taylor said, “I have always felt that you have to be a true member of the community in order for the entire community to support you.”
Every parent, mother or father, has several war stories to tell, and I count myself in that group. But as I heard Danielle Gletow speak at the awards ceremony, I realized hers was something special. Most of us had a few months, a few years, a few decades to put the parenting ball into motion. Even then we still have nine months or so to prepare for that magic moment — plenty of time to get the crib ready and buy the cigars (if you will pardon the male-oriented imagery).
Gletow and her husband became foster parents. Her heart-rending tale of having a young child suddenly arrive at the door with little advance notice was topped only by another war story: of a little boy who had joined their home and then suddenly was torn from it when a family court order was changed.
Gletow’s experiences as a foster parent opened her eyes to the need for an organization that would support foster parents and children in this “very challenging and confusing” system. One Simple Wish began in late 2008 and now has more than 430 partnerships with agencies in 36 states. The organization has fulfilled more than 6,000 wishes and helped more than 20,000 children.
War stories, indeed. Still I wondered: Why a separate forum for women’s war stories? The fourth recipient, architect Barbara Hillier, tackled that question straight on. She reminded the audience that many of the achievements honored at the event were the product of choices that women did not have so many years ago. Women have every reason to celebrate those choices, not to take them for granted.
Hillier cited Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” and its point that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Without that figurative room of their own, women may not reach their full potential, or may get there only with great effort, often not recognized. Hillier quoted the line about Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire: “It’s easy — all you have to do is whatever Fred does except backwards and in high heels.”
I left the Jasna Polana event with a new appreciation for women’s war stories.
Just the other day I heard a good one — the story of how Texas state senator Wendy Davis, who last week filibustered for 10 hours (a true filibuster with zero breaks allowed) to temporarily derail a bill that would limit access to abortion in Texas.
Davis’s parents were divorced, and she and three siblings were raised by her mother, who had a sixth-grade education and worked at an ice cream shop to support the family. Davis graduated from high school in 1981, got married shortly thereafter, had a daughter, and then got divorced. She ended up a single mother, living in a trailer park. Eventually she took a paralegal course, enrolled at a county college, earned a degree from Texas Christian University, graduated first in her class despite holding two part-time jobs, and then earned her law degree with honors from Harvard.
Davis, now 50, is a force to be reckoned with in Texas and a figure on the national political scene. Keep your notebook handy when a woman starts telling her war story.