Janet Silver Ghent and husband Allen Podell. (Photo/Courtesy)
Janet Silver Ghent and husband Allen Podell. (Photo/Courtesy)

I was part of the Silent Generation but never learned to keep my mouth shut

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In 1965, when I married for the first time at age 22, I was determined to be the woman behind the man. I failed abysmally and divorced at midlife.

Now my second husband of 24 years is determined to be the man behind the woman. In fact, shortly after we married, he was hawking free copies of the Jewish Bulletin, the forerunner to J., outside a San Francisco Jewish Film Festival venue and shouting, “Get your red-hot Jewish Bulletin. It’s a great paper. That’s how I met my wife.” Now he’s promoting my new book on Facebook.

Grappling with a vociferous one-man fan club is an adjustment for me. Maybe it’s because I straddle two generations and two sets of expectations: the feminine mystique of the housewifely 1950s and early ’60s and the “I am woman, I can do and be anything” mystique of the post-liberation era. Neither one fits.

I’m neither a baby boomer nor part of the Greatest Generation that preceded me. I was born during World War II, at the tail end of the Silent Generation, though I never learned to keep my mouth shut. I am part of the in-between generation of women who experienced social upheaval after we finished college, got married and had children.

In 1960, when I went off to college at Oberlin, the median age for first-time brides was 20.4 years, according to the National Center for Marriage and Family Research at Bowling Green State University. Encouraging young women to register their patterns for fine china, full-page ads in Seventeen magazine pictured blissful couples atop the slogan “You get the license … I’ll get the Lenox.”

In 1964, during my senior year of college, I attended numerous showers and weddings. Today few of those friends are still married to their first husbands, and the Lenox, crystal and linen tablecloths may come out for Passover, if they’re used at all. Our Generation X children don’t want them. When my children entertain, they might use plastic plates from Costco.

Bride and her father
Janet Silver Ghent dances with her father, Robin Martin Silver, at her first wedding in 1965. (Photo/Courtesy)

We Silents were encouraged to marry young, but we were also advised to prepare for a career we could “fall back on” such as teaching, nursing, social work, librarianship. Employment agencies required typing tests — just for women — and they routinely asked married women, “What are your plans for a family?” The assumption was that women would quit work once their pregnancies became obvious and would be unlikely to return to the workplace.

Remember the PHT degree, as in “Putting Hubby Through”? In 1966, I refused to pick up a demeaning fake diploma at a University of Michigan Law Wives luncheon. It was bad enough that the words “student wife” were stamped on my university job application, dooming me to secretarial work while I earned a master’s in English.

At the time, educated women were groomed to be helpmates to husbands and to move when and where their husbands’ jobs required because men were the primary breadwinners. IBM was shorthand for “I’ve Been Moved.” Traditionally, women’s earnings were viewed as gravy that might help cover a down payment or pay for a washer, dryer and dishwasher.

Corporate-climbing husbands sometimes viewed their wives as decorative business assets on the order of first lady Jackie Kennedy: dressing well, hosting elegant dinner parties and peppering conversations with delicious tidbits about books, theater and art.

Then came the liberation movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Casting aside traditional core beliefs and expectations, vocal Silents fomented a cultural revolution. Inspired by women such as Gloria Steinem, Erica Jong, Nora Ephron, Robin Morgan and Jane Fonda, Silents went back to school, became doctors, lawyers and MBAs, divorced and came out of the closet. The widowed Jackie Kennedy became Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, living apart from shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and pursuing a career as an editor.

In my 30s, after earning a teaching credential, raising two children and moving to California, I finally found a job in journalism — as a fashion writer. It was an anomaly for a left-of-center Oberlin grad, but it was an entry. Then at midlife, divorced and with the newspaper business in freefall, I became a Jewish journalist. Who knew?

Now with the publication of my first book, “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-Life Love,” my husband has become my helpmate. I could get used to this.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].