Little Details3/12/09

March 12, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Living in the affirmative

I like Susan. We meet occasionally for coffee and conversation at Mirabelles, downtown Burlington’s delectable pastry emporium. Susan is partial to frothy cappuccinos. I like my decaf in a white porcelain cup.

When I arrive for our coffee date, I see Susan holding court at one of her favored tables, chatting it up with local luminaries of the legal and political scene. In winter, she brings her cane, for extra support, lest she risk slipping on an icy patch.

Susan, a few decades older than I, remains sharp as a tack and steadfast in her opinions. She reads a foreign language magazine to keep up with the French she studied in college and follows politics with zest.

We met at a church potluck. I sat on her right at a fellow parishioner’s dining room table. In an attempt to make conversation, I asked her where she grew up. I became a little guarded upon learning she hailed from an affluent suburb near Boston. I used to pass through her town on a bus every weekend on my way home from college to work in a restaurant. I never got off the bus in her wealthy enclave, with its manicured lawns and expensive private schools. I feared she might pass judgment on me for my more humble working class roots from a nearby factory town. I soon learned Susan measured people based on character, not their supposed pedigree.

Casual conversation over pasta led to deeper explorations of our personal stories. Her ancestors, polished by Ivy League degrees, made their money in business. My parents earned their keep on factory floors, churning out chemicals and plastic garbage bags.

We talked politics and Susan revealed her liberal leanings. We didn’t agree on every point but we agreed on many. There was something refreshing about her sharp mind and wit. Conversation with Susan keeps you on your intellectual toes. She was no fading lily quietly traipsing off into retirement. She also expressed a genuine interest in who I was and where I found myself on life’s journey.

Decades earlier, when Susan applied to law school, she met with the dean at a prominent program. He scanned her paperwork, looked up and said, “Your grades are impressive. Your letters of recommendation are wonderful. There’s only one problem — you’re a woman. We don’t accept women.”

Even if she was momentarily thwarted by the comment, Susan, in true thinking-on-your-feet lawyerly style, fired back, “Well, can’t you just make believe I’m a man?”

Susan got in. She attended law lectures where professors routinely addressed the class as “Gentlemen.” She studied hard and pushed her way through earning a law degree.

Susan married and, as with some marriages, it just didn’t work out. She doesn’t dwell on this aspect of her life. She drew on her fine credentials and resourcefulness to return to the workforce and earn enough money to raise her children.

Is she bitter? I don’t think so. I think of Susan as a highly accomplished woman who rolls with life and lives in the affirmative. She’s also one of those folks born into relative affluence who acknowledges the need to give others a hand up educationally and/or materially so they have a decent shot at working for and realizing their own success.

March is Women’s History Month. I think of Susan as a modern day pioneer who was savvy enough to ask the question, “Can’t you just make believe I’m a man?” Thanks to women like Susan who forged the way, younger women like me no longer have to ask that question.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or