By: Renee Smith
In 1831 a 27-year-old woman named Aurore Dupin Dudevant left her husband and moved to Paris. She wanted to be a writer but in 1831 Paris a woman was supported by marriage or prostitution, not as a writer. Undeterred, she showed her work to an editor who directly explained the social circumstance, "You should make babies, Madame, not literature."*
In 1991, 160 years later, a 20-year-old top tier college graduate started her new job at IBM in the Government/Hospital Sales Division. She was top of her class and had experience working in corporate America through a series of internships and summer jobs. She felt well prepared for the work outlined, but it took a seasoned male colleague to publicly explain the social circumstance. "You can't wear pant suits to the office. Only men can wear pants."
The first George Sand novel Indiana was published in 1832 resulting in immediate fame for the author. The theme of the novel was described as "a passionate protest against the social conventions that bind a wife to her husband against her will and an apologia for a heroine who abandons an unhappy marriage and finds love."* No surprise that George wore pants. Matter a fact, George smoked cigars and carried on liaisons with some of the most high profile artists in 1830s Paris (Alfred de Musset, Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin) as was the common male social circumstance.* The difference with George Sand's circumstance as that was the pseudonym for Aurore Dupin Dudevant. Importantly, Aurore didn't pretend to be a man, just used the male social tools of the time -- at social occasions she dressed as a woman. The male wardrobe enabled her to circulate more freely about Paris and increased her access to social venues that were usually denied to a woman of her social standing. She was playing a part as she wanted the power to determine her own character.* Ivan Turgenev described her this way. "What a brave man she was, and what a good woman." Today history will report that Aurore is referenced by top literary minds such as Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Barrett Browing, Virginia Woolf and in Isabel Allende's Zorro.*
So how did our 20 year old fare at IBM? She stopped wearing pants. Instead of seizing on the opportunity like Aurore did and find a path to determine her own character, our 20-year-old heroine was embarrassed by the public critique and fell back into line with all the other women. She put on a skirt like a "good girl." Not long after that encounter, she lost her enthusiasm for the job and within two years, quit IBM.
History is great at teaching lessons for those who look back at their own experiences and at the experiences of those who have come before. Each of us could point to an event like both of these women that became a sign post in our lives where social conventions or attitudes blocked the straight path to our goals. Talent, education or ability were not considered. The community expected each person to play a role and used social circumstances to enforce it.
We applaud the "Aurores" in this world, but do we have the courage to do as she did? I didn't. I quit IBM. I look back at that girl and can replay the incident in my mind as an observer, understanding what the years since then have taught me. Being a "good girl" won't assure me of getting where I want to go any more than doing it the way I know I can. The difference, however, is the level of satisfaction knowing I gave myself the opportunity to use my skills even if the result is less than I had hoped. Now a pair of pants wouldn't have made me smarter or a better IBM employee but it would have told those around me that my "secret power" is my innovative spirit which couldn't be intimidated and if you read Who Says Elephants Can't Dance by Luis V. Gerstner Jr., in 1991 IBM was in desperate need of innovation.
I was inspired by Aurore's story and it seemed to "bookend" mine. How a pair of pants lead two talented women in different directions. To quote Robert Greene, "The world wants to assign you a role in life. And once you accept that role you are doomed. Your power is limited to the tiny amount allotted to the role." I hope the message is clear. Social circumstance is not designed to make an individual great. It is designed to make others feel in control. Listen to your heart, develop your talents and strengthen your resolve to have a career and life on your terms.
Attorney Renee Marie Smith speaker and author of "My Guru's" book series and she is nationally published in NAWRB Magazine, Palm Beach Woman, Women's Council of Realtors PB quarterly, Huffington Post, Mortgage.Orb and Forbes. @mygurupublishes