A Woman Before Her Time

November 11, 2010

We’ve talked about Ruth as my grandmother. We’ve talked about Ruth as a daughter, a sister, a mother. And we’ve talked about Ruth as a talented craftswoman and teacher.

What we haven’t talked about is Ruth as a career woman. It’s important that we do, because through much of her adult life Ruth was very involved in the business world. She definitely was a woman before her time.

“I attended Linbloom High School (in Chicago),” says Ruth, in her 1990 video interview. “But when I was 15, I quit school and went to work. I worked for Strauss and Schram Mail Order House.”

I wondered if she had wanted to quit high school?

“Well,” answers my grandmother, in a matter-of-fact tone that certainly does not imply martyrdom. “My mother thought it was time. They needed the money. My first wage for the week was $8.18. It was actually $10, but they (employers) took money out because I went to (continuation) school one day a week.

“I cut stencil because I knew how to type and those stencils were used for mailing purposes. I worked there until after I was 16, then I didn’t have to go to school anymore.”

This school—continuation school, according to Ruth—was a type of vocational training. She also attended night school where she learned shorthand and typing.

This is interesting.

I wonder if Ruth’s mother encouraged, or even pushed, for such continued education? Or was Ruth full of gumption and pursued this on her own?

Either way, the skills she acquired allowed her positions much more prestigious than the laundry and housekeeping jobs her mother held at that same age.

Ruth also did her networking. She got her second job via her step-father’s sister’s husband (that almost sounds like a third degree connection on today’s LinkedIn, doesn’t it?)

“My aunt from my step-father’s side—her husband worked at Vierling Steel Works and he got me a job there,” says Ruth. “I ran the switchboard and took dictation until they sold out and the new owners got all new office help.”

Somewhere, someone has a picture of Ruth in her young working days. The picture, so I’ve heard, shows Ruth and several women hanging out for a smoke. I’d love to see that picture! Yes, even grandmothers were once young and radical.

Anyway, as we well know, in 1929, when Ruth was almost 20, she started working as a switchboard operator for C.A. Burnett Packing Company. And there she met George.

I wished I’d thought to ask my grandmother what it was like to meet George at the office? Did they have office romance policies back then? Were there such things as anti-nepotism rules?

Apparently not at the C.A. Burnett Packing Company, because even after they were married, Ruth continued to work there with George until their first child was born in 1933.

Let’s jump ahead now, to 1946.

George and Ruth, together with their daughters Carol and Judith, were now living in Henderson, MI, and were the proud owners of Larson’s Grocery and Market.

“I helped Grandpa in the store for a while,” says Ruth in the video. “But then we decided we needed a lot of things and Grandpa wanted to do some remodeling. So I got a job.

“First I worked nights at a factory. I just worked there from October until that next April.

“And then I got a job as bookkeeper for Michigan Iron & Metal and Babbitt Coal Company. I took care of both sets of books. Then Babbitt Coal went out of business and I worked for Michigan Iron & Metal for 14 years.”

Funny how those things go. As a child, I never thought about my grandmother being a working woman. Or a business woman. Or anything.

She was just my grandma.

And a very special one at that.

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