Three Extraordinary Women I Met
My friend Stacilee Ford, a historian at the University of Hong Kong, has published a book which she entitled Troubling American Women: Narratives of Gender and Nation in Hong Kong (Hong Kong University Press, 2011). In this book Staci describes a few American (nationality) women who lived in Hong Kong and Macau some time during the 19th and 20th centuries, who had written with “pedagogical impulse” and “outspokenness that sometimes troubled those around them”. Staci is not critical of the writers, and she gives them more credit than they deserve as agents of American culture in Hong Kong. For some reason, she has included my writings.
Meanwhile, another friend, who is also a contributor to Beyond Thirty-Nine, tells me that, as a woman of my great age (octogenarian) who has lived in different parts of the world, I should write about people, especially women, whom I have met, with or without discussing issues on gender.
This friend is right, but I went to girls’ schools and a women’s college, so women of achievements have never seemed “extraordinary” to me. Casually, I have met women of all ages, cultural backgrounds, levels of education and social attainments, so many that I had become confused as to who some of them were. Of course I do not forget Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut in space; but I cannot remember the names of foreign and education ministers, senators, and even prime ministers, a Labour peer in the House of Lords who was also a university president, but, as the years passed, especially when I look at old photographs, I no longer recall their names or positions, or even the circumstances under which we met.
There are other women, whose name I probably never learned to begin with, but their chosen life-styles and achievements came to mind every time I cross the adjective “extraordinary”.
On my mind are three “extraordinary” women I met, oh, at different times at least 10, 15 or even 20 years ago. They were a local court judge in Texas (or Oklahoma) a lieutenant-governor of the State of New York; and a chorus girl in a massive night club show in Las Vegas.
I do not believe that I really ever caught their names. I suspect that I have some of the details wrong as well. However, I am absolutely certain that these women were “extraordinary”.
The judge was a teenager in Germany during World War II, therefore she must be in her late 30s or 40s when she became a judge in a later decade of the 20th century — definitely after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Her father was Jewish, but her mother was not. While Germany was under Nazi rule, she and her mother continued to live at home while her father was in exile in Switzerland. She was not the most conscientious of students, she recalled. As her desk was below a window of a ground-floor classroom, she used to climb out of the window when the teacher was writing on the black board, and returned with hot pretzels for herself and her classmates around her, so they would not tell the teacher that she had disappeared. Somehow, she managed to acquire sufficient command of English working as an au pair in London after the war.
When she returned to her home town which was in the US Zone, she married an American soldier from Texas or Oklahoma, and went home with him, eventually becoming an American citizen under the War Bride Act. While he took advantage of the G. I. Bill which paid his fees to complete university and law school, she was bored. So she finished high school, followed him to university and law school, and, when I met her, she was already a judge of some distinction.
As a judge in a local court, she discovered that, in the American South at “that” time, almost without exception, the judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, court and other law-enforcement officials, were white, but somehow all the offenders were black. It did not take her long to figure out the major reason: the black offenders were illiterate!
She made up her mind how to resolve this issue.
Instead of placing the offenders in jail, she “sentenced” them to taking lessons on how to read and write. In other words, the sentence would be considered served when the offender attained an acceptable level of literacy.
Since there was neither existing program for the offenders to start such classes, the judge made room in her chambers and found teachers to start the tutoring.
It worked. The state and local governments began to adopt such education programs to increase literacy among the populace.
The Public Official
At the time we met, the public official was the serving lieutenant-governor of the State of New York, which was an appointed position. I remember her as a petite woman but not physically attention calling. She was a native of either Brooklyn or the Bronx because her “New York” accent was evident.
For some reason, she was telling a group of women, me included, about her life. At that time her two children as well as two Vietnamese children she and her husband had adopted, were already grown. In any case, they no longer needed their grandparents to be their baby-sitters.
Earlier, it must have been at the height of the Vietnam conflict, she had wanted to marry her high-school sweetheart before he went to war. He was drafted, I believe. Her parents did not approve. So, she took a sure-way out, by becoming pregnant. Thus, the parents consented. The husband left for Vietnam, and she became a mother. When her husband returned on leave, he brought home two Vietnamese orphans he had adopted with her enthusiastic support, and they had another child of their own. Sadly, after he returned to join his comrades in Vietnam, he was killed in battle.
The future public official’s parents came to her assistance, however, by taking care of the children when they were not in school. As a war widow she had enough money to feed and clothe herself and her children, but she needed time to build a future by finishing her schooling and any professional training she desired to have. She also needed time to work at jobs which would pay other expenses not covered by her widow’s allowances. Somehow, I remember that she happened to hold part-time jobs at law firms, hence her later connections were to be with people in the area of law and public service.
The day-time classes and part-time jobs not withstanding, the future public servant found the highest-paid and most conveniently-timed job was late night waitressing, as a playboy bunny at a Playboy Club, or whatever a waitress was called at the Penthouse, definitely sexist but respectable jobs serving food and liquor. (I do know at least one customer who showed up at a Playboy Club at the wee hours and ordered a glass of cold milk.)
After she graduated from university, and perhaps also qualified as an attorney, she decided to work in public administration which allowed her more time with her children than practicing law would be.
The Las Vegas Show Girl
The occasion of my meeting this chorus girl at one of the leading hotel night clubs in Las Vegas was in the late 1990s or early 2000s. I can tell the date by what I was wearing in the above photograph. The jacket was made for me in 1997 by a tailor in Kowloon.
I was in Las Vegas attending the annual meeting of an international women’s organization. The conferees were offered a chance to attend a rehearsal of students of the training school for the Nevada State Ballet Company, or a tour of the back stage of a major hotel’s renowned night club, guided by a member of the chorus. This night club is reputed to produce one of the world’s leading loud and glamorous shows, which I have never experienced. At that time I was on he faculty of the Hong Kong Academic for Performing Arts, where a number of my students were being trained in ballet. The Dean of Dance ordered: “Go visit the night club. You have enough of ballet rehearsals at home!”.
There were about 50 of us, all established professionals in various fields but none had visited before such a place as the working area of a night club. We were met at the entrance by a tall young woman with a poly tail, wearing blue jeans and a tee-shirt, with no make-up whatsoever.
She took us through the back storage, costumes and sets, mostly, and gave us a general picture of the areas, what night club customers did not see and probably did not care to know. This young woman was articulate, her language and accent without any doubt educated, and her manners were relaxed.
Then, the time came for her to tell us about her job as a show girl. She sat us down in comfortable chairs and began to put on facial make-up as she chatted. The audience asked questions, personal as well as professional ones. We all wanted to know how she chose to be a show girl in Las Vegas.
“A few years ago”, she was in Hong Kong where she met “someone” from Las Vegas who told her about its entertainment industry. I think she also told us that she had come from a New York State farming family, so to her Las Vegas appeared to be an alien land, indeed. Since she had no commitment at that time, she went with her new friend to Las Vegas. She applied for a job as a show girl, was hired, and stayed. She had been working in the chorus, starting in the back row, but by the time we visited she had already been “promoted” to the front row. It meant she could go topless and as such was paid two dollars more per hour. “How did you feel to be topless in public”, somebody in the audience asked. “No, it was not embarrassing at all” was the reply. Her mother actually came to see her show, and neither mother nor daughter felt awkward; but her father had refused to be a part of her professional life by being a member of the audience.
She then went behind a half screen. While we continued to bombard her with questions, she changed into a show girl.
It was my turn to ask a question. Having being a teacher and usually also a committee member guiding students (hopefully) towards sensible career choices, I posed the question I never fail to ask. “What and where do you see yourself five years from now, and ten years from now?”
The show girl did not bat an eye. She confided, “I see myself five years from now as a student in Psychology at New York University. Ten years from now I see myself as a doctoral student in Psychology at New York University, unless I already have a Ph D degree in Psychology from New York University.” This answer stunned the audience. All of us applauded, except for one woman.
This woman used her hands to extracte her calling card from her purse. Handing it to the show girl, she announced, “I am Professor of Psychology at New York University. When you are ready, phone me.”
While the audience cheered even more loudly, I emptied the plastic box I happened to be carrying, got rid of whatever souvenir it had contained, and, in my usually not so svelte voice, announced: “Let us start a fund right now. I do not want to see a single bill smaller than a five!”
I think somebody counted. The box contained not quite 1,000 US dollars.
That was one of my more inspired ideas.
Betty Peh T’i Wei