My parents’ twenty-plus year marriage was a sad example of what can happen to a woman who finds herself trapped in a relationship without love, caring, or respect because she can not support herself or the children.
A successful engineer, my father used his financial means to control his wife who had very little education and no opportunity for financial independence. He gave her an allowance specifying that a certain amount of money was to be used for clothing, food, and other house-hold expenses. Over the years I watched my mother, who loved fine things, squirrel away money from here and there and take it to a local furniture store.
The delivery truck arrived at our house when I was about fourteen years old. It was wonderful to have a new sofa, a real dining room table and beautiful upholstered chairs instead of folding furniture and hand-me-downs. My mother was thrilled! But when my father came home, he was so angry that I made a personal commitment to never be financially dependent on anyone.
My favorite aunt found herself stuck in an unhappy marriage too. Like my mother, she raised five children and had limited education. Her husband, a dreamer, never finished a single thing he started. Finally, after more than twenty years of unhappiness, the two most important women in my life divorced their husbands and found a way forward.
Although my mother never went beyond eighth grade, she eventually managed to own motels and restaurants, while my aunt, at the age of forty-five, went to law school and graduated as the only woman in her class. After passing the bar, she established her own law firm because no other firm would hire a woman.
Their struggles made me realize how important it was to attend college, but it was disappointing to graduate near the top of my class and not get hired. Every man who interviewed me said that I was a bad investment because after being trained, I would get married, have children and quit my job. These remarks were so hurtful that I decided to follow in my aunt’s footsteps and go to law school. Fortunately by the time I was admitted to the bar, firms were beginning to hire women, and I found a job.
Then, about eighteen months into my practice, I woke up one morning and did not want to go to work. I had a law degree and a well-paying job, but I hated what I was doing! I didn’t want to be a lawyer! On some deeper level, I had known this all along, but in my quest for financial stability and independence, I had never really thought about doing something that would actually make me happy.
From that moment on, I decided to always have two requirements for my life: financial security and the ability to feel fulfilled by the work I do. I quit my job as a lawyer never imagining that one day I would become president and chief executive officer of the second largest daily metropolitan newspaper in the country.
I made a commitment to making sure that women have full opportunities in all aspects of their lives and creating a work environment where every individual could feel respected. I took these beliefs into each of my organizations, hiring, promoting and encouraging every person in the company—women, men, and people of color.
Every girl and woman needs to know that whatever the circumstances of her life, a good education, courage and commitment are essential to finding her way forward.
~ Kathryn Downing
Kathryn Downing serves as the chairwoman of the Women’s Foundation of California and Founder of Galileo Coaching. She is an honoree of the Foundation’s 2012 Momentum Awards. This story appears in Life Moments for Women: 100+ Extraordinary California Women Share Turning Points in Their Lives, by Patty De Dominic and Maureen Ford. This inspiring book features amazing women, some of whom are Foundation grant partners, supporters, board, and staff. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Foundation. Click here to learn more and purchase the book.