Gladys McCord – Breaking the Glass Ceiling in the 1920s

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Suffragettes marching for voting rights

In just 9 days, the US will be electing a new president.  And according to current polling, it appears that we may be electing our first woman president.  Due to the history of this moment (and many comments made in the media during the campaign), photos of women, such as Susan B. Anthony and other suffragettes are often posted in social media, reminding us of the fight and sacrifice it took for women to actually have a say in our own political process.  Yet, we often overlook our own families — women who at the turn of the 20th century contributed to the historic battle for women’s rights.

So I want to take a moment at look at my own suffragette  of sorts– although she might not have called herself that.  But she was, in all senses of the word, a very modern woman for her time.  My grandmother, Gladys McCord.

 

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Gladys on the right, with older brother Clarence

Gladys Elberta McCord was born in Paradise Township, Iowa in 1895, the second child of a middle class farmer and his wife — Elbert Nessle McCord and Ida Bixler.  At a time when many women did not attend college, much less graduate high school, Gladys not only graduated high school, but graduated with a bachelor of science degree in education from the State Agricultural College of Iowa (or now known as Iowa State University) in Ames, Iowa.  But like many women, she worked her way through college.  Teachers in rural areas of the United States typically had just a high school diploma.  So, after she graduated high school, Gladys spent a couple of years teaching in local schools near her farming community before enrolling in college.

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Gladys in about 1925.

While a student at Iowa State in 1919, she contracted typhoid fever and was out of school for more than a year.  By the year 1920, she graduated when she was 25 years old, just months ahead of when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, allowing women the right to vote.  In fact, when she graduated, she was the first person in her family to have attended and graduated from college — her younger sister, Ione, would soon follow her.

But like a lot of women, Gladys was not just defined by the fact that she was the first woman to graduate from college in her family.  She became a teacher, a working woman.  For the first several years after graduating from college, she taught at Central High School in Sioux City, Iowa.  As a Home Economics teacher, Gladys taught the essentials of sewing, cooking, and life skills.

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1920 Parson School of Design classroom – courtesy of the New School, New York.

However, in 1927 she applied for and was accepted into the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City (famous alumni include Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, among others).  She intended to complete a Masters degree in Interior Design.  Coming from rural Iowa, a placement at the Parsons School of Design was something only few could ever dream about, much less accomplish. So the rural girl of Iowa moved to the fast paced city of New York to pursue even more education. Understand that by continuing her education, Gladys put marriage on the back burner and did what many might consider to be scandalous at that time.  No husband, no children, more education??

But her dreams of furthering her education were soon dashed — in October of 1927, her mother was killed in a freak race car accident.  Gladys would soon come home to care for her father.

In the coming years, my grandmother would continue to teach Home Economics, meet my grandfather, and move to Wisconsin.   She took time out to have two girls — once they were old enough to attend school, and after the family moved to Chicago, she returned to the classroom, teaching well into her 50s.

Women of her generation made huge strides and enormous sacrifices that we can only barely understand. At that time, according to society, women were  not meant to be educated, nor were they meant to work outside the home.  Women took enormous risks to educate themselves beyond what was considered to be appropriate.  While my grandmother didn’t (as far as I know) protest for voting rights or get sent to jail, she in her own way quietly turned her back on society’s expectations and blazed a trail for those coming behind her.

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Gladys McCord Montgomery, my grandmother, on her 90th birthday.

So, as we look to November 8th, and the possibility of electing our first woman president, remember all the women who came before.  The women who worked to educate themselves, the women who turned their backs on society’s demands and pursued their own dreams.  That is what breaking the glass ceiling is all about.  And I am proud that my grandmother was among many of those who sought a different path for those of us women today.

 

 

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