After my sophomore year in college I took a break and worked for two years at the OU Health Sciences Center as a lowly receptionist/secretary in the Surgery Department. In my little office area were me, the (renowned) department head Dr. Rainey Williams, his secretary Sharon, and the office manager Betty. Sharon and Betty ran the department, taking care of all of Dr. Williams’ needs, watching over interns and residents, and attending to the many demands from the public and the other physicians on staff. I mainly answered the phone and did some typing. My direct supervisor was Betty.
Betty and Sharon were some of the best possible role models I could have had at that point in my life. They coped with everything, from Dr. Williams’ ongoing difficulty working the phone system to the latest resident divorce. Both of them were always calm under pressure, even with the frequent tirades by various doctors on staff and the many crises we encountered. They made everything run smoothly in an incredibly challenging environment. However, some of the greatest lessons were less obvious. I absorbed their very healthy and effective relationship dynamics, in a time when the accepted wisdom was that women could not work together without “cat fights.”
Betty’s example was especially important to me. She was middle aged, dressed plainly but professionally, and she kept her hair in a no-fuss style so she could play tennis several times a week. She did not attempt to be “feminine” in the way it was often defined. She was respectful to the powerful men around her but she did not compromise her self-respect, and she set firm although largely invisible limits concerning the way in which she would be spoken to by irritable and/or abusive doctors. She was unfailingly kind to me and protected me from abuse as well. She was demanding but fair. One particular lesson stands out in my mind, however. I always typed all of her dictation, even very brief memos. I just assumed she did not know how to type, but one day I came back from lunch early to find her banging away on the typewriter very proficiently. She saw my puzzled look and told me, “If you want to get ahead in a man’s world, never let them know you can type, or that’s all you will ever be allowed to do.”
In a period of self-doubt in my young life, these two women were largely responsible for giving me a new perspective and the confidence to go ahead with my plans. My high school counselor had encouraged me to become a legal secretary because she thought women could not be lawyers, which was my dream. Thanks to Sharon and Betty I left the job at OUHSC to finish my undergraduate degree and enroll in law school.