Left in Andover: The many paths to becoming
an independent woman

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

I was 14 years old when Lydia Ratcliff bought Lovejoy Brook Farm on East Hill. It was 1965, and back then, single female farm owners were not a thing. Like everyone else in Andover, I wondered how long she would last.

By that age I was on the look out for alternative female role models. I was fascinated by my eccentric aunt Sadie, heir to my grandfather’s dilapidated tenement buildings in Bennington.

Sadie was a hoarder and a cat lady who did her own building maintenance and didn’t care about her personal appearance. But she was also a college educated chemist who answered to no one. I detected heroism in her.

Aunt Sadie was a college-educated chemist, highly independent and a bit eccentric. Here she is with her cats.

Despite my family’s unconventional life style, my parents’ marriage was very conventional. Even though Mom’s employment outside the home starting in the 1960s is what kept us afloat financially, Dad retained the power of the purse and made most family decisions. This power imbalance led me at a young age to wonder if marriage was tantamount to slavery.

One summer in the late 1960s, my mother filled in part time as secretary for Lydia. Happily without a drivers license, Mom pedaled her bicycle north over Terrible Mountain and then up another hill to Lovejoy Brook Farm. She never shared with me what the work entailed. But I know she relished the commute, which provided exercise as well as free time alone with her thoughts.

After graduating high school in 1936, Mom had trained as a stenographer at adult education night school in New Rochelle, N.Y. She mastered the Gregg system of shorthand, clocking in at 100 words per minute.

Stenographer-secretary was a welcoming field for females in the 1930s. The age-old male career of clerk, with its pathway upward to manager, had devolved into a shorter term position for young women, who mostly transitioned to full-time homemakers upon marriage.

While her mother, right, did secretarial work for Lydia Radcliff, Susan had refused to learn typing in junior high to avoid being pigeon-holed. Here they are in the 1970s.

Post WWI, the typewriter, innovated since 1714, became an affordable, universal piece of equipment. But it was just a convenient myth that women’s small dexterous fingers made them more suitable than males as typists.

Mom’s secretarial positions entailed mainly transcription, picking up the phone and manual filing, perfunctory duties now made mostly obsolete by technology. A resume from the 1970s has her typing a respectable 70 words per minute.

To inoculate myself against a similar fate, I refused in junior high to learn how to touch-type. I pecked my way through high school and college with one finger.

I was fortunate to come of age during the revolutionary era of Second Wave Feminism, 1960-1980. Ignited by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, my generation of women opened up hitherto undreamt of possibilities, in both the public and private sphere.

Nevertheless, as a sophomore at Antioch College, I accepted a coop job as an office worker at MIT. Perhaps I was trying to go underground in my mother’s life. Hopelessly under-qualified and bored out of my mind, a couple weeks into the assignment I broke down in tears and walked off the job.

I preferred hard labor outside. To that end, I worked my way through the next decade as a fruit picker, apple tree pruner and hoer of vegetables. Eventually, I found a way to earn a living as a potter.

Susan’s mother Miriam in her later years.

Into the 1970s, the job title secretary came with expectations as to normative physical proportions. Mom’s resume, with its emphasis on personal statistics, comes as a shock by today’s standards. First line: marriage status and children. Second line: height and weight.

Mom looked on the bright side, telling me she actually enjoyed the orderliness of her work life as opposed to the chaos of our home life, which was dominated by my adventurous but very impulsive dad. Working was a way to maintain a space of her own. In any case, she didn’t have much choice after Dad became disabled.

Mom was fortunate to live into her 90s. A widow for her last 20 years, she redeemed herself as a liberated female role model in the eyes of this undeniably critical daughter. As a world traveler with the Young at Heart Chorus, fiddler, dancer, prolific poet and adult bat mitzvah, she maximized her senior years to an astonishing extent.

Even as a teenager, when I first met Lydia Ratcliff, I recognized that she represented an unusual model for female independence. To the surprise of many, she did stay the course at Lovejoy Brook Farm, pioneering the modern farm-to-table movement with her dramatic deliveries of freshly butchered animals to fancy Manhattan restaurants.

John Specker playing at Lydia Radcliff’s farm for her Celebration of Life service, Andover, 2018.

When Lydia completed her polygonal barn in the late 1970s or early ‘80s, our local gang of old-time musicians played a square dance to inaugurate it. Then I lost touch with her.

Decades later, in 2017, toward the end of her life, Lydia called my husband to her bedside to play her some fiddle tunes. I tagged along to keep him company.

As Lydia and I sat together listening, she recounted to me that as a teenager she babysat for the children of Betty Friedan, her neighbor growing up. Some of Betty must have rubbed off on her.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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