Ellen decided to walk the twenty blocks to her lab in the Empire State Building that morning. It was a fine day, Manhattan sparkling as it does with possibility. She needed to wade through that charged layer of city hum with her own feet, not rely on a creaky, fumy bus to carry her through it. Her low pumps pinched a bit, needing breaking in—here was her chance. Even at this hour the city sizzled with maleness. Boys back from the war—now men, more men than she had ever dreamed, watched her stockinged legs stride purposefully down Sixth Avenue. She only showed a flash of demure calf, but she knew her pumps set off her trim ankles prettily. Their glances did not intrude; rather, they buoyed her along, the pinch of pumps a mere tickle as she crossed the numbered streets, the needle of her iconic destination wavering in the heated distance.
Her Physics degree from Bryn Mawr had opened many surprising doors, including one near the top of the city, one floor down from the observation deck. She, a humble scholarship student from the backstreets of Cambridge, now an essential cog in the delicate apparatus of the Wave Studies Lab, lodged cozily high above the center of the city. Oh, she knew it would end—the grant would run out, her data would be complete, her role nearly erased from the final product which she discerned only hazily, shrouded as it was in secrecy. She only gathered her data as prescribed, and spoke of it to no one, her sister or the men they eyed in bars, nor their laughing friends in whose apartments they gathered to compare notes on the men, men, men who flooded America’s cities after the drought of war. It was too exciting. She knew it couldn’t last. She would move on, likely to an even more subordinate position, as male physicists with advanced degrees from Yale and Princeton would fill the places she had held for them while they did the important work of soldiering.
Her steps on the pavement were not marked by the sharp click of movie star heels; her pumps made a softer thud, but still marked the beat of her heart, the count of her time in this sizzling city. She didn’t care that she didn’t know what came next. She was here, now. At the entrance to the Empire State Building, the doorman gave his gracious nod, the elevator man too, the suited men all around her in the crowded elevator. Her bare hint of leg between skirt and shoes making her different from all these others, all around her, and for once, she loved the difference. She felt, just for a moment, her power. She strode off the elevator and, donning the uniform of lab coat, knew that even then, her lower half proclaimed Woman! in a world full of men. Her face conveyed a pleasant seriousness of purpose, but her calves still smiled, stockings shimmered, city sizzled.