Real Roles: Fran Rodgers

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1. What’s your name? Where do you live? How old are you?

My name is Fran Sussner Rodgers. I live in Boston most of the year and I just turned 65 years old. Yikes.

2. Where did you grow up and how would you describe your childhood?

I grew up in NYC, in Queens. My childhood was happy but somewhat chaotic. Until I was 10, I lived with my parents, sisters, aunt, uncle, cousins, and grandparents in a small two-family house. I had a fold-up bed that disappeared during the day and was opened only at bedtime. My parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe and worked much of the time. My father was an upholsterer and member of a guild. The year I was born, my parents started their own business and moved us from the Lower East side in NYC to Queens. We were a struggling working class family surrounded by a middle class neighborhood. This fact definitely raised my aspirations but also caused me to feel somewhat inferior and second-class. I was sometimes ashamed to have parents with poor education and to live in a room shared with my sisters.

3. How would you describe your current family and close support community?

I have been married for 40 years and have two grown daughters. I am proud of and feel close to both my children although they live in different cities than me. I envy my friends whose children stayed close or moved back near them and I wish I could see my children more regularly and routinely. I have many close friends—a number of whom have been close to me since college—and two sisters, who along with my husband, create a network of support for me. I am also involved in the Boston community and a number of organizations. I have been active in progressive politics and as a result know people that I care about throughout the country. One nice thing about getting older is that I have time now to make new friends and also to spend time with my lifelong ones.

Although there are many loving people in my life I do feel somewhat rootless and unconnected to place. I moved from my city of origin, intermarried (so lost ties to my religion—I’m Jewish and my husband is Christian) and raised children who moved away. I now also spend time in Miami in the winter and move around a lot. I have a wonderful life for which I am grateful every day, but sometimes I wish that I were more connected in a deeper way. Sometimes I think this is the legacy of being a child of immigrants.

4. What are some of the things you do on an average day?

For about two decades, I ran a business that I started and raised our family. Those years were extremely busy but also rich and full of productivity and love. I was very fulfilled and content.

When I sold our business more than 10 years ago, in one day, I went from not having a minute to myself to suddenly having lots of free time. While I was extremely lucky to gain financial independence, it was the first time in my life when I had to compose every day and figure out what I really wanted to do with my time. This has turned out to be a more difficult journey than I expected. Sometimes I am busy and feel productive and other times I feel without enough purpose.

I am retired so every day and every season is different. I try to achieve a balance between taking care of myself and enjoying sports and hobbies and being involved in voluntary and philanthropic activities. On my happiest days I feel busy and productive but not stressed out, as I sometimes was in my working life when I was younger.

So on a typical day, I get up and read the newspaper first thing. I then try to do some exercise. I play tennis almost daily in the summer when I am on Cape Cod and in the winter in Miami. In each place, I have a group of women that I play with most of the time that I really like. They are new friends and the first people that I have become friendly with who don’t come from work or political common interests. When I don’t play tennis, I try to go to the gym. 

My afternoons are spent answering emails and doing a combination of hobbies and meetings. I often have conference calls or face-to-face meetings because of Boards I am on. I currently serve as Chair of WFD Consulting and I am on the Board of Partners Continuing Care, the non-acute care division of Partners Health Care, NARAL Pro-Choice America and Progressive Majority and other political organizations and people I contribute to. I also informally mentor a number of younger women who I talk to when they need it. My husband and I set up a small foundation when we sold our business so we spend a fair amount of time keeping up with organizations we fund or might fund some day.

I also am interested in contemporary art and spend time going to museums and traveling to pursue this interest. Recently, I began to paint. It is something I always wanted to do but somehow never started. About three months ago, I bought paints and finally sat down and did it. Now I spend time almost daily painting.

I go to the beach, see friends, read, and watch TV with the rest of my time. I like to cook and entertain often so my evenings are often spent with friends. We also go to the movies a lot.

5. What do you do to pay the bills?

Since we sold our business, Work/Family Directions, we have been able to live off the proceeds and subsequent investments. It is a great blessing not to have to be concerned about money to live on.

6. Does your life look like what you imagined it would when you were young?  

My life has far exceeded my imagination in many ways. When I was young, my mother was afraid that I was too ambitious. I would say “I want to be the first woman Senator from New York” and she would ask me why I was not be content to be more “average.” She wanted me to marry well and to have a nice family and house in the suburbs.

I am not sure why, but I always rejected the idea that I would be a housewife and not work. I always wanted to contribute to changing the world in some way. I became obsessed with politics at a young age and wanted to be a politician. I later understood what that would actually entail, which made me less eager. I was never really interested in making money but did want to make a difference. My ambition and desire to be an activist of some kind pre-dated the 1960s countercultural and feminist movements but the culture around me reinforced these feelings as I grew up.

I started my career helping to set up the first years of Head Start when I graduated from college at 20. For more than a decade, I worked in government related jobs and focused on women. In my early 30s, I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start a business focused on creating a new generation of benefits that responded to the increase of women in the workforce that was financed by IBM. I was home on maternity leave with my second child when this opportunity came my way and I decided to seize the chance to do something really important and outside my comfort zone.

So I became an entrepreneur and business owner, something I had not ever imagined doing. Over the next 17 years I ran the business, which my husband joined after several years. Together, we raised our children and did our work. Working together allowed us to manage work and family well as we coordinated schedules and had flexibility when it was needed. 

I feel like I hit the jackpot in the work department. I had amazing opportunities and recognition being at the start of a movement that was visible and exciting. I was a spokesperson, consultant, and entrepreneur in the work/family and women’s advancement movement. I worked with or spoke to everyone from CEOs of major companies to every manner of women’s organizations, futurists, and even the President and Vice President of the United States. I was a person on a mission: to change work practices and benefits to respond to the changing workforce. Most shocking of all to me was that I was able to make a lot of money doing it.

7. What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your life?

I have not had to deal with many insurmountable obstacles or tragedies in my life and I have been very lucky.

My greatest obstacles have been emotional and internal. I have always struggled with allowing myself to really take in all the wonderful things in my life and sustain happiness. When I was younger this involved a lot of guilt about going so far beyond my parents in education, opportunity, and wealth. I feel very grateful for all I have, especially my family, but am not sure why I am so lucky when others, as good and hardworking as I, have so much less.

8. Have you made any decisions or choices that have surprised those around you?

People were surprised when I sold my business as they thought I was too attached and identified with it to do so. I actually surprised myself that I could walk away from it without that much difficulty.

9. Who have you looked to for inspiration while creating your life? What have they taught you?

Despite the fact that she was so different than I am in circumstance, my mother has been the biggest influence on me. She was always attentive and loving, even while very busy with the family business, her dear friends, and many other things. She had unfailing energy and a positive outlook on life and the future. Objectively, my mom’s circumstances were sometimes hard, but I never heard her complain. 

My mother had impeccable common sense. She often advised me when I did not want to hear it and at the time I resented it greatly. But looking back, her ability to understand human nature and also know what the right thing to do was in difficult circumstances was quite remarkable.

She was also a very confident woman at a time when that was not considered an attractive quality. Many of my friends had more educated and successful moms but saw their mothers and themselves as lacking in self-esteem. I never had that concern either as it related to her or me. This sense of self and self-confidence is the greatest gift she gave me.

10. What TV shows, movies, music, or books have been particularly formative or important in your life?

Although I love to read and see all types of movies, the TV and books that allowed me to nurture my interest in politics have meant the most to me. I remember watching Adlai Stevenson be nominated for President when I was 10. I watched the Today Show and Meet the Press since their inception. I loved Arthur Schlesinger’s book on Kennedy’s election and have been very inspired by everything I have read on Eleanor Roosevelt. No Ordinary Time is my favorite book in more recent years.

11. Are there any stories not told in media that you’d like to see represented?

I would like the media to tell more positive stories about women who are able to be successful at work, love, and raising families. There are millions of women who are able to achieve this but most stories talk about the problems rather than how wonderful it feels to have a full and successful life. Younger women need more support and examples to regain the confidence we once had that women could have work and family success.

12. How often do you think about gender roles and whether your life matches what others might expect from your gender?

I think about gender all the time because it is the most fundamental difference among us. Women are much better off than they were when I was young, but the issues that we face to keep us down still exist. Recent political events certainly point that out.

13. What wisdom have you gained in life that you think other people would benefit from knowing?

I always tell my children that you are much more likely to regret the things that you do not do in life than the things you do.   

For women, I think it is really important to surround yourself with people who support your work ambitions as well as your desire to love and have a full personal life. When a friend, spouse, or mother-in-law repeatedly tells you that you look tired or that they “don’t know how you do it,” beware. This is often a subtle undermining of ambition. Make sure more people in your life tell you, “You go, girl.”

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