I’m not a trailblazer. Put me in the woods with a machete, expecting me to clear a path for others to follow, and I’d probably be whipping it around, striking mosquitoes and bugs, and watching for snakes. Whether forest or concrete jungle, the pioneering spirit that puts people at the head of the pack or makes them first at something is not in my DNA.
By virtue of gender and era, once upon a time, I was first at something. I didn’t aspire to be first. In fact, I would have preferred to have been second. Or more likely tenth.
It wasn’t like being the first female on the moon, but in its own special way, it was unique. In 1976, I was the first female pharmaceutical sales representative (rep) in the Huntington, Charleston, and surrounding West Virginia areas, even calling on some Ohio doctors and pharmacists.
It was such a dismal time in my life that penning the story should be implausible. Why? Because I was as distraught and as broken as my favorite Tennessee Williams’ characters. Topping things off, some doctors I called on were also distraught—because of me!
No question, I was a novelty. And many doctors were not happy to see my novel face. One doctor’s staff, I’ll never forget, let me cool my heels from 8:30 AM until noon, then said the doctor would see me after lunch. I stayed in the office until he returned. I was 26 years old and brand spanking new. Dr. Jekyll was probably fifty. Gruff as a Grizzly. His first words to me: “Take your glasses off and look me in the eye when you’re talking!” Just mean.
All I’d said was hello. “Shame on you, taking food from the mouth of a family!” He stood back assessing me as though I’d just ripped a bowl of broth from the hands of an orphan. “People have gone mad, hiring women to fill a man’s job.” Big tears worked their way into the corners of my eyes and I quickly flicked them away.
I didn’t want to be in his office any more than he wanted me there. I’d been married, happily for a while. We’d tried counseling, but some things aren’t fixable. I left my Roanoke, Virginia, home with some furniture, dishes, my clothes, and my aunt’s hand me down car that backfired every few miles, reminding me of my bombed out marriage. “What about me,” I wanted to say to this doctor. Instead I nodded throughout his diatribe and left samples for his staff. He wasn’t the worst of them, but he was one I never won over.
Being married for many women back then meant following their husband’s career. I was no different. When my husband took a job in Roanoke, I quit mine in Huntington, West Virginia, where I’d just been promoted to buyer for an upscale woman’s specialty shop. Four years later, I was in the dog eat women business of selling pharmaceuticals, alone and scared. My heart had been drop-kicked and shattered. Now it appeared, my self-esteem was next.
I’d had three plum job offers before leaving Roanoke, mostly because companies were filling female quotas. The one I accepted—pharmaceutical representative for Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical arm, McNeil Laboratories. I didn’t care about the quotas, I just needed a job. And I wanted out of Roanoke. I had no idea it was a unique situation.
I didn’t exactly have a Forest Gump mindset, yet growing up in Williamson, West Virginia, I’d felt valued. People in small towns looked after each other. At least in 1960’s America they did. I was Naomi and Cullen’s daughter, Ricky’s sister, Jeanette’s niece, among numerous aunts and uncles, and almost everybody’s cousin. I was accepted.
Comments like, “Women need to learn their place in the world,” and “Women aren’t as smart as men,” pretty much devastated me. One doctor said, “No man will ever want you after you’ve been tainted in the workplace.” Paraphrasing, of course, I can’t remember the exact words.
My mother had told me I could be anything. Now I cried myself to sleep, just wanting to be tough. And every night I prayed. “Please God, send someone to get me away from this, someone who can love me the way I want to love and be loved.”
My recent separation had damaged me; I was distraught and fragile even without the unkind remarks. Unfortunately, with my “Father Knows Best,” worldview, I thought that another man, not God, not a job, not anything in my life, was where the sun shone brightest along the happiness path.
About two months into my job, I attended a major industry meeting with hundreds of doctors and other reps. I hoped, as I stood in a large circle with a group of men, intimidated, but excited, that I didn’t stand out—too much.
One rep in the circle was a fairly new acquaintance who’d help me along the way. Conversation was industry gold to my green ears and I was rapt in the details when a man stepped up, square in my face, and thundered, “Get this straight, lady! If you think you’re going to sleep with my f@#$ doctors and take my #$% business, think again. I’ll ruin you.” Sleep with your doctors? Are you seri . . . I honestly thought he might hit me.
I couldn’t move, much less speak. It must’ve been contagious because a near death silence fell around us. God, please help here! The man continued on until the rep I knew threw up his hand. “That’s enough! Karyn’s not like that. You need to apologize.” Sweet words, and I appreciated the interference, but I wish he’d punched him. I whispered “thank you” to my subtle defender before scurrying off.
As I escaped through double doors, a clattering arose. Away from the din, I’d never felt so alone. I cried out to God, pressed my body against the cool wall, and felt as if I had been choked. So much for not standing out.
My large territory required constant monitoring. I’d developed a plan to increase sales at my state hospitals, only to be told by the company’s regional director, “Someone as pretty as you shouldn’t worry about such things.”
Many of my own gender kept me sitting in waiting rooms for hours before they’d let me see their demi-god doctor. But, I continued working with my sympathetic male manager and holding steadfast. In about a year, I had just as much access as my male counterparts. I’d also seen other females come in behind me. My sales went up and up, along with my confidence.
When McNeil hatched a new product in 1978, out of hundreds of reps across our company, I was number two in sales. The home office even sent a man to work with me to learn my strategy. By now, my shattered heart and self-esteem issues were waning
The next year, out of ninety-plus reps in my region, I was number one in sales. It felt astounding, gratifying. When I was offered a promotion, I finally felt validated.
Except. When the promotion was announced, three men supposedly quit.
Yep, still had gender problems, and it hurt. Making it more incredulous, the number one regional sales rep—me—made about $2,000 less than the men.
Regardless of the injustices, I never responded in kind. With one exception: I did go a little crazy when the regional director wouldn’t review my hospital plan. To his credit, he didn’t fire me. I and others also had heartfelt talks about the female pay inequalities, and they were turtle-like catching us up.
It’s still baffling when I think of my success. School, jobs, parents—nothing had prepared me for a career in the field of science or for a steady dose of rejection. Yet, over time, and with God’s help, not only did I perform, I excelled. I even made wise decisions regarding my personal life, rejecting two precarious marriage proposals. I wasn’t even a baby Christian then, I was just a beggar. “Please, please, please, God! Help, please help, God!” Not Father. I didn’t know Him as Father then. Yet, He was working in every facet of my pitiful life.
He even gave me a lifetime opportunity to treasure. Honored and thrilled, I was one of ten women chosen to help write our company’s affirmative action program. Proverbs 3 says, “Do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward.” Though my confidence sagged, with the Lord, my little bit was apparently enough.
1st Corinthians tells us, “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” I was one of those foolish things.
I did a lot of confounding, but I’m in good company. Consider Jesus: born in a stable, worked as a lowly carpenter, non-descript in appearance, befriended sinners, raised in Nazareth. One scripture reads, “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?” Even some believers thought Jesus was weak because He wouldn’t take His Kingdom by force.
If I’d been God, I’d have sent Jesus in a chariot storming across heaven declaring His Lordship. But, God doesn’t work like you or me. “He is God,” the prophet said, “He will do what seems right to Him.” And what seemed right was to send Jesus in the lowliest possible form.
Solomon sitting King-like on a throne full of wisdom and surrounded by riches isn’t what we needed. We needed a Savior’s enlightment, flooding us with God’s goodness, gentleness, character, integrity, and love. Jesus did not come in the power afforded the King of glory. Didn’t use His power for self-aggrandizement. He helped the poor, loved the unlovable, healed the sick, denounced Satan. The Creator of the world did not come with a crown of might or right, but in a cloud of light.
He did this for you and for me. For those times when we would need mercy, courage, justification, and love. For when we feel pitiful, discouraged, and broken. And who hasn’t felt like they emerged from the filth of a stable at times?
Certainly in this life story, I had a shattered, pitiful, and unlikely start. Yet, I finally found my footing. Joyce Meyer, my favorite female evangelist says, “You can be pitiful or you can be powerful, but you can’t be both.” She’s right. I had trod that thin line until I finally shook off the pitiful and emerged as the light God intended. Living proof of what He can do with a weak and foolish vessel.
My goals never included being a standard-bearer or a trail blazer or even a pharmaceutical sales rep for that matter. I wanted to be a wife. But God took the shattered remains of what could have been and made it enough. He took my tiny potential and filled it with success. He took the crying of my heart and helped me hold out for lasting love. And while I was on the way to where I was going he gave my life purpose through the pain. Because anything that’s worth doing, will cost something. Nobody ever learned anything from easy.
We don’t have just one magnificent purpose out there waiting to be plucked from the tree of life. It’s ongoing. Like Jesus, we should never diminish the life God created for us. Like Jesus, we should be looking to the multitudes surrounding us—lives full of challenges, potential, greatness, sorrow—that we can nourish. Old people needing a meal, young people needing mentored, someone needing a friend. Sometimes it is even us.
Like Jesus, we sometimes find purpose on the way to where we think we’re going. Jesus often stopped to heal the sick, to raise the dead, and even to scourge a woman of bleeding. We too will stop at many points of our purpose, because there is never, never only one thing defining who we are or what He would have us do. And, like Jesus, we should absolutely believe we never go from point A to point B alone.
We are defined by our Role Model, our Teacher, our Lord, and our Savior, by who He is and what He did. Push past the crying of your heart, past the person who offends, past the pain and frailties, past the sense of self-worth or self-worthlessness clamoring to define you. We are God’s creation, made in His amazing image and created for His magnificent purposes. Look to the One who gave all and you will find life’s ever-winding path, a thrill of a ride that allows us a glimpse of God’s glory and of the life to come. It is what makes living alive. It’s what Jesus came for and what we were born for.
I’m so glad I can write this story—that it belongs to me. Even though it was difficult and sometimes terrible in the living. In retrospect, I see an ever-present Father, reaching from heaven, nurturing, guiding, loving, and defending.
Don’t miss out. Don’t be afraid to take the bad with the good. Keep your eyes on Jesus and allow His peace, power, and purpose to guide your magnificent life!
Atop: My initial sales training group at the home office. Left: Dressed for success, two weeks into my job at my Charleston, WV, apartment. Right: Enjoying my first home purchase in Cincinnati, Ohio, after promotion.