I’m not ashamed to admit that I bought Reese Witherspoon’s book, Whiskey in a Teacup, because in so many ways my wife is a riddle to me. The Southern Belle is no myth: they are pictures of perfection, flawless under fire. Queens of the scenes, they radiate warmth and congeniality at all times, strengthened by their friends, family, and the quiet faith that belies America’s true better angels. And did I mention their hair is epic? But hidden behind the hairpins and lightly lilting drawls is something much brighter that speaks to the evolution of the American landscape: these women mean business! While they might present as more finely manicured than the greens at Augusta National (and I assure you neither of those are façades), underneath is a drive just as strong as anything you’ll find in New York City.
I don’t think I would be out of line to say that their success feeds off that of their contemporaries. Would there be an Ellis Wilson Designs without the strong southern women that came before? The path to Ellis Wilson Designs starts at Dollywood, with visuals provided by Southern Living as it passes through Draper James, leading to what we hope will be another success story worthy of the tradition of strong southern women achieving their dreams.
The trend, however, is larger than the few names we’ve mentioned and it’s nationwide. The Me Too movement is the mouthpiece for a statistical change in the American workforce: women are achieving more than men in large part because of the widening gap in advanced degrees. For ten consecutive years women have earned the majority of doctoral degrees and outnumber men in grad school 135 to 100. For professional degrees, women in the same age cohort obtained 75% of professional degrees and 4 out of 5 doctoral degrees. The numbers for 18-24 is an even wider figure: 167 women obtained masters degrees to 100 men. The future of 21st century America is female. If even half of my experience translates to the wider population, we are in for centuries of continued American Exceptionalism. My sincerest hope is that the story of my marriage is exemplary of these broader changes.
When I first met Ellis it was for a blind dinner date at the chic Mas Farmhouse in the West Village. March in Manhattan can be a beautiful time. As I stood in front of the restaurant waiting for Ellis the wind was warm for the first time in months and the people watching was top notch: few things rival those first few days of moderate temps in the people watching capital of America. Across the intersection, emerging from a cab amongst the brownstones and winding village streets, was my elegant wife. Never has a black dress been so mesmerizing, her signature wrap and hair billowing in the spring breeze. She approached me and smiled, I melted a little.
Inside the restaurant the conversation was brisk, interrupted only by the drunken eruptions from the table of businessmen next to us, the experience so quintessentially New York that it could have doubled as a scene from some modern version of Sex and the City. We talked about our families that were remarkably similar: we are both so fortunate to be surrounded by love and support. She ordered the king salmon, I went for the sweetbreads, and she pretended not to be grossed out at the chasm between what they sound like and what they actually are. Like two people true to their epoch, we talked about what we were binge watching but the salient details there are lost to memory. Over a desert that I mangled ordering (not knowing her then how I know Ellis now, I ordered a tart over a chocolate cake and consider myself lucky to have made it to a second date), we talked about careers and the future. I’d finished a novel and didn’t know what I was doing next; Ellis managed tens of millions in sales annually. The way she spoke about it was so matter-of-fact, so casual, her accent so consistently charming that I couldn’t help but marvel at the enigma. This southern belle, resplendently put together and endlessly funny, is also a corporate wiz-kid operating on a scale that for most other 26 year-olds would be unimaginable.
At a time when men’s rights have made headlines, when populist white rage seems to be encroaching from Alabama all the way up the coast, I can only hope that there are others out there like us. For all Ellis’ corporate gravitas and brainpower, for all she’s already achieved in so few years, she’s never made me feel like anything less than a man. While traditional gender roles are changing around us there is still strength in some of the traditions that have made America great. Finding a common ground between what has come before and what we want the future to be is the key to sustainable and progressive growth. Both genders need to respect the traditions we’ve known in order to shape them to our needs for the future. Corporate powerhouse and loving wife are not mutually exclusive; strong male and supportive husband are the same thing.
If I had any words of wisdom for the men out there it would be this: don’t be threatened by these highly educated, high achieving women. Honor their talent and support their dreams and understand that they need us too. We are the ones who squish spiders and chase lizards out of the house, the one’s whose arms they want to be in during hard times, and the ones who need to stand up for all womankind against the rolling tide of populist regression. If we understand that our strengths complement each other there is nothing we can’t accomplish together. It is the greatest pleasure of my life to work with Ellis building a company in our own image.