Charlotte Kahn earned a master’s and doctorate from Columbia University, has published numerous professional articles and books, and is a respected psychoanalyst and family therapist in private practice in New York City, where she raised her four children and continues to live with her husband. It’s an impressive story, but not so extraordinary at its surface.
In fact, when we approached Charlotte about profiling her on our site she said herself, “I feel honored that you are thinking of including me. I looked at Women You Should Know and read some bios. They are impressive. I do not compare to any of those lives.”
But, we left out two critical details about Charlotte Kahn… she is an immigrant and an octogenarian, 84 to be exact. So her earlier accomplishments came at a time when most women were not afforded the opportunity to pursue their dreams, let alone a higher education. While her most recent accomplishments, those made in her seventies and eighties, far exceed what society typically expects anyone over age 65 to achieve beyond watching the grass grow from a rocking chair.
What we came to know is that it’s the story behind Charlotte’s “ordinary” life and her resolute optimism against all odds that are the extraordinary parts of what distinguish her as a WYSK.
Born into an upper-middle class Jewish family in Germany in 1928, Charlotte has vivid memories of her early life there and how starkly different it was prior to and during Hitler’s dictatorial rule. The innocence and laughter that once filled her world changed to profound fear and weeping, as it did for so many.
After fleeing Nazi Germany in the late 1930s to England, Charlotte eventually came to the United States (specifically New York City) at age twelve with her family.
She soon found herself to be a “little girl” among “sophisticated” American teenagers, suffering the “embarrassments of being a foreigner”. As she matured, Charlotte traversed the European-American language and culture gaps, eventually settling in to her new life and flourishing, armed with a sturdy constitution and optimistic temperament, though not without strife.
In early adulthood, still ever determined to succeed in her new home country, Charlotte went on to earn her undergraduate degree in Social Science and Education from Syracuse University in 1949. Not long after, she got married and had a child. That marriage, her first, ended in divorce.
Enter the 1950s, a time in America when women were supposed to be married, stay-at-home moms reveling in suburban, domestic bliss with their children. Not Charlotte… she was a rare breed; a divorced, single mother living in Manhattan and preparing to get her Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Teachers College at Columbia University, while taking on a part-time job and doing an internship in Philadelphia.
To perform this juggling act masterfully, Charlotte hired a Columbia College male undergraduate student to babysit for her son, and her parents took him in for two nights and one day each week.
From these trying and hectic beginnings, “can-do” Charlotte emerged a practicing psychoanalyst and went on to earn her Ed.D in Psychology of Family from Columbia University. Her career path soon widened to include a tenured faculty position in psychology at Kean University in New Jersey, and later a tenured associate professorship and directorship of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at Syracuse University.
Charlotte says, “All this was possible only because, as a former president of Barnard College (don’t remember which one) is reputed to have said, ‘Behind every successful woman is a supportive husband and a competent housekeeper.’ I had both. Nevertheless, I cook regularly, bake for holidays and occasions, and generally am conversant with the management of the home.”
Now, at 84 years young, Charlotte maintains her robust, private therapy practice and still keeps up with developments in her field by continuing to educate herself. Just recently (Spring 2011), she passed a test designating her a “Certified Brain Injury Specialist.”
Charlotte told us that she has no interest in retiring and claims that her ability to stay “youngish” comes from her “keeping her brain cells moving”. She also admits to having “good genes, I guess”.
At the close of our interview, Charlotte shared these deeply inspiring words in her most humble and elegant way, “So, while this represents a great deal of work, it does not seem to me to represent a spectacular career. On the other hand, for immigrant children like me and children of immigrants whose parents might have different values, and for all women who aspire to actualize their talents, this might be an encouragement. In other words, simultaneously forging a career and being a good mother and wife is possible.”
Three More Reasons We Think Charlotte Kahn Is Extraordinary
1. She Can Fly
Let’s talk about Charlotte’s job at Syracuse University, which she started in the early-mid 1970s. Syracuse, NY is roughly 250 miles from New York City where Charlotte lived with her family, which by then included a second husband and three more children (her eldest son from her first marriage was already in college). Moving was not an option, so in order to take this job that she really wanted, Charlotte would have to “commute”… to put things lightly.
When she posed the idea to her family, her teenage daughter was gung-ho and said, “You know mom, you might never get this opportunity again and it’s a women’s lib thing”. Her middle son said, “We’re soon going to have to go off to college and get used to being without you, so maybe this is a good idea.” And her youngest one said, “It’s alright with me. I’m just worried about daddy.” Despite her son’s concern, Charlotte’s husband was willing and supportive.
With that, Charlotte took the job and started commuting, via a 500 mile round trip flight she would make each week: she would leave at seven in the morning every Tuesday bound for Syracuse to teach and return to her family in NYC on Fridays. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Charlotte was most often the only female on these flights with the majority of her fellow flyers being business men and traveling salesmen.
When she returned from Syracuse each Friday morning, Charlotte would then see her private clients for their therapy sessions on Friday afternoons, Saturdays and Mondays.
She would do this trip and maintain this schedule EVERY WEEK FOR ALMOST TEN YEARS.
In case you have not been keeping track of the details or numbers, that’s a 6 day work week, commuting 500 miles by plane each week, with 4 kids and a husband, for 8 – 10 years of her life. Charlotte was, in essence, the poster woman for the “have-it-all” generation, decades before that generation even existed.
2. She Figured Out Our Daddy Issues… The Good Ones
Charlotte and her husband were at a cocktail party and after surveying the room, he said to her, “You know every woman here is a professional woman.” This was in the late 1960s, so that was very unusual. Her husband’s observation got Charlotte thinking and she wondered, “What is different about these women?”
Working with her hypothesis that all of those professional women had a working mother and aunt or a grandmother after whom to model themselves, Charlotte set out to interview a number of them. When the data came in, she found that she was totally wrong. What she discovered was that it was the fathers’ expectations of their daughters that made these women able to prepare for and carry on a career. These findings later became a chapter in one of Charlotte’s books.
3. She Is A Quick Wit
When Charlotte’s oldest son was in France studying for the first time, she wanted to visit him. But, she needed an excuse to be absent from her teaching responsibilities at Kean University. So, she made it a working trip and presented an academic article entitled: “Women’s Choice Of A Dual Role”.
After she completed her presentation, one man in the audience raised his hand to comment, “I didn’t want my wife to work because I was afraid she would cheat on me.” Charlotte simply replied, “Well, is that what YOU do when YOU go to work?” And with that, she silenced the room.
The lead photo of Charlotte was taken by her granddaughter, Audrey Amelie Rudolf, an innovative and accomplished professional photographer. As they say, the apple does not fall far from the tree.