I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my mother. I suppose it is the approach of the 25th anniversary of her early death that leaves me bewildered that she could possibly have been gone so long. It may also be that we are soon to celebrate the 100th anniversary of U.S. women getting the vote—a reminder that the great arc of women’s rights is so very new and unfulfilled. The unanticipated twists her life took and the changes that resulted illustrate that so very much.
My mother lived through many of the times that have come to define today’s woman. She was born in 1929, some nine years after female suffrage. She was a bright young woman, skipping a grade in elementary school so that she was 16 when she graduated from high school. Going to college at that age was probably a bad idea—although she had a great time (tales of sorority hazing involving scrubbing floors with a toothbrush, escaping a bar raid through a bathroom window, etc.), her social life outweighed her academic one. After a year, my grandfather had had enough and refused to pay for more college. So she took a clerk job at a local utility company, met my father, and married at 19. He was 21. What did they know?
The marriage meant she lost her job—the old “no spouse” policy—but she went to work at a local military base and waited to get pregnant. After eight years, I was born and then two more girls. My mom had her dream—a house she and my dad built, the opportunity to stay at home (his career was advancing quickly—eventually he went from meter reader to executive), and lots of charitable and social groups to attend. Those were the days when women’s groups were full of talented middle-class women who had the time and energy to try to change the world, engaging in all kinds of activities. Once, when tasked with submitting a recipe for a charity cookbook she copied one from another book and sent it in with the title: “Helga’s Surprise Cake.” Such antics popped up frequently and many people remember her as one of the cleverest people they knew.
Still, the center of my mother’s universe was her home and family. And I remember her as a lot of fun. On Saturdays we were at the local branch of the public library loading up on books. We shared a family gene for puns, enjoying plays on words and silly jokes. She taught herself to play the ukulele and used a tape recorder to preserve music sessions with my grandfather on harmonica. And she made people-watching a family pastime. During a trip to New York City she pointed out the Times Square prostitutes to me; my father was aghast. “Joe, she’s heard about Mary Magdalene at church,” was her response.
Funny, smart Barbara. But her All-American dream started unraveling when I was a teenager. My father, lauded for his charitable work and business sense, was home less and less and finally not at all. My sister and I have few if any memories of him during our teen years. I was relieved because his absences meant no arguments at the dinner table or after-meal tears. Perhaps sensing an end, my mother, a voracious genealogist in the days when there was no internet and only CSI-type persistence in seeking public documents, decided to chart a new course. She returned to college. I would come home from high school to encounter long-haired students working on projects in our living room. One art class required a self portrait—she drew herself naked (all important body parts delicately concealed) with sunglasses and a rose in her teeth. I rolled my eyes, but deep down appreciated that she had elevated her “cool” factor.
Her degree was in elementary education—she figured that was the only course for a woman who had been raising children. And it was a mistake, she learned, after holding some substitute teaching jobs. As tight as she was with numbers and budgets, she would have been a whiz in accounting or finance. She later found her way into that world but only after an unwanted divorce during which she gave away some of her monetary claims to ensure that her children would be supported in college. Divorce in those days was always the woman’s fault—she couldn’t satisfy her man, couldn’t run a good household, etc. (Note also: disruptive or gay children were also the mother’s fault.) At her funeral, a former business associate of my father’s confided that he thought very highly of her and that I wouldn’t believe all the things she did to try to keep our family together. I was too overwhelmed with grief to get details, but I did get the point. The marriage, after more than two decades, was a lost cause and my father went on to two subsequent spouses; my mother had interested men friends but never remarried.
These were the days of the “displaced homemaker,” a term used to describe women like my mother who had chosen family over career and were having a hard time returning to the workforce. States created programs to help such women; Florida’s, created 1976, still exists. A few years earlier, Congress approved the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which arose from the budding women’s rights movement and had as one of its aims getting better, equal pay for women. My mother vehemently opposed the ERA, espousing the conservative line that its approval would draft women into war and make men and women share public bathrooms. When I pointed out that we all used the same bathroom in our house, I was ignored. But, then, I was the radical child who didn’t wear makeup, read National Geographic,and spent my high school years fantasizing about going to a college far, far away. I do give her credit, however, for supporting my desire to be exempted from home economics, a course required of all ninth-grade girls. “I’m never going to be a housewife,” I avowed to my junior high school principal—and my mom supported me, although, in retrospect, I realize that it was a slap in her face. Ironically, ERA actually might have helped my mom’s later economic condition, but it was never passed by enough states; Florida never approved it. Women, however, now hold combat positions in the military and gender-neutral bathrooms are common.
But women still don’t have equal pay.
By the end of her life, my mother had to confront a number of other long-held fears and prejudices. She ended up representing financially needy women in court who were owed long-overdue child support funds. She understood their plight, and I think used it to exact a kind of life revenge. In her state job she broadened her social horizons to become friends with blacks and gays, relationships forged through proximity and common goals. She threw a “tacky party” for her office pals and adorned her apartment with velvet paintings bought on a street corner. One Halloween she went to a gay masquerade party dressed as Joan Crawford. “They all thought I was a man,” she told me later in laughter. Office members toiled and partied together and then went to funerals as colleagues died tragically of AIDS. Her experiences and empathy found new outlets as the rest of the world confronted the same.
Sadly, the five decades of smoking took their toll and an asthma attack ended her life at age 65. The funeral was packed with the many friends she had made, some extending back to her childhood. My boys were 8 and 5 by then and I had quit my fulltime job to care for them (Yes, I apologized to her for the ninth-grade drama.) They have vague memories of her now, fueled by family stories and puns. She never got to see them go to college and marry strong, self-reliant women. She never saw me get my PhD, publish a book, and start a new career late in life. But somewhere along the way, her ability to re-create herself, to survive what life tossed at her, and to change her way of thinking is an inspiration and a reminder that we all have the capacity to evolve and the need to keep fighting, just as the suffragists and the women’s libbers did. The struggle she and many others encountered continues in the twenty-first century.
Leslie Kemp Poole is assistant professor of environmental studies at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.