A fresh view of feminism for 2015

I am a child of the feminist revolution. My mom tells me this story.

She hated being home with kids. She always dreamed she’d be a journalist. She she got a full scholarship to go to college. But when she was graduating, she realized that if she didn’t get married she’d have to go home to her impoverished family.

So she looked around for men to marry, and while my mom dated a lot of really hot men (I am paraphrasing now) my dad was the one who she thought she could for sure get to marry her.

The letters they wrote each other between junior and senior years are great primary sources for understanding the foundation for their relationship. My dad was in Europe touring art museums even though he appreciated art less than a blind man in a snowstorm. His mother told him to go to Europe and he did, because he would go to the moon to get a woman to love him.

My father’s letters to my mom were about how much he loves her. And my mom was in New York City writing him letters about how much she hates him. My mom bequeathed to me a box of letters so large that it is clear both people enjoyed their respective roles as sniveling courtier and cold-hearted strategist.

It will not spoil the story to tell you their divorce papers could also fill a large box because the divorce lasted thirteen years (three judges threw the case out of court citing de minimis no curat lex which is Latin for both of you shut the fuck up). I see now that my parents got warm feelings of fulfillment from the mutual assurance that their needs could never be met.

My mom had a baby because my dad would have had to go to Vietnam if he did not have a baby. My dad studied at Harvard Law School while my mom took care of me. Then they moved to Chicago, where my dad got a job, and my mom had another baby because that was what was expected.

This is, I think, the core of the feminst revolution: that women had to do what was expected.

My mom is a leader in the revolution because not only did she despise staying home with kids, but she despised it enough to stop doing what was expected. She saw an ad in the paper for a job programming in COBOL. They would teach people with a college degree.

She gave me and my brother to the girls across the street who were off school for the summer, and she took the train into the city to learn COBOL.

Interview questions my mom answered in 1970:

1. Do you have children?

2. Who will take care of your children while you’re working?

3. Does your husband know you are going to take a job?

4. Will your husband sign a note that says you can work?

My mom loved working so much that when the neighborhood kids went back to school my mom hired someone to come to the house.

List of babysitters:

1. Vicky. She beat me and my brother with a hairbrush and a belt. My mom found welts on my back.

2. Berneatha. She was too fat to get off the sofa so I did everything for her. My mom found out when dishes were all put away in the bottom cabinets.

3. Ceily. She used the iron to teach me a lesson. On the top inside of my right thigh. I had a third-degree burn.

The era of local daycare centers was 20 years away. The closest one was 90 minutes from our house. So my mom found a job by that daycare center and my mom, my brother and I listened to the radio and sang out loud to songs like Maggie May, Knock Three Times and, Brandy:

Brandy, you’re a fine girl!
What a good wife you would be!
But my life, my lover, my lady is the sea!

The other kids at the day care center were orphans. Their moms died and the dads had not yet had time to replace them. So the kids stayed there all day. The teachers guided us with whistles. My mom took us out for lunch sometimes. We cried about having to go back after lunch, and then she cried, so she stopped coming for lunch.

When I was in first grade my brother was in kindergarten and my mom worked part-time. She hated coming home early for us, which is probably why I have no memory of her having come home early, but she swears she did.

By third grade we went home to an empty house. My dad came home on the 8:35 train. My mom came home shortly after.

She probably didn’t intend to go out drinking with the guys after work every night, but if she came home before my dad, she’d have to do all the child care and all the housework. Before the term second shift emerged, my mom could see it coming. And she dodged it.

In our house, the split was 50/50. My mom kept track. She drove to Hebrew school so my dad drove to Saturday school. When we refused to keep going to Saturday school because the kids were so mean, my mom opened a charge account at the taxi company and told us “call a cab”.

By then, my mom was high up. In the insurance industry. On school forms the line for occupation was never long enough for me to write two, but I always did: dad – lawyer, mom- executive.

My dad kept his money. My mom kept her money. He spent his on racing boats. My mom spent hers on clothes. Her clothes were beautiful. I still remember the burgundy boots. The white leather coat. The Coach purse. Frye boots. Dungarees. My mom was cooler than I’d ever be.

I had a clothing allowance. I bought a lot of costume jewelry because the jewelry store never sneered when I said charge it, and the owner sometimes asked how my school was going.

In December I had forty rings and no winter coat and my parents nodded knowingly that their budget idea was working. I was learning to manage money.

They did not nod together. They were never in the same room. The only memories I have of them in the same room are when they are fighting.

My mom makes dinner because my dad says he’ll get the 6:05. He gets the 8:35. My mom makes us wait until he gets home to serve dinner. Then she throws it at him.

Peas are very bad to clean up. They roll everywhere. With just the right amount of force behind the throw they will even ricochet off walls.

My parents went to couples counseling but they couldn’t find anyone who had experience with working women, so I’m not sure they ever made it past the first session.

For my birthday my dad was supposed to get me a present, and he forgot, so he took me shopping. We bought a dress that would have been good if I had a job at his law firm as a secretary.

It hung in my closet for years, next to my dress that my grandma bought me for my first day of school.  It would have been good for going to school at Buckingham Palace.  As she gave it to me she said, “Your mother never does anything for you!”

I told her, “My mom works as hard as my dad does. Why doesn’t he buy me clothes for school?”

My grandma said, “Men cannot buy a dress for the first day of school. You’ll see this is true when you’re older. You’ll remember I said this and you’ll think your parents were crazy.”

And she’s right.

But she wasn’t right when I was in my 20s and thought I’d never have kids.

She wasn’t right in my 30s when I thought I’d never stay home with kids.

She wasn’t right until I realized there’s positively no way to keep things equal, and everyone suffers from trying to establish equality. People can only give what they are good at giving. And people can’t stop needing what they need. It’s what they need.

Kids need taking care of.

Money needs earning.

Those are two very unequal jobs. You can’t split them equally because they are not half-time jobs. So you might think I’m a throw-back to the ’50s when I say, stay-at-home dads is a bad idea. You might think I am self-hating when I say that women don’t crave power as much as men do. But don’t say I don’t understand how hard women fought for equality. Because I was part of that fight. I gave up my childhood for the fight for women’s equality.

And as a fighter, I want to believe I fought for choice. I fought for women to be anything, but also for women to choose to be a stay-at-home mom. I fought for women to have a choice to cook meals for their husbands and sew buttons for their kids. I fought for women to be bold enough to have a big career and then give it up for kids and be brave enough to suffer the shame of not earning their own money in a world that values money above everything else.

In the history of revolutions, the revolutions turn against the people who fought them. Just look at the US: we have little celebration for the institutions of the Founding Fathers: slavery, elite rule, and libertarianism. But we have the opportunities the Founding Fathers opened up for us, and it’s okay to celebrate that liberty and still have disdain for the principles of the electoral college.

By the same token, women acting like men, and marriages being 50/50 is the road to self-destruction. But I relish the opportunities Feminism gave me, like saying no to full-time work, and I’m proud that I was a child soldier in that war.

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  1. jennifer
    jennifer says:

    ps If that sounds cold, I loved putting mothering first and by their reports my children liked it a lot too. (They don’t like what is happening now, which is a great deal of interparental tension and a sudden acute difference in the standard of living of their parents.) I didn’t unschool but I was not far off doing so. We were making alternative, individualized choices that felt right at the time. Don’t imagine what is happening to me cannot happen to you.

  2. Maria
    Maria says:

    I dont agree with the Penelope´s message that if women dont stay at home or split tasks 50/50 then family and kids will suffer. Based on my own experience, my mother worked full time and was very susscessful. I had a lot of nannies, but none of then bit me or harm me. My mom was very smart as to how she balanced home, kids and work. Work was always her last priority with the exception of business trips when she was away (maybe 3 times a year for a week). I have very good memories of my loving and fun childhood. My mom did homework with me during first grade, in second, third and fourth grade I had a tutor after school. I did painting classes, scuplture, dancing, and swiming . When my mother was not available to drive me, she hired a driver that took me and my two brothers to these extracurrilar activities. Or she would trade turns with other parents. I think the key is to have a job that you enjoy and is flexible enough to allow woman and men to pay attention to their kids.

  3. H.D.
    H.D. says:

    I think you’re right that things can’t be equal all the time, but I also don’t see that as a reason not to continually strive toward equality. Your childhood contained many abusive elements that make me want to cry just reading about them and for that I am deeply sorry. Neither your mother or father treated you with the kindness you deserved–and yet, that’s not solely an issue you can attribute to feminism, or the lack thereof, (while of course those social forces shaped the particulars of the situation).

    My mother didn’t work full time until I was 6 and my brother 4, my stepfather was the breadwinner, and the household chore situation was never equal–but they continued to try and work on that and now, in retirement, have made great strides. I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition, really. My father and stepmother both work full time, make great money and have a decent amount of time off. They make a great team. I’m a teacher/ dept. chair, and my husband is beginning his career as a school administrator. I know his career will require more work hours than mine, eventually, and I hope to do consulting and other more flexible career options once my kids are older (I have an 18 month old and plan on one more). My husband and I strive for equality and some weeks that’s not possible but I would NEVER just give up and say “sure, I’ll do the second shift.” Nope. I have friends who have done that, sure. But I also have friends who are working to make things more equal. Guess who’s happier?

    Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, is all I’m saying.

    I love your posts, and they always make me think. Beautiful writing. Thanks.


  4. jen
    jen says:

    I was a child soldier in that war, too, which finally explains why all these years reading your blog, I’ve felt like brothers in arms.

  5. Sally Edelstein
    Sally Edelstein says:

    Nearly 45 years after the women’s liberation movement stormed onto the scene opening a floodgate of discourse about women’s rights, it’s déjà vu all over again.
    It’s hard to believe that systemic gender inequality still exists today and women are still being moved around like so many pawns in a political game that seems to be played by men only.
    Ironically because feminist ideas are so taken for granted few women think of themselves as feminists. The persistent stereotype of 2nd wave feminists as male bashing, make-up-less angry and non domestic was the same stereotype perpetrated by the media at the time.

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