This Christmas I gave my mom the best re-gift ever. A couple of years ago, Smarty Pants had bought me When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins.
The book details the struggle for women’s rights and how courageously individual women fought against laws they knew were wrong. It’s incredibly inspiring, especially for someone of my generation (I was born in 1979) because the changes my mother’s and grandmothers’ generations carved out meant that I could take so many freedoms and aspirations for granted.
I gave the book to my mom because she’d seen Smarty Pants give it to me and she’d briefly stolen it from me to read the first chapter. I stole it back and said she could have it when I was done.
Mom was born in 1954. She grew up on I Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver. June Cleaver was her childhood heroine, and Mom dreamed of a future wearing beautiful clothes and putting on her pearls to vacuum the house while her husband and two children were at school.
She got the two children. And some of the vacuuming (though Dad does at least half of the housework himself, something that must’ve seemed bizarre to Mom when they first got married).
Mom once told me her parents didn’t encourage her to think about having a career. My grandmother believed (and still believes) wholeheartedly in thick foundation and heavy skin creams. When I was a teenager, Nonny admonished me: “Honey, you have to wear eye makeup. Boys won’t like you if you don’t wear eye makeup. And quit wearing those boy-cut jeans. They make you look like you have a ding-dong.”
I gave Mom the book this Christmas, and she started reading. I remember one of the early chapters talks about a woman who was thrown out of a courtroom by the judge because she was wearing trousers. That was the decade Mom was born into. It’s so foreign to me that it might as well have happened in Saudi Arabia.
After a few hours of reading, Mom shook her head and gave me an ironic smile. “I’ve reached the bad part.”
Remembering quite a few horrifying passages, I asked, “Which bad part?”
“The 60s. When everything changed.”
I rolled my eyes. “I can’t believe you’re reading this book as a tragedy, Mom.”
She just smirked and went back to reading, probably already dreading having to go back to work in a few days’ time and wishing she could stay at home instead, twirling a vacuum over a perfectly clean carpet while toying with her pearls.
So Mom wasn’t one of those women who marched for greater rights and freedoms. The barriers she broke down, she did out of financial necessity, not ideology.
She may cringe a little when I tell her she’s a feminist, but that doesn’t mean that she isn’t a consistently remarkable example of how strong women can be. Unlike her parents, she not only encouraged me to dream big but she worked her hind end off (or, as she would say, “I worked my balls off”) to make sure nothing stood in my way.
I can’t truly imagine her being happy living the June Cleaver lifestyle. I doubt she can really imagine it either. (For one thing, June would never say “balls”.)
And I know for a fact that she would hate for me to have no other option but that one.
What did you dream of being when you grew up? Were you able to achieve that dream? What women in your life have been an example of strength?
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