I was on the train with my daughter heading to a concert, a gift for her seventh birthday. As we passed by Boston College three young women boarded the train and sat down. They were in the middle of a conversation about feminism. More specifically, they were discussing whether it was necessary. They didn't notice a problem, they said, in their workplaces or in that of their friends' workplaces. No problems advancing, no discrepancies between pay. The camaraderie of the old feminists was no longer needed. Maybe that togetherness was what had to happen, they mused, back when things were so unequal, but things have changed, guys don’t view us as different, it’s not a problem. They moved onto quotas and affirmative action, saying that they thought it demeaned placements, knowing you could have been placed there to fill a quota. They felt that the right person should fill the job, no matter what. And if more often it was men, that must mean there are more qualified men who applied.
I felt a series of strong emotions listening to these young women. They happened in rapid succession. First I felt annoyed. These girls didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. Then I felt surprised and (and a little tickled) that I was old enough to be annoyed by young women with different ideas than mine. I accepted their different experience. And then a sadness for what these women, in my mind, are failing to see.
I mulled this over, with my arm around my girl, my first girl, who was turning the magical number seven. One of the first of many big pushes away. Away from where she comes from.
The young women had begun to chatter about a classmate. A medical student. They had been at a dinner party when the conversation had moved into their future families and careers. The medical student said she was going to become a stay at home mom. These women were shocked that she would “waste” her education. I was costing a lot of money, they said, that she was throwing away. It didn't make sense to learn all of that if you were only going to stay at home with your kids. The information would be irrelevant by the time you were able to work again. Staying home is great, they said. Some of their mother’s did it, and they were grateful. It was just the education. It wasn't worth it, they said. If you were only going to stay home in the end.
Again, I had all the feelings, but nestled in there with the rest was a new one. A small and tender knot of shame. I was ashamed to think that these women would look upon my life and feel my education, and with it my subsequent life experience, was essentially being laid to waste while I depart from myself and raise my children. Beyond my own tiny, narcissistic feelings I felt a deep grief.
All of these statements revealed something to me, as I listened to these young, educated women, out on the town, ready for the night. First is the idea that “togetherness is no longer needed.” I happen to fundamentally disagree on this and could go on, but I won’t. I will say that in my listening to these women and watching their body language I saw that they found the idea of having to group up with women for strength and encouragement to be incredibly weak. To some it seemed to verge on repugnant. So I ask, if it isn't needed, necessarily (which, again, I disagree), then why isn't it wanted? Why does it feel like weakness to accept the support of another? Why would it be demeaning to know the power of your tribe is at your back? I have a lot of ideas about this. And they vary. Some of me thinks it is because if we admit we need the strength of numbers, then we admit we could be victimized. A little later we may see that we are being victimized. Accepting the idea we could become a victim means we are vulnerable. Which we, in fact, are. All of us humans are, I mean. Some just get better armor when we dress for battle. Being victimized is scary. It renders you powerless, it hurts, and leaves you fearing for the next time. Being seen as a victim, though, is nearly as scary as being victimized. Cause that shit will grow on you like a mossy roof. Everyone can see it, they know you’re weak. They can take advantage of you, and they will. So, I think, maybe it’s easier not to see how far-reaching and deep seated the problem goes. Problem solved.
I also think it is really easy to internalize the feelings of revulsion for “typically female” behavior in the general culture. I muse, sometimes, about women being forced to advance in the world by adopting masculine patterns. Which is still moving forward. It’s something, and not all women have “typically female” behavior in the first place, so there’s plenty of room for a spectrum anyway. But so-called feminine behavior isn't valued or honored, so it can’t really be brought to the table as an offering. Often times that offering could be a different part of a solution, the other half of a whole, but women are groomed to put it aside if they want to be “taken seriously.” Because being a woman isn't serious.
And then I think, maybe they just don’t know what it was like before. And maybe they’re just too young to know what a short time ago it was. I’m just about old enough now to appreciate how not-long-ago all the shit hit the fan. To understand what a debt of gratitude I owe to the women who dared to demand their due.
As for their belief that if there were equal numbers of qualified men and women applying that equal numbers of men and women would be hired, they seemed to believe that the reason there are often more men in certain positions it was because they were more qualified. If that happens across the board, that would mean that men are inherently more qualified. And we were supposed to have decided that wasn't true 30 years ago. This topic is more gigantic than me, I’m not touching it.
So, then there’s the staying at home thing. I’m not going to say a word about one being better or worse. That’s an annoying conversation. What startled me was these women saw mothering as so valueless so as not to warrant the education and personal expansion of the mother for her own sake. That may say a lot more about how those women think about success than women or mothers, but I found it fascinating. Their idea of a stay at home mother seemed to be a woman void of her talents and interests, wasting away, only to end up obsolete.
That bums the hell out of me. Mostly because I wonder if someday my own daughters will look at my work, love and sacrifice, and think it was “nice” but over-all a waste. For the record, I doubt it. But what a heartbreak to hear these clearly intelligent, ambitious women reject the idea of banning together with women for strength and advancement. It was hard to hear them them believe that if there are more men in better positions they must be more qualified, and finally to imagine that motherhood culminates in a waste of one's opportunity and enrichment.
The train pulled up to our stop. My girl hopped out onto the busy street, ready to go to the show. To see two young female musicians, in an herb school owned by a woman, with me, her mother.
My girls don’t think there’s anything they can’t do either. They also don’t seem to think there is anything I can’t do. One of my kids once asked me if I could make them a saxophone I am so handy my kid thought I could just whip up a saxophone! I do most of the hauling, demolishing, building, painting, fixing, tinkering and duct-taping. My husband is fully capable as well. My children see him to all sorts of manly things, but not as often as they see me, because he is at work during the day to make the money he uses to support me and our “traditional lifestyle.” On the occasion I have to explain some period of time when women had fewer rights, I see them seeing it as a part of a faraway time. They can’t really imagine it. Perhaps if it weren't part of the general conversation around here, they would forget about it all together.
Which is what I think has happened. Women are healing from a trauma. It’s slow-going, painful, bloodthirsty work. I know this, because I have a few all to my own, I don’t mind saying. It takes time, you get strong, you get weak, you get angry, confused, grief stricken, clarity and you get terrified. Over and over again, over time, for a long time. We fought, we won, we lost, we were exposed, victimized, strengthened, encouraged, weekend, bitter and all the rest. It’s all part of the healing. And there is a wound, make no mistake.
My daughter wanted to see “music where the people are in front of you,” with just me for her birthday. She wore a gown. I took her to dinner. She picked out seven sacred beads from the bead shop. And she danced with another young girl, away from me. She can do anything. She has her choices all to herself. But even this girl, this wonderful, bright, compassionate girl had to be given her own choices. By me and their father, because they still aren't inherently hers. We have to tell our girls every day that they are their own. And that’s lucky for them that we do, but what a shame that we have to.
She wants to know me, to know who I am. I am forever being told to tell stories of my childhood, but more and more she wants to hear about myself. She wants to know how it happened, all of it. All of me. Most of my story’s not clean. I have the kind of life I forget about until I see the horror on other people’s faces when I’m just telling a story. It is, sadly, nothing out of the ordinary, but it is messy. It makes people feel afraid for themselves. But it’s real and it’s true and it is the history they are born from. And they are privileged to be a part of its unfolding. Not that they have a choice, you see they come from me, their story is intrinsically intertwined with mine. The treasures and lessons are there for the taking, to be invested and improved on, but I need to show her they’re there. I can’t allow her to believe that there are victories without battles. I need to share with her at whose cost her freedom was paid. She deserves to know who fought for her, and what that bravery meant.
Who sacrificed for you? What do you owe that legacy? Do we owe the freedom we have to those that come after us? And if so, should we give it to them in better condition than when we got it?