Monday, May 11, 2009

Practical Feminism, Part 1: A Belated Mother's Day Tribute

I fell out of love with my mother at the age of 26.

Of course, what I fell out of love with wasn’t really my mother; it was a certain relationship with my mother, which was the model until then for how I attempted to love all women. It didn’t work. It couldn’t, for me or for the women I attempted to love.

Within 6 years of that momentous event, and after a good number of romantic misfires, I married a woman who happened to share many of my mother’s best characteristics, both physical and spiritual: her rich black hair, her modesty, her elegant, practical intelligence, and her drive for personal independence won through a professional career.

My wife’s ambitions are self-conscious and grounded in an engagement with feminism. There is a tall bookshelf in our living room devoted exclusively to women’s studies, to the history, sociology, psychology, and economics of women, gender, sexuality and feminism. When I first met her, her two degrees were hung prominently on the wall, and she had developed elaborate strategies for deflecting her parent’s nagging: When was she going to get married? Did she want to have children? Why was she still single?

My mother’s feminism, on the other hand, was entirely untheoretical. She was part of no movement. She did not steep herself in (then non-existent) undergraduate women’s studies, nor in 60’s campus counterculture, nor in women’s issues generally. She didn’t come from a family with pronounced ideological commitments to social causes. Her father was an Ivy-educated, domineering, and quick-witted accountant from Philadelphia whose wife, my grandmother, dropped out of college after only one year to marry him.

After my mother was born, and my grandfather returned from the war in Europe, my grandmother became his secretary, working in an office on the ground floor directly across the hall from his. They were clearly -- even to me as a little boy -- a couple in love. They gardened together behind the grand old house they had acquired from one of Cincinnati’s minor industrial barons; they both loved the drawings of M.C. Escher and the humor of James Thurber, they both enjoyed bird watching, the Muppet Show, the same sweet dessert liquors, and the music of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

But it was always clear that a Patriarch towered at the apex of my mother’s family. And I am convinced that my grandmother’s lifelong subscription to National Geographic and her devotion to PBS programming were attempts to make up for, through self-directed enrichment, the college degree she gave up in order to be the Patriarch’s wife.

Social change often works in microscopic, capillary ways. From this decidedly conventional family background, my mother went to college and graduated, all with the support of grandfather the Patriarch. She then continued on to law school, among the first generation of women to do so in any significant numbers, and earned a Juris Doctorate. My grandfather didn’t understand why she wanted this, but again he supported her. Along the way, my mother met a man who later became a college professor -- my father -- who would never make as much money as she did.

Within one generation, my mother had outstripped my grandmother’s educational achievements, and by the beginning of her professional career, she had completely overturned the household role models she had grown up with, effectuating a family revolution of practical feminism. My father followed my mother in the early years, and tailored his career moves to suit hers. For a few years in my toddlerhood, he was a stay-at-home-dad. Yet no one complained, and my mother now sees herself as just another working professional. Maybe if my grandmother had finished college, she might have found a job and a route to independence back in the 1940’s. But it’s not clear that she really wanted to; and even if she had, it’s not clear how far she could have gone. My mother did want to, and it just so happened that circumstances had evolved in her favor. Now she has helped to change those same circumstances even further.

My mother saw her chance, and she took it. As a consequence, perhaps in unconscious imitation, I am now following in my father’s footsteps, raising a child with a woman who will probably always make more money than I ever could, and doing my stint at an at-home-dad. It feels very familiar, very matter-of-fact, and although I know in my head that there are more and more families in which the woman makes as much as, if not more than, the man, I am always privately surprised that it is not still more common.

Small actions can have large ramifications over the course of a few generations. En masse, they can amount to broad social changes in attitudes, opportunities, and behaviors. My grandfather saw no need to encourage the education of his wife and embodied many of the prejudices of his generation, but he provided his daughter with all possible resources to fuel her ambitions. He was in many ways a difficult man, but his loving open-mindedness allowed my mother to flourish. That, in turn, made for a loving mother who allowed her son to flourish, and left the son, now an adult, to wonder “Where will I be able to find anything comparable to this?”

Fortunately, after many years of looking, I have.

[This post also appears on Dad's Book of Days]

1 comment:

One of Two Sisters said...

Belatedly, I ran across this post. A recent graduate of a women's college, an aspiring professional and someday family woman, feminism is alive and well. My maternal gran never went to school, but made sure all 8 of her young ones did. My momis the only female of 27 senior managers at a huge employer. They did all this sans Dad figures. My hope is that many more men can find the courage to be like the parents you feature - dads especially. Thanks for showing that when the world says we oughtn't let Dads hold kids, we can trust the 21st century Dad to fight for the right to do so!