Thursday, September 7, 2017

The feminists in our own lives

In last week’s Feminist Legal Theory class we had the opportunity to watch an episode of PBS’ Makers, a documentary film about the revolutionary women’s movement that blossomed and swept through American culture in the 1960’s and 70’s. As we watched the women onscreen, my thoughts naturally turned to the women in my own family. My mother and my aunts were born in the 1950's and came of age in the era of the National Organization for Women and the women’s liberation movement, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. While I was familiar with the general contours of the feminist movement, I had never taken the opportunity to ask my family members about their experiences growing up during this time period and how these greater cultural and political changes affected their own lives.

My mother (Deb) and my aunt (LuAnn) were kind enough to spend an hour on the phone with me and let me pepper them with questions about their memories of the prominent figures and organizations within the movement. How much did they remember? Did they ever read TheFeminine Mystique? How many bras did they burn? While the specifics were foggy (and, sadly, no bras were burned), both my mom and my aunt were cognizant of the feminist movement. My aunt told me that while she didn’t really understand the movement’s significance at the time, she did feel inspired by it and wanted to learn more about it. Both my mom and my aunt expressed feeling somewhat removed from the greater women’s movement, perhaps an effect of growing up in rural, Catholic East Moline, IL.

While the totems and highlights of the feminist movement don’t loom large in my mom and aunt’s memories, the women in their own family did. They told me stories about their grandmother, who drove the family car since grandfather never learned how to drive. They told me about their own mother, sort of a legendary figure on my mom’s side of the family. Lucille Petersmith was a powerhouse. She worked, like many residents of East Moline, for John Deere, and was the only woman working as a loan manager for the John Deere Credit Union. While she was respected for her business acumen and had a reputation for treating customers with dignity and professionalism, she still experienced sexism in the workplace, not only from men but from other women as well. Both my mom and aunt said that Lucille was known for speaking her mind, standing up for herself and others, and piping up when she saw something that “just wasn’t right.” My mom and aunt carried Lucille’s values and attitude of fearlessness as they started in their own careers.

The most eye-opening parts of our conversation pertained to the sexism my mom and aunt experienced in the professional spheres. My mother moved from the Midwest to California in her twenties. Her first job after college was working at Pacific Gas and Electric. Despite being in a more “progressive” locale, my mom was surprised to find she was still expected to adhere to a strict dress code… skirt suits and dresses only—and this was in the 1980’s!

My aunt, like her mother, began working at John Deere and was one of the first women to be promoted to Distribution Service Center supervisor. She was often the only woman in meetings and, as such, she was the “default” note taker. One day having had just about enough, she placed a pen and paper in front of a male colleague and said bluntly “Today it’s your turn to be the scribe.” They didn’t ask her to take notes again. 

Another incident occurred after my aunt became a mother. She had marked her calendar to let coworkers know she would have to leave work to take her son to a doctor’s appointment. Thereafter, a manager assigned her an important report, due the same day as the appointment. Yet this manager was curiously absent from the office when the report was due. The manager had expressly told my aunt that she couldn’t leave the office until the report was submitted; as a result, she missed the doctor’s appointment. The manager returned hours later, at which point my aunt handed him the report and told him she would not be missing another doctor’s appointment. These were only two highlights (or lowlights) out of many slights and hurdles my aunt dealt with as a powerful woman navigating a male-dominated company in a male-dominated industry (agriculture and engineering).  However, my aunt’s take no sh*t attitude and passion for her job served her well… ultimately she retired as manager of the John Deere Pavilion, the most popular tourist destination in Illinois outside of Chicago.

Our conversation eventually segued into a discussion of what it was like to work and raise children. My mother spoke about the stresses of balancing her own career goals with family goals after she and my father moved from San Jose, CA to Auburn, CA. She grappled with the fear of leaving her children for long hours with “strangers” while she made a daily commute to and from Sacramento. She also explained the isolation she felt after moving to a new town, where she lacked the support network necessary to feel comfortable extending herself professionally. Ultimately, while she loved her job, she ended up shifting gears career-wise and went from a supervisory position at a PG&E service center to an office assistant position at my elementary school. She never regretted her decision (and I was a happy child and lucky to have my mother so accessible). Additionally she explained it made sense financially since my dad made more money at the time.

As a hypothetical exercise, I asked “If you made more money than dad at that time, would you and dad have agreed him quitting or taking on a less time-consuming career?” She admitted it was a difficult question, one she wasn’t sure she was able to really answer.

I had two major takeaways from my conversation with my mom and aunt. The first was the importance of cross-generational feminism and the value of having these conversations and sharing common experiences. It’s inspiring to hear about the challenges women in my own family have overcome. It makes me feel like I am part of a larger, more personal feminist story. Furthermore, it feels great to “share notes” and strategies I can deploy in my own life. The other great takeaway I had from this conversation is the importance of recognizing the feminist icons in our own lives. The feminism prevalent in today's pop-culture emphasizes personalities, celebrities, social-media savvy. I do recognize the value of charismatic leaders who can mobilize and advocate for the feminist movement on a more national level, but sometimes the best role models are your own family, friends, and coworkers. After all, while my mom and aunt knew of Gloria Steinem… they attributed their feminist awakenings and journeys to their small-town mom and grandmother. The idea of looking to women in your own life for feminist inspiration isn’t revolutionary, but I can certainly say that the older I get, the more important it feels. I'm grateful I have such strong women in my life who've done this before and can help show me the way.


Omar de la Cruz said...

Your post was very insightful and has made me want to question my own family members about their experiences with feminism. While I know that my mother, sister, aunts, etc. live in ways that are very feminist, I have never heard any of them actually use the term "feminism." I have never heard them talk about whether they feel connected to any sort of larger movement or whether they simply do what's best for them. Like your relatives, I know that my family members have also experiences sexism in many forms. In fact I've noticed it even within my own household. Thank you for your post as it made me more curious about my own family and I will surely now need to find some answers.

Suzanne Connell said...

Great post Rebecca!

I really admired the way you questioned the women in your own life about their perspectives on the second wave of feminism, since they were exposed to it in real time. It really brought into focus what we had seen and discussed in class, with your mother and aunt's experiences really helping me to contextualise what type of impact the feminist movement in the 60's and 70's had on the "ordinary" woman. Similar to Omar, your post also left me wondering about what adversities the women in my own life have faced. My mother, aunts, sister and grandmother similarly wouldn't strictly label themselves as feminists but no doubt have had their own unique brushes with sexism and the feminist movement, so I'm really looking forward to quizzing them on it.

Although I haven't had much exposure to the tribulations of working life, your aunt's experience of being ushered into the role of scribe at meetings when she worked at John Deere really resonated with me. Earlier this summer I was interning at a small law firm in Dublin after completing my second year at law school. I had interned at a different firm the previous summer and had been more than adequately exposed to the inner workings of a law firm, and I was actually given experience relevant to my degree, so I had high expectations for the work I thought I'd be doing in my new internship. It didn't live up to my expectations. I was told I would eventually be doing all sorts of wonderful legal work, but that for the time being they really needed me to cover reception. I never ended up progressing past reception and was quickly forgotten about. Although I learned a few things from my time on reception and I appreciate the work that has to be done in this post, I found myself frustrated by the inapplicability it had to my degree and by the fact that I was told from the offset that this wouldn't be my permanent post, but for convenience's sake that's what it ended up being. I find it hard to believe that if I was a boy I would have had this experience, and I found it even more infuriating when a guy I know from law school interning in a nearby law firm had to drop in documents to my firm but also dropped the comment that i really "suited" the receptionist look. I'm still struggling to understand whatever that means and I only wish I had the same courage that your aunt did in asserting her right to be viewed on an equal footing in the workplace.

Joterias! said...

Thank you for sharing your story, for noting the importance of cross-generational feminism, and for reminding me to recognize the feminists in my life. Like Omar’s mother, I’ve never heard mi mama use the term femenista (feminist). However, she does empathize with other women’s plights, and, as I allude to elsewhere, she is a femenista in practice. She grew up in a conservative milieu were women’s social roles were severely limited, and she had to brush aside machista expectations in order to provide for her family. In fact, my dad had to do same once when he arrived in the United States because machismo also oppresses and burdens men.

Like you, I asked mi mama years ago what it would mean to her if she were to become the primary bread winner. Her response puzzled me. She said that household income would increase, but that she expected mi papa to continue working because he needed to provide for the household. In other words, she suggested that a man must always provide for the household even if he is not the primary breadwinner. Since then, mi mama has accepted that family arrangements are fluid and depend on a multitude of factors, and that it may make sense for a man to stay at home in some cases. Still, I wonder what my abuelita’s (grandma’s) response would be if she were still around.

I have also asked close female friends the same question during our “gurl” chats. The majority of them are married, and have kids. In general, they opined that both partners should run the household, but that which partner gets to work outside the household is a matter of circumstance. Their answer didn’t surprise me, but how therapeutic listening to each other’s responses turned out to be did. I found that in listening to each other’s responses, they learned that other similarly situated women shared their progressive views; that Latina women still have to navigate the machismo of older generations; and that there is no right way to mother or run a household. This leads me to believe that feminism needs a resurgence of consciousness raising meetings, but tailored for today.

Note: In using machista/machismo, I am not suggesting that it’s worse or better than the hypermasculine discourse that ails American society. I’m merely drawing attention to a culturally specific form of hypermasculine discourse.

Anika Nayyar said...


Thank you for sharing this insightful post. I completely agree with your concluding notion that feminist inspiration often arises from the generations of women present in your own life. Personally, the feminist inspiration who has impacted my life the most is my mother. In 1985, my mother broke barriers imposed by “Indian societal norms” when she chose to pursue her Masters in Business Administration in America rather than stay in India and get married after her undergraduate education.

My mother always believed she could do “something more” than be just be someone’s wife or mother. She never believed she was one who needed “taking care of” and sought to build her own identity beyond the realm of the household. Even when choosing a life partner, she chose my father, a man who supported and respected her career aspirations. While growing up, if I did not have these pivotal conversations with my mother about her journey, I would likely not be the law student or feminist advocate that I am today. Seeing my mother’s journey, a woman who came from a similar background and upbringing as I did, gave me the courage to dream bigger than what society or cultural norms expect of me and think that even I could have an identity beyond being someone’s wife or mother. The mentality that set in for me was: if she could do it, so can I!

In addition, my mother sharing the challenges she faced and the methods she used to combat them only inspired me further to push the boundaries of societal norms. Similar to your mother, my mother often shared stories with me about the sexist obstacles she faced at her workplace. These included being disrespected by her male colleagues and passed on for promotion opportunities despite being more qualified and educated than the selected candidates. Hearing her experiences and advice on navigating these challenging circumstances gave me the comfort and confidence I needed to enter work environments where I may not always be welcome. Having these tools in my back pocket assured me that there was hope for change and that I had the opportunity to be at the forefront of it.

I appreciate you highlighting the concept of “cross generational feminism.” In my opinion, the practice of sharing experiences across generations should be encouraged because when the acceptance and promulgation of feminist ideals begin at home, the likelihood of it being imbibed and put into action is higher. The personal connections between the generations of women make it significantly easier to relate to the experiences being shared because of their stark similarities to your own life. Even though there is no dearth of popular figures to admire for their contributions to the feminist movement and national reach that is virtually unparalled, it is often difficult to view their experiences as akin to yours. As a women of color, I often find it challenging to relate to feminist figures in popular culture because their life and cultural experiences usually vary considerably from mine. They are often people who don’t look like me, people who weren’t raised in the same culture as me, and people who come from different socioeconomic statuses than me. Hence, the beauty of cross-generational feminism is that it fills in these gaps that national feminist movements possess.