Resources and reporting for mothers and others who think about social change.
get active
about mmo
mmo blog

My mother’s gift of feminism with sympathy but no empathy

By Lynn O’Brien Hallstein

Even with all my feminist credentials, I really did not understand in a very deep way what it was that drove women like my mother in the feminist movement; I had to experience it myself, sadly, before I understood.

The year anniversary of my mother’s death is fast approaching. She died suddenly and unexpectedly at the end of May last year of a massive heart attack. Because her death was so unexpected and she was so young (61), my only experience of her death for the first six months was one of shock and disbelief. When the shock did begin to lift, I found myself thinking a lot about her strong opinions and beliefs about women, feminism, and motherhood.

I think that my mother had so much to say about these topics because she became a mother and feminist at the same time and at a young age. She and my father had only been married a few months when my mother became pregnant, and both were still attending the college where they met. At that time, 1963, even married women were not allowed to attend college after they were 6 months pregnant, so my mother had to quit college. A month past her 21st birthday, my mother gave birth to my sister and I, identical twin girls, and began her life as a wife.

Our birth coincided with the birth of the second wave feminist movement, of which both my mother and father were active. My mother, however, was especially committed to feminism and involved my sister and I in it at a very early age. She had us on our first ERA march when we were too little to hold up our “Pass the ERA, Now!” sign alone; we had to hold it together; my mother took us to lick League of Women Voters’ envelopes for political campaigns for women in the 1970’s, and she encouraged all her children to be feminists. Feminism, in fact, was so central to our lives growing up that I now think of it as my family’s “religion.”

Like many women of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, my mother’s participation in the feminist movement was fueled by her anger and resentment about how few choices women really had other than motherhood (she never did get over having to quit college just because she was pregnant.). She also hated that the cost of motherhood was any sense of personhood; before feminism, a woman was not even allowed to “think” about being a person with her own ambitions. As a result, my mother was very clear all my life about what she felt she personally gave up being my mother: her own ambitions, sense of self, and independence. As her daughter, this was painful and confusing to me as I grew up, even though I knew my mother loved me very much. I was also always certain that my mother should and could have handled her anger better.

Even though I was a committed feminist myself from an early age—at my 20-year high school reunion, my classmates made fun of me as the first and only feminist in our graduating class—I carried my harsh judgment about my mother’s anger and resentment for years. And, as with many daughters, I responded to my mother’s life as my “anti-life” plan; I created a life for myself that was initially in reaction to her life. I delayed motherhood for education and a career. I got a Ph.D. in communication studies, with an emphasis in feminist theory and gender studies, and took a job as a professor in Boston. Then and only then, I had my first son at the age of 35, two years away from academic tenure and having read every parenting and child development book I could find.

I soon learned that having it “all”—a career, child, and partner—was quite difficult. When I tried to talk to my Mother about my difficulties, I always found her to be sympathetic but not empathetic. She said that she knew that it was hard to juggle it all (the sympathy), but she thought it was far better to have my problems than the ones she faced (no empathy). Occasionally when I was not too stressed out, she would even say she thought it was important to remind me just how hard it had been for women of her generation to even think about having personal ambitions, let alone acting on them. And, while she never directly used these words, she clearly intimated that she was surprised that I did not recognize the advantages I had as a woman living today, especially because I was a feminist scholar. She seemed to believe that I just did not “get it” about what it was like for women prior to feminism of the 1960’s and ‘70’s.

Of course, I was quite distressed about her lack of empathy and, frankly, indignant about the not getting it charge. I was sure that I did understand because I had some of the best feminist credentials around: unlike most feminists I knew, I had been raised a feminist and was teaching gender studies for a living. I was also indignant because I knew who, in fact, did not get it: my young female students. These young women refused to align themselves with feminism, believed that women were equal to men, and were certain that it was going to be easy to be professionals and mothers. In short, I believed that it was my mother who was off track, not me.

I think we would have continued this way for a long time if I had not had an important wake-up call when I moved to Switzerland. I moved to Switzerland so that my husband could accept a new job, which meant that I had to resign my job as a professor. I also happened to be pregnant with my second son, so I did use the move as an opportunity for an extended maternity leave. Around the time my second son was a year old, however, I decided that I was ready to return to work. Actually, I felt like had to go back to work because I realized that I needed to have a space for myself, something I felt good about in addition to my mothering. I wanted to be a person again and a mother.

It became apparent quickly that it was going to be very difficult for me to find any work that was similar to my previous position. In addition to the fact that my German is very weak (we live in the German-speaking part of Switzerland), Switzerland continues to have quite traditional roles for women, and there are many formal and informal social practices that prohibit women from having a career in Switzerland. Children, for example, still come home from school for lunch everyday, even when they are in high school. Also, unlike the U.S. where there is a whole system of substitute teachers, if a teacher is sick, then, school is cancelled for the day. In other words, the entire school system is predicated on the notion that someone, the mom, is home full time and always available for her children.

The more I learned, the angrier I got and the more resentful I became about my situation. I could not believe how much my ambitions were being constrained by real social barriers simply because I was a woman. I was also angry that I had to fight so hard to be a person with her own ambitions, sense of self, and independence again. Then it hit me: talk about cosmic revenge for my harsh assessment of my mother’s anger and resentment. I suddenly realized that my life was almost exactly the same as my mother’s when she had young children, and I was angry and resentful about it. It was not so easy to handle the anger and resentment better.

It was also a great shock when I discovered that, in fact, my mother’s not-getting-it charge was true. Even with all my feminist credentials, I really did not understand in a very deep way what it was that drove women like my mother in the feminist movement; I had to experience it myself, sadly, before I understood. It was also true that I did not fully appreciate just how much I actually did benefit from my mother’s struggle; I was more like my students then I knew.

I had begun to realize some of this before my mother died, but not fully. She was still alive when I began to discover how hard it was going to be for me to work in Switzerland, but it was not until I started to reflect on my mother’s life after she died that I put it all together. During this reflective time, I began to understand that feminism had really become my religion in that, like my mother also, feminism moved from just being in my head— an idea -- to being in my body— an idea fueled by real visceral and justified feelings about the impact of sexism.

As the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death approaches, I now know that my deepest regret will always be that I did not have a chance to share these insights with her. At the same time, I have also found a new pride in my mother’s mothering, sympathy with no empathy included, and for her contribution to improving women’s lives as a feminist. Finally, in this time when much is being written about just how much we are all suffering from cultural amnesia about what feminism actually wanted and did for women, I am deeply grateful to my mother for never allowing me to get away with fully forgetting it myself, feminist scholar and all.

mmo : may 2004

Lynn O’Brien Hallstein is a writer and mother.
Reuse of content for publication or compensation by permission only.
© 2003-2008 The Mothers Movement Online.


The Mothers Movement Online