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
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
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
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