When my mother claims that “my own kind has betrayed me,” she means women, generally, and me, specifically. Between us yawns a gap not just of a generation but of a social revolution. My mother was content to be a housewife; I — computer literate, liberal-to-left, educated — celebrate the achievements women have made during my lifetime and believe in the flexibility and potential of feminist politics. In my mother’s eyes, however, feminism has, at best, abandoned her; at worst, it has actively hunted her down.
The conflict between us grows as the time approaches for me either to repeat her way of mothering or take another path (though perhaps the tensions exist less in argument than in my head). When she could have given herself to a movement, she gave herself to me. Although I owe her more than I owe Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, my loyalties are torn. I would like to write a sentimental essay about her, something about good Thanksgivings or those times I was really sick. But the women’s movement sneaks its way into these memories; I cannot see my mother except through the lens of this history.
My mother devoted herself to “nesting” — dusting, washing dishes, and teaching traditions to her children. She taught my brother and me how to dress, eat, count, and read. She was always aware of what usually goes overlooked: insects in the garden, an incipient disease in the veins of a leaf, the mismatched plaid along the seam of a shirt.
She passed on this capacity for observation by teaching us how to see, to evaluate, to appreciate. For instance, she showed us how to distinguish the back-yard birds of the northeastern United States: the sparrow, nervous and frail; the robin, bursting with good news. She taught us that when the male cardinal appears, brilliantly red, in a bare bush in winter, the brown female is somewhere nearby, unseen and unappreciated.
She inherited her patience for bird watching from her father. He had already smoked and drunk himself into the ground by the time I was five, but in his last years he spent many hours in a fold-up lawn chair admiring the birds. My mother told me how he would sit motionless, stale crust in his palm, waiting for the birds to alight. In retrospect, I think he must have been drunk to wait so long, so often, for such a small pleasure. But my mother never speaks of him as an alcoholic, and though I have vague memories of his towering stagger, dizzying breath, and general reputation, I think my embellishments have been cruel to her memories. Her story is one of respect: her father worked hard, as a man should, for sixty-five years to raise five children. When he was done, he drank whiskey — why not? — and waited for birds to eat from his hand.
The house I grew up in near Philadelphia was only one block away from his house, where my mother was raised. The window of our kitchen looked out over a back yard much like the one in which she had played: spotty growths of grass, one tree, a bunch of bushes, a fence, and beyond that a neighbor’s aluminum garage. We watched the back-yard happenings from the breakfast table. “Shh,” my mother would say. Always the eagle eye, she spotted everything before I did. “Look. There’s something moving in the rhododendron bush.”
That back yard was the size of a boxing ring. My mother fought her hardest battles there. During the same years that other women were burning bras and taking to the streets, the yard was my mother’s Cause. The birds that lived there were the beneficiaries of my mother’s unpublicized activism. She had a village of bird feeders. She expected my brother and me to respect the privacy of all creatures and would not permit us to play too close to the birds’ nests.
Once, to my father’s chagrin, she fired an entire team of roofers on account of one robin. The bird had been building its nest below the eaves on the cocked arm of a drain pipe. It was the most popular nesting spot. Each spring, while eating our morning cereal, my mother, my brother, and I would watch a different bird build a home on that pipe. Day after day, we would await the next in a progression of miracles: first the transformation of grass and broken twigs into a household the size of our cereal bowls, then the incubation period, next the appearance of tiny beaks above the rim of the nest, and finally the miracle of first flight.
My mother has never been easy with strangers, particularly men. And the roofers had done little to ingratiate themselves to her even before one of them intentionally knocked that robin’s nest to the ground. This act was only the culmination of a series of violations. They treated her home with scurrility: spitting, using the “f-word” in front of her children, exhibiting a collective, primeval masculinity that must have made her feel uncomfortably vulnerable around the very men she relied on to protect her house from wind and rain.
I believe that when that robin’s nest fell, my mother saw her own home tumbling, her own eggs crushed, her own fragile shell cracked. Perhaps she saw a reminder of the precariousness of a way of life that rendered her, even in household matters, dependent on the knowledge, the ability, and, most significantly, the benevolence of men.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton once wrote, “It is a proud moment in a woman’s life to reign supreme within four walls, to be the one to whom all questions of domestic pleasure and economy are referred.” My mother’s prompt firing of the roofers was such a moment: a decisive, if only temporary, way of regaining control over that which was never hers. Never hers because my father, who saw in the dismissal only a non-refundable down payment, was not impressed with this show of power. Who then, he asked, will fix the roof — who? Of course, there were other roofing companies in the area. But I believe that my mother would have preferred to do the job herself.
When I was sixteen, she made an attempt to find out how to do such things. She and I took an August vacation in Maine, where we attended a house-building school. The school taught the logic of passive solar heating, the ins and outs of electrical wiring, and myriad other skills. We were the only mother-daughter team present. The other students were in their mid-twenties, well educated and hip. Some wore shirts that said “Do It Sober,” others paraphrased Thoreau: humans are unique among all creatures in that they do not build their own homes. All were determined to prove Thoreau wrong by living like him. My mother was less ambitious. She was pleased to learn how and when carpenters and plumbers might be cheating her. That three-week vacation was one of the best times we ever spent together. It bridged a gap between us that existed even then — before I’d found a name for what I believed in, and before she found the same name for the demise of homemakers like herself.
These last couple of decades have been difficult for many women her age. Homemaking, though economically fruitless, was once considered noble and good; now it lacks even cultural consecration. The U.S. Department of Labor, which classifies jobs according to skill levels, gives hotel clerks and parking lot attendants a higher rating than homemakers and mothers, whose duties include cleaning, counseling, teaching, cooking, decorating, and budgeting.
In the colonial era, although housewives and mothers did not have the vote, their duties in rearing children were regarded as essential to the democratic process. In the industrial age, the homemaker could still neither vote nor directly benefit from the changing economy, but the home became a refuge from the harsh, machine-made world, and the woman was the purveyor of truly “humane” activities, such as loving and nurturing. So long as women could find this ideological validation — particularly in advertisements and eventually the movies — it’s no wonder so many willingly accepted their powerlessness.
In her essay “On Photography,” Susan Sontag points out that the production and consumption of images in modern society exert “extraordinary powers to determine our demands upon reality.” In this regard, neither the second-wave feminists of the 1970s nor the younger, more complacent women of the next generation have been immune to exploitation in the media. While magazine advertisements, movies, and television have historically obscured the truth of the homemaker’s oppression, the media now exploit feminist successes to obscure the economic realities for women of color, poverty, and age. The most triumphant and abundantly produced image since the feminist revolution has been that of the “professional” woman with nice legs, two kids, and an immaculate kitchen.
Such images promote the illusion of prosperous equity. Fashion magazines, for instance, only occasionally pay attention to the 60 percent of employed women who work in low-paying jobs. And many women’s magazines tend to avoid complicated issues like child care and Medicaid. Because fear of inadequacy sells but poverty does not, the women who constitute the more than 60 percent of adults below the federal poverty line are almost completely invisible. Images of that one over-represented class of women, the professional, suggest the inadequacy of all those who are different, whether the result of historical accident, personal choice (as in my mother’s case), or external, socioeconomic constraints (as in the case of most women in America, not to mention the world). The advertising and publication industries, particularly women’s magazines, whose employees are overwhelmingly female, are guilty on two accounts: embezzling the feminist dream of an equitable society and encouraging the social invisibility of the majority of women by replacing them with robotic feminists — good looking, well paid, smart, but programmed to be mute.
When Madison Avenue messages invade our homes in such abundance, they are easily misinterpreted as the essence of a movement rather than as a money-making myth. Feminism, like many movements that survived the 1980s, may now seem almost scraped clean of radicalism, but it is not dead. We just have to look harder for it, and in less public places.
It is my mother’s gift for seeing what is seldom seen that has helped me come to understand feminism, and for this I must give something back. But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if flattery is what she needs to feel respected, she will never know.
There is still much my mother and I simply cannot talk about. Our discussions of women’s issues — from the wage gap to child care to abortion — inevitably become unpleasant arguments. These arguments have recently become a distasteful form of competition: whose notion of female power, my mother’s or mine, is more valid? In the case of abortion, for example, we see the same thing at stake — potential selves — but we interpret differently what we see. While her opinion is upsetting to me, my opinion — that reproductive choice gives women the freedom to pursue a career — must be a harsh reminder that she is economically vulnerable. She is not trained to get a job that pays more than five dollars an hour; her health and financial security are dependent on a man who has had two heart attacks and still smokes as many cigarettes as her own father did. Should my father die there’s insurance, but there’s no compensation for my mother’s never having developed a strong sense of herself before devoting her life to him and her children. I believe she thinks she is witnessing, in her daughter’s ideas about motherhood, her own slow extinction.
Before I knew my sex, I knew the word mom; before I could ride a bike, I knew that she wanted me to ride it well. My preschool days were filled, it seems, with the sense that she and I were joined in something terribly fragile. She once bought Helen Reddy’s Greatest Hits. Though one song, “I Am Woman,” is the corny theme song of all she claims to abhor, she liked the album for the even cornier song on the other side, a mother-daughter version of “You and Me against the World.” My mother and I used to blast the album and sing that song to each other — each of us taking the appropriate part — while she did the housework and I, with her encouragement, chose to do something else.
She always gave me options in which the more attractive choice was obvious. I could either do dishes or practice piano; I could clean the bathroom or study math. When I am thankful for my choices, I am thankful to her. While I am the product of a unique generation, I am first and foremost the beneficiary of her hard work, of opportunities that she made absolutely certain I had.
During one visit home several years ago, my mother and I took a short trip downtown to the Academy of Natural Sciences. We went to see an exhibit on “The Cow in American Culture,” but we quickly became more interested in the permanent display of dinosaur bones and, finally, the endangered species. The monk seal, Bengal tiger, Nile crocodile, California condor, all the spotted cats: those creatures, stuffed in stiff, stereotypical poses, were pathetic reminders of the human capacity for neglect and contempt, and the incapacity to undo what is done.
I became fascinated with the ivory-billed woodpecker. Some ornithologists believe that a few of these birds are still alive in remote areas of the south. The last sighting was in Florida in 1952. Since none of these birds has been seen since, and few people look, there is no way to be sure whether the species still exists. The reason these birds have disappeared is recorded in a plaque on the wall: “Traders killed them for sport, scraped their brains, and used their beautiful heads for money pouches.”
That exhibit was one of the few things that my mother and I have seen together and interpreted in the same way: it’s so easy to use and be used, easier still to live and die unnoticed.
My mother has long said that women like her are an endangered species and that they deserve a little recognition before they disappear altogether. I agree, but it seems inadequate to sentimentalize her, to stuff her full of metaphor and memory and display her in a museum. Such a homage is insufficient, perhaps even cruel. Like the ivory-billed woodpecker, propped on a stump behind a plate of glass, she deserves far more than posterity can give her.