I believe that I owe a debt of gratitude to the “feminists” of the 70’s and 80’s. I am 43 and a working mother of three. For the past 3 years, my husband has worked part-time as a consultant in order that we have the flexibility to manage the busy schedules of our children and for one of us to be at home after school. I am only beginning to appreciate that mother didn’t have the choices that I have, and she fought so that I would. She chose to be different, to challenge a system and to face the ridicule and consequences that came with leadership.
My 10-year old is in the middle of a school project and he has chosen my mother as his subject. He’s asked her questions about her childhood, adolescence, early marriage. Her answer to his question about what historical events have impacted her was the most surprising. I never expected her to say the Feminist Movement. 1940 – 2008 has had some amazingly powerful political, social, and economic events – World War II, Viet Nam, the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK, the bombing of the World Trades Centers on 9/11, the Cold War, the end of the Cold War, to name only of few of those that come quickly to mind. Prior to now, I hadn’t considered the Women’s Movement a big deal. Candidly, I don’t think I’d even thought about how the Movement might have impacted my life.
My Mom did what was expected of a young woman in her senior year of college; she got married. A year later my sister was born and a year after that I was born. She built a wonderful home for us, took us to the zoo, did laundry, cooked, cleaned, ironed, sewed all our clothes. June Cleaver had nothing on my mom. Then she went back to work. It was the early 70’s and she began teaching at my high school. At that time, the news was filled with protests, marches, slogans and activists, while at Marion Center, women teachers had a separate faculty lounge from the men teachers, were expected to wear dresses each day and began maternity leave before they “showed”. It was in this conservative environment that my mom began her own rebellion. She wore pants most days and faced the stares of teachers and students alike. She began signing her name using the title “Ms.” rather than Mrs., only to be asked to rewrite and re-sign over and over again by her boss, our Principal. She marched in Washington and, against all odds, was photographed and placed on the cover of the Washington Post, banner in hand. Our local paper didn’t pick it up from the AP, needless to say this was not considered a “local teacher does well” article. Worst maybe of all, her daughter – me — was embarrassed by her. I couldn’t understand why she couldn’t just be like most of the other moms.
Things didn’t change immediately. It certainly wasn’t once and done for the feminists of the times. My first job after college, 1986, was with a Philadelphia-based commercial bank. I remember “dress-code day’ of the orientation program. We were coached on proper business attire ,with the women’s segment lasting 5 times longer than the men’s. Women were expected to wear business suits (skirts with jackets only), skirts below the knees, stockings (no colors) and medium-heeled, closed-toed shoes. Dresses were allowed, but only when accompanied by a jacket. Jewelry – minimal, no dangling earrings just posts, no bangle bracelets. This was the mid- 80’s, the time of Madonna, Cindy Lauper, and Flashdance. It was also the time of high-neck, ruffly blouses, collar pins, and bow-tied scarves. We were the running shoe generation. Dress shoes in a plastic bag, white Reeboks and ankle socks on the feet for the commute. Who we were trying to protect our femininity from or preserve our femininity for, I am still not sure.
Twenty years later, I can’t remember the last time I wore stockings and sandals with toe nails painted are the norm. Of my work wardrobe, skirt suits are virtually non-existent, replaced with pant suits, pants and sweaters etc. I doubt I have a post earring in my jewelry box and, if owning a blouse means ironing, I’ll stick with tees. I can’t imagine referring to a female client or prospective client as “Mrs.”. It seems too intrusive into her private life. I know that statistically I don’t make as much as my male peers, but when I walk into a meeting, I am not asked to get anyone a cup of coffee. Now that’s progress.
The beauty of being the “next generation” is that you don’t have to relive the challenges of prior generations. You don’t have to appreciate the sacrifices of your parents in order to enjoy the rewards. Obliviously, you get to move on, and complain about what remains to be done, what injustices continue. It’s as it should be. A gift well-given is a gift without strings attached, without the need or expectation of a thank you, maybe even without the recipient’s knowledge. I believe that I owe a debt of gratitude to my mother and other participants – men and women – in the Movement to bring equality and, therefore, choices to women in America. Where would I be without them?