The Feminist’s Daughter

by Anna Breslin

Before they came along, my mother was home with me. We played and had a grand time making sauce from the little crabapples we collected off the tree outside our kitchen window. My mother’s attention always made me joyful. I was five, and I felt like she and I owned the world. That was when she was all mine.

Those NOW women changed her. They changed everything. First, they made her make me share my Easy Bake Oven with my brother. I wasn’t a fan of the concept of boys cooking when it meant I had to share my shiny new things. I played with his cars because I knew it would make my mother happy, but I thought they were boring and I didn’t like playing with my brother. But I would have done anything to make my mother happy.

When I started kindergarten, she wanted me to wear pants. That was another one of those NOW things. I was suspicious of pants. For years, my mother had sewn me dresses from the same pattern. All the dresses had tulips on them, and she made them in every color. They were all I wanted to wear. But when she stitched up a floral pantsuit, I agreed to give pants a try. I lived to regret that choice. After that, she got a part-time job and began buying me clothes from the store. NOW made her do that, too.

Of course, there was so much I didn’t understand. I didn’t know she had to lie to my father about attending those NOW meetings. She didn’t tell me until years later that he grew suspicious and followed her to a meeting. When he saw where her car was parked, he pulled a hose out of the vehicle to make it inoperable, so she’d have to call him for help. I didn’t understand that NOW gave her the strength to stand up to his bullying and his beatings and call the police on him. Her friends in NOW made her understand she didn’t have to stay with a drunk who beat her. She didn’t have to stay married for the sake of her kids.

After my father left—without saying goodbye, because that’s how drunks leave—there was no word from him for two years. There wasn’t a dollar from him, either; he paid no child support. That was when my mother gathered the strength to ask for a job in sales at the radio station where she worked as a secretary. People in sales made more money, and she was hungry—literally. After she finished feeding her kids, there wasn’t always enough left for her.

Her boss was freaked out about the idea of a lady salesman. He wasn’t even sure what to call her—because, of course, he caved and gave my mother the position. My mother learned from NOW that she could do anything a man could. So she told him he could call her a salesperson and went on to be the most successful one in the department.

NOW was the center of our lives. My mother and her NOW buddies formed a group to combat sexism in children’s readers. They wrote two long pamphlets. They put together slideshows and gave presentations on how the books showed what boys could do and what girls could do and how they were never the same. In the targeted books, girls mainly watched boys do things. Sexism was victimizing both boys and girls, they said. At the time, I didn’t understand how boys were victimized. As far as I knew, my brother did anything he wanted.

I only knew I was a victim of NOW. They took my mother, and they put me—and every other child in the group—to work. We did whatever matched our abilities. We stuffed envelopes. We licked stamps. We looked at numbers on the slides in the boxes and loaded the slide carousels. It seemed like every week we were at another woman’s house, and I was stuffing envelopes or playing with another group of kids instead of playing with my mom.

I went along with it. What else could I do? I was the tagalong daughter of a feminist. It was the times. It was an important fight. My mother read big books she didn’t share with me. She’d read Ms. magazine. There were pictures of Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bella Abzug all over her bulletin board. She left me with my brother and a babysitter so she could hear them speak, so I hated those women too. I hated Bella’s big hats, and I hated Steinem because I thought she invented the title “Ms” and it was annoying everyone.

When I rolled my eyes every time we had to go to another NOW thing, my mother smiled. She knew. NOW mothers were like that.
My mother was a second-wave suburban feminist. Mothers and children worked in kitchens and living rooms across the country on a host of issues in the ’70s, and they got the job done. Everyone had their issue and did what they could.

Today it’s easy to look back and say, But they should have. . . . And it’s true. Does it diminish what they did or deny their courage? I hope not. It would have been beautiful if women of all shades and colors had come together to end sexism and racism at the same time. They didn’t need to be separate causes. They don’t need to be separate now. We can only acknowledge the past and move forward.

My mother’s group got their message to schoolbook publishers, and they began making changes in response. I was dragged to a publisher’s office, where the women were invited to review and remove all the books they considered sexist from the publisher’s shelves and catalogs. The publisher stopped offering those books and published new ones in which girls did things and boys watched. Well, no, that’s not true. Girls were, however, allowed to want to be doctors instead of nurses. They couldn’t yet aspire to be firefighters or generals—that took more time—but it was a start.

When my mother became the first lady salesman, want ads were listed in the local paper by gender. By the time she became head of the sales department, she was able to buy a house on her own. When she became sales director at a magazine, she also had the money to send me to college.

NOW changed my life, and they didn’t even care that I hated them. When I rolled my eyes every time we had to go to another NOW thing, my mother smiled. She knew. NOW mothers were like that.

Once she won one battle, she took up the next one and has never stopped fighting the good fight and making the world and my life better.
Those feminists. The suburban ones. The city ones. They moved the world so far toward equality that young women today don’t realize the shoulders they’re standing on. Women have made amazing progress in this country. Whenever we get discouraged, we need to remember that we actually have come a long way, baby.

Sometimes I think men have benefited most from feminism. It used to be that men didn’t parent. They stayed in the background. They didn’t really participate in their children’s lives. If they divorced, they didn’t get custody of their children. They didn’t get to be stay-at-home fathers. They didn’t coach their daughters in sports. Today it seems perfectly natural that they get to do all these things. It is. And tens of thousands of feminists—one of whom was my mom—made it possible.

Image Credit: National Archives

Originally published at Gen Magazine, a publication as How I Lost My Mother to Second-Wave Feminism

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