I AM WOMAN, HEAR ME WHINE
Me with the man who made me as liberated as I wanted to be.
My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.
Maybe I was a before-my-time feminist because I saw all the disadvantages of being female way before Gloria Steinem discovered women needed liberation. It started with household chores—my parents gave out work assignments based on gender. Cooking, cleaning up after meals, housekeeping, and baby-tending were all girls’ jobs. So were washing and ironing, and that was back when laundry was done in a wash tub and scrub-board and ironing was done with cast iron “sad irons” heated on a stovetop. In farm families, this probably worked a little more equitably with men being assigned plowing, land clearing, and wood cutting. Town dwellers on the other hand had few jobs in the boy category. We never had more than a small garden and we burned coal for fuel. We didn’t have a house with a lawn until I was nearly old enough to leave for college, so no mowing. Mama wasn’t going to allow my three brothers to be made into sissies by doing women’s jobs.
Of course, jobs were only the beginning. It was also a girl’s obligation to behave so morally that no one could ever besmirch her reputation or that of her family. Mama made sure my sister and I were very clear on that. “A boy can do about any sorry thing and, if he straightens out, everybody forgets it,” she told us over and over. “But if a girl does one thing that gets her talked about, she can’t rise above it no matter how long she lives.” And, of course, I saw examples of this all around. I remember tenth grade when a high school drop-out would cruise onto school property several afternoons a week and chat with an eleventh grade girl who was waiting for the same school bus I rode. Eventually, the boy began giving her a lift home. Then he stopped coming by the school, and as we waited for the bus week after week I watched her become quieter and quieter. Then I noticed that she was gaining bulk around the middle, and hugging her books closer to hide it. I felt sorry for her, but dared not associate with her. She toughed out that school year, but after that I never saw her again.
My goal by this time was to get a good job, move away from home, and to live an independent single life. I looked at all the marriages I knew and decided none of them would make me happy. I wasn’t going to do “woman’s work” for a whole family. I wasn’t going to take orders from any man either. At that point, I had not seen a marriage where the woman had any say, except for two in which the poor man was totally hen-pecked. I sure didn’t want to order any spineless man around. Yessir, the single life was the life for me.
There were two women in the family who gave me a glimpse of hope. One of my mother’s sisters, “Marie,” was married to an alcoholic who didn’t provide for his family. She decided early on that she would take some control of her own future. Leaving her children in the care of relatives, she went to work at a mill. She saved and eventually bought a house in her own name. Then she began accumulating land and started raising chickens with the help of her children. Eventually, she kicked her husband out of the house and got a divorce. It was a revelation to me that a woman could declare her independence and live her own life if her husband mistreated her.
My Aunt Hilde was another inspiration. She came from Germany as a war bride after World War II. Her husband, My Uncle William, was one of the sweetest men I have ever known, but he was an alcoholic and he wasn’t especially ambitious. Hilde decided if she was ever going to have the life she wanted, she was going to have to have a career. In Dalton, Georgia, and later in Atlanta, that is what she did. She rose to being a vice president of a large company in Atlanta. She had contempt for many of the women libbers of the seventies and eighties. “Work like a man, demand to be paid like a man, and you’ll get it.” She worked late many, many days while her child waited with babysitters for her to get home and cook supper. She worked on weekends if the company needed her. The job was her first priority.
She admitted in the last years of her life that this was not good for her only son, who got little attention from either parent. “My son paid for my big career,” she said after he was killed in Viet Nam. “A woman who wants the big career shouldn’t have children.” I couldn’t see neither of her options as being totally satisfactory and I wasn’t sure just any woman would get paid like a man if she worked like a man, but I did see that it was possible for a woman to be self- supporting and independent.
I had that life for several years (barely supporting myself on a teacher’s pay), but then I had the good fortune to meet a man who was raised in a family where jobs were’t divided by gender. Benjamin knew how to cook, thanks to his mother, and he wasn’t above vacuuming and mopping. So after all that preparation for an independent life, I found out with the right partner in life, it didn’t have to be my way or the highway.
So it came down to this, Gloria: I’m as liberated as I want to be. And a woman who wears a 36D can’t afford to burn any bras!
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