I am a baby boomer, a child of the 1960s, the Civil Rights era, and the era of the ERA. As a child, I went to protests for migrant farm workers’ rights, and as a teen I marched in the streets to ratify the ERA. All this might be enough to make a person into a feminist. While that might be part of the reason I am the way I am, it’s actually my mother’s fault.
She grew up poor, but was raised by parents who’d known some privilege. A lot of small-town or rural Midwestern Depression-era children were in the same sort of family. Her mother, a Breese (don’t ask!), taught her daughters what she termed manners and breeding, as well as the “wifely arts” of sewing, cooking, housekeeping, budgeting etc. Luckily, her father believed in education for all the children.
My mother even went to business school after high school, as a scholarship student. As with most young women of the 1940s, when she married, she stopped working for a paycheck.
Three children followed within three years. Unfortunately, her husband became extremely ill, they lost their house, and she was forced not only to institutionalize him, but to divorce him so that the state would pay the continuing medical bills.
So she did what women have always done, she did it by herself. She worked days in a shoe factory or picking fruit and took night classes to finish her “secretarial certification.” She put in a garden and fed her children. And, she didn’t take “no” for an answer when it came to applying for unusual jobs. In 1957, she landed a job at an Air Force base and, eventually, met and married my father.
She didn’t know it then, but she’d just made a decision that was most to influence her life and the lives of her soon to be four daughters. My father had views too. Probably the most important one was that women shouldn’t work outside the home. Because military paychecks were scant in that era, this meant he condemned his entire family to living in poverty, and my mother was forced to continue to “make do, make it yourself, or do without.”
She went hungry, though we fell for the “I filled up on tasting while I was cooking, you go ahead” excuse. We always had a garden, because it was necessary, in order for my mother to feed us. Later, this experience compelled her, along with a few other women of the barrio, to start gleaning fields and setting up the first food bank in Arizona.
She sewed all our clothing, out of fabric bought by the pound, until my younger sister hit high school and my older siblings were out of the house. She also sewed doll clothes for the Christmas boxes that went to those less fortunate than we were and gowns for local girls’ Quinceañeras.
She taught us to read and write prior to first grade because there was no kindergarten. She also got us library cards and took us to the public library every week. Later on she’d use those same skills to teach English as a second language to Hispanic migrant workers, their children, and asylum seekers of the 1970s.
She was abused, as were we, by my father. Like most women of that era, she stayed. It was probably because there was nowhere for her to go with children in tow. Strangely enough though, she also helped other women leave toxic marriages with the help of the “underground women’s shelters” i.e., other people’s houses that her church group established.
I graduated high school more than ready to go to college, and my mother wanted to go to the local community college. And right about then is when she and I found out about one of my father’s other views. He didn’t believe in higher education for women.
I had scholarships, but still needed grant money. The law required him to sign off on the paperwork. He refused. I got the grant, but I won’t tell you who signed it. My mother also got her college degree, at 50+ years of age and after nine and a half years of part time schooling. By this time, my father had died, so she was finally free. She then became the district superintendant of Head Start and Migrant Education for the area.
She was forcibly retired at the age of 65 and promptly went out and found a position as an executive assistant. She “quit” (her word) due to failing health at age 84. Don’t worry; she’s fine, though she complains she can only walk a half mile after she does her Tai Chi. She just turned 87, she still lives in the house I grew up in, and is still the Abuelita to the entire block. And make no mistake, she’s hard at work giving a “woman’s education” to the great granddaughter who is “helping grandma help the homeless.”