My Mother Was a Feminist

Thursday nights, when my dad met his boys for tennis at the 59th Street courts, followed by burgers and drinks at PJ Clark’s, the ladies gathered in the living room to talk about the breakdown of communication in their marriages, the insidious and daily oppression they felt, the depression and malaise in the absence of career or workplace engagement.  They looked for meaning in their lonely if sometimes pampered lives, lives often lived for the purpose of serving their husbands and children.  

My mother’s “rap” group was a consciousness raising event, similar to the CR groups founded in kitchens and living rooms across the country. These groups had rules and themes derived from effective strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. Here are three of the popular guidelines:

  1. No men allowed at women’s CONSCIOUSNESS—RAISING SESSIONS this year; maybe next year. Separate male groups are probably possible if they are initiated by males.
  2. Neutral ground for a meeting place is preferable so that one woman does not have to play hostess…The group can chip in for whatever expenses are involved but the amount should be self—determined so that no woman is excluded for financial reasons. Remember, the wife of a wealthy man may feel financially strapped when she has not a resolved within herself whether the money is hers or his…
  3. Let any woman in. Do not be exclusive. We’ve been in purdah too long. Women have too long socialized in hierarchical, competitive, compartmentalized groupings… CONSCIOUSNESS—RAISING must never be a closed club…

The meetings lasted maybe two hours in our cozy living room, and alternated locations each week. There were a few regulars like Janet M., a Smith graduate and divorcee, who resembled Ali McGraw, and worked as a paralegal. She gave disheartening (what we’d now call “rapey”) reports from the frontlines of the 1970s dating scene. She hoped to become a real estate agent, but was trying to break from the ingrained doctrine that a husband would come along to rescue her. There was stylish Joyce F. who lived in an upper floor of our building with her husband and poodle. She complained that her bald, ruddy-faced husband, whom I knew from riding the man-operated elevator, never asked her about her domestic day, but demanded nightly sex as Walter Cronkite signed off on the CBS evening news.

Janelle, an actress who had appeared in Two Gentleman of Verona in Central Park, and had spent some weekends at our summer rental on Fire Island, may have been the only black woman in the group. My mother used to say that Janelle offered new perspectives on being a woman in America. She was quick-witted and matter-of-fact, as she described her painful put downs and assaults from white male directors, cab drivers who often meant their disrespect, well-meaning fellow actors, and the female salespeople at Bloomingdales, who seemed suspicious of her, or failed to recognize her as a regular shopper.  

From Bell Hooks’, Theory as Liberatory Practice:
Within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, we have already witnessed the commodification of feminist thinking (just as we experience the commodification of blackness), in ways that make it seem as though one can partake of the “good” that these movements produce without any commitment to transformative politics and practice. In this capitalist culture, feminism and feminist theory are fast becoming a commodity that only the privileged can afford. It is fast becoming a luxury item. This process of commodification is disrupted and subverted when feminist activists affirm our commitment to a politicized revolutionary feminist movement that has as its central agenda the transformation of society.

I am, I was, my mother’s only child. I was a tomboy, an afterschool center mini pool player and banana seat bike rider. I could only glean that men were treating women unfairly.

In sixth grade, I got chosen by Ms. Mosson—yes, she wore ties and used “Ms.”— to appear on “Not For Women Only,” a TV show hosted by Barbara Walters. The show covered mainstream topics of equality. I don’t think I opined about injustice as much as my teacher hoped I would, but I remember thinking this women’s lib thing must be a hot topic if they were devoting a whole show to it. When I thought about why she had picked me, I realized it might because I ran for class president on a feminist slogan: A Vote For D Sets You Free

Back at home, I eavesdropped on mother’s women’s group and was invited to leave my shag-carpeted bedroom to listen in a few times. I was glad to finally uncover the mystery of the muffled female voices, yet uncomfortable when adult women talked confidently about sex, or the lack thereof with their mates. I was there for open discussions about their private parts, or their encounters with chauvinist doctors, who said things like, “I’ll put you on the pill,” or “maybe that uterus needs to come out since you’re not using it anymore.”

While Dory Previn, Joan Baez, and Carole King played on the stereo, and the smell of pot sweetened the hallway, I heard the mysterious and weighted word “abortion” from women who found freedom in their graphic depictions. I pondered the phrase “hippie dyke” for the first time when it was claimed by Sandra, a not-yet-out lesbian. She wore black turtleneck sweaters and shared that she felt “hated for being who she was.” It seemed so hard to be a liberated woman, and a mother and a wife, nearly impossible to achieve. But I had no choice; my mother was a feminist who quoted from Ms. magazine while writing grocery lists on a refrigerator pad with a Supermom-Wonderwoman graphic— and that’s where I was headed.

My mother was a good listener, an empath, a non-judgmental person, someone whom younger people liked to confide in. She came from very humble roots and had little pretense despite her glamour. She knew how to turn off her actor’s persona when others needed help. In these CR groups, an early safe space, she shared about my father’s bullying, his ingrained belief that she came second.

“If I’m not getting jobs and making money as an actress, dinner better be on the table, and I better be ready to meet all his needs,” my mother said with her deep theatrical voice.

Heads nodded, and another reveal came from Janet, who had dated an overweight man who told her that her body “needed reconditioning” after the birth of her child. He suggested she take up jogging.

There seemed to be a consensus about the white male patriarchy and how it manifested at home and in the workplace. Listening to my parents fighting about the same things the women at the CR groups complained about, I developed the general theory that women weren’t considered as important as men in the overall picture. Money or paychecks seemed to have something to do with all the anger.

The consciousness-raising groups at home were only a part of my mother’s campaign for liberation. She often pointed out the crude ways men operated in society and was candid about the countless assaults she had endured. She talked about assertiveness and the idea that women had to speak up for themselves, push for their equal footing and “refuse to be a doormat.”

She reported that in her modeling days, men assaulted her in dressing rooms, pinched and licked her when she went up for “go-sees.” They whistled from the curbs and bus stops of Manhattan, and groped her in crowded subway cars. A good Catholic, she waited until she could marry a much-older producer from the “Hit Parade” show to leave her family home. Her first husband physically and emotionally abused her, and the marriage was annulled by the church when she was only 19.

Years later, Pat was told by casting directors to wear miniskirts, put “falsies” in her brassiere, and why not show more leg? She was hounded by my father’s friends and business associates who insisted she must be lonely when my father left for multi-city European business trips (some of which included yacht-hopping at the Cannes Film Festival). After the first sickening evening, when one of my dad’s Fire Island pals became angry and aggressive because she refused his drunken advances, Pat learned not to pick up the phone.

“That’s how they are—pigs,” my mother said about my father’s friend, an advertising man, whose wife had apparently given up on sex. I remember thinking how strangely adults behaved when my mother hosted this same friend and his wife, six months later, at our family Christmas party.

From the Redstocking Manifesto

…Male supremacy is the oldest, most basic form of domination.  All other forms of exploitation and oppression (racism, capitalism, imperialism, etc.) are extensions of male supremacy: men dominate women, a few men dominate the rest…Men have controlled all political, economic and cultural institutions and backed up this control with physical force… All men receive economic, sexual, and psychological benefits from male supremacy. All men have oppressed women. 

We were lucky. I was lucky. We had arguments, heated debates, and conversations. We had books and plays, and magazines, and playbills from Broadway shows lining two large built-in sets of shelves flanking the fireplace.  My mother read Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, Anais Nin, Kate Millet, Gloria Steinem, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and later, Bell Hooks, and Roxane Gay. She argued, lashed out, stood up for herself, and drank. She gained big respect from my father when, a year after returning from rehab, she decided to enroll at Fordham University, where she trained to become a substance abuse counselor.   

My father had always agreed that if she worked, he would acknowledge her as an equal partner, but there were too many years where the domestic work she did was dismissed and negated. This inequity was the basis of their numerous years in group counseling at an Upper West Side office, where they shared their troubles with other well-to-do couples.

Among them were a Time magazine editor Bob, and his wife, (who grappled with recognizing their son was gay). From what I overhead after family dinners, Bob didn’t want Lynda to work, while another couple, Burt and Harriet, had “problems in the sack.”

Each week, the morning after the couples-therapy sessions, my dad could be heard complaining bitterly that the “lady therapist” was a “ballbuster” who was stealing [his] money. I don’t know if their years in group therapy held their volatile marriage together. I want to believe it was love and a flickering passion that triumphed over half a century of upheaval and gender liberation.

When my father died in 2002, my mother started to unravel. Her sorrow was deep and justified. Though she had wanted independence and a kind of respect she may not have fully achieved in the marriage, she was lost without his love, companionship, and paternal devotion.

In the early 2000s, when my husband soothed my daughter with a milky bottle, or on occasion, picked her up when she cried, my mother would practically stand up to applaud him. If I questioned why she was so impressed with what seemed like a loving gesture, she explained that she was confounded by the new normal.

“Are you kidding?” she’d say. “Your father never changed a diaper or put you to bed. Men just didn’t do that in our generation.”

“What did they do?” I asked, though I thought I knew the answer.

My mother grinned and exhaled the drag of her Winston. “What did they do? They did whatever the hell they wanted.”

This entry has taken on new urgency, or perhaps a new layer  this week, as the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Texas propose and attempt to pass the cruelest and most aggressive anti-abortion laws in the 21st Century. I refuse to leave my son and daughter a nightmarish world in which women’s bodies are controlled by male legislators, and Atwood’s, prescient novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, becomes as real as Orwell’s predictions about surveillance. Perhaps our collective agency is in telling our mother’s stories and our father’s too.  It seems we must raise consciousness, recognize where we’ve been, in order to see where we’re going.

[1]In 1969 a group of female resisters founded a group to represent two traditions: the "bluestocking" moniker implying that early feminists were merely unhappy wives and the "red" for revolution.

Published by deirdremendoza

Deirdre is the author of the story collection, Real Lives of Married People, and the creator of DOGGED, a series about memorable canines and their human friends. Her writing has been published in Ms., The L.A. Times, Variety, WWD, and many other publications. She teaches creative writing at colleges and universities in Southern California. Coming in 2021 WG workshops!

3 thoughts on “My Mother Was a Feminist

  1. Incredible

    On Wed, May 15, 2019 at 6:33 PM Miss Playa de Nueva York wrote:

    > deirdremendoza posted: ” Thursday nights, when my dad met his boys for > tennis at the 59th Street courts, followed by burgers and drinks at PJ > Clark’s, the ladies gathered in the living room to talk about the breakdown > of communication in their marriages, the insidious and da” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Soooo late on this one, but sooo enjoyed and timely! It reminds me of some of my own growing up in the 70’s experiences; Mom was always at “group” Monday night, sharing with the other divorcées/trailblazers, the Planned Parenthood meetings that took place in our living room— I took everyone’s coat, and and the MS. magazine piles around the house…lucky us! xx

    Liked by 1 person

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