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Family, feminism; a rambling discourse

August 29, 2009

Wednesday evening found me at my Mother’s house out in rural Illinois. The television was full of coverage of the death of Senator Edward Kennedy and I came across – accidentally – a documentary on the local PBS channel about the Kennedy family; namely father Joe, Senior, Joe, Junior, John, Robert and Edward/Teddy. There was occasional mention of the women in the family but the focus was on the men. It turned out to be a fascinating program. I learned a lot about that period of American history, as well as some of the less known, less savory aspects of the famous family. Mom joined me a few minutes into the program and got interested as well.

It was interesting watching the show with her; she lived through much of it. She and Dad were married in 1958, moving immediately to Europe for Dad’s job with Chrysler and the Defense Department. They were in Italy when the American radio station announced John F. Kennedy’s election – which Dad apparently thought was a terrible thing, “He’s too damn young!” Dad was in his early 20’s then, working at the U.S. missile bases in Italy, then Turkey. Fortunately, they were back in the States by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Mom pointed out that when Kennedy made the deal with Khrushchev to shut down the missile bases in Europe in exchange for closing the bases in Cuba, the U.S. was already prepared to move the missile defense system to subs and that the European bases were merely a stopgap until the boats were ready. I had no idea.

Watching the documentary brought back memories for Mom. She remembered the amazing impact of Jackie Kennedy, after years of less glamorous First Ladies. Like everyone else of her generation, she recalled vividly the deaths of JFK and his brother, Bobby.

Since moving back to the St. Louis region (Mom’s country location is about 45 minutes across the Mississippi River) I’ve spent a considerable amount of time around my Mother and, before her death two years ago, my Grandmother. I’ve had a remarkable opportunity to hear stories of their lives and times.

An episode of MadMen and several movies on TCM had me wondering about women wearing dresses, hats and gloves everywhere they go. Grandma confirmed it for me. When she was a young woman in her 20’s, she would have never considered leaving the house in a pair of pants. It would be absurd. And she would no more go to the store without a hat and gloves than stand on her head. Decades later her wardrobe was considerably freer, but at the time, a woman dressed like a lady, no matter her economic status.

You watch the TV shows, the movies and documentaries and begin to notice the pattern. Perhaps we see it so much we don’t think of it. Women were fragile things to be protected by big strong men. They were there to serve tea, pour drinks, have dinner on the table. Sometimes they actually had jobs, but it was just until they settled down and got married. In MadMen they are routinely treated like servants or large children.

There is a point to all this (I’m reminded of Ellen Degeneris’ book, “My Point, And I Do Have One.”). I was reading the latest entries on Dangerous Intersections (apparently produced mostly in St. Louis) and saw a post about young women who are proud to say they aren’t feminists.

I’ve heard the claim before. And read articles worrying about young women who live modern lives made possible by the efforts of a whole lotta people who worked hard to make it happen, yet they consider the description unsavory or tawdry.

My family includes my brother and his four kids. Two boys, two girls. They are all four remarkable and unique – of course I may be somewhat biased. My two nieces are accomplished young women. The eldest just graduated SIU-Edwardsville and begins teaching grade school this fall. The second eldest is attending McKendry College while simultaneously working her way through school with a variety of jobs. I can’t help but look at their lives and compare it to their grandmother’s and great grandmother’s.

Their great-grandmother, my Grandma, grew up in the Great Depression. She remembered living in a rental house – her family couldn’t afford to buy a home – when her father moved the family from Tennessee to Illinois in search of work. Various relatives would show up while traveling cross country in a search for employment and move in with her family. Back then there were no motels on the highways. There were no highways. Besides, nobody could afford a hotel or motel. They often had men staying with them – some relatives, some friends of relatives – while they passed through town looking for jobs of any kind. This was before the great government safety nets. Before unemployment insurance, welfare, food stamps, etc. Back then people starved to death if they didn’t have family or neighbors to look after them.

Her mother died when she was young and she was expected to raise her two younger sisters. When she was 16 she got married. Mom said it was mainly to get out of her dad’s house and away from that life. Grandma never had the chance to attend college. I don’t know if she ever was able to finish high school. But she was one of the smartest businesspeople I ever met.

She worked as a cashier, waited tables, and raised kids. Eventually she divorced my grandfather – pretty amazing consider it was the 1940’s and a woman’s identity was always linked to either her parents or her husband – and moved south to join her sisters and father now living in Texas. There she got a job in a factory and at one time was working at a munitions plant during the war

When she remarried, she had another child. She got a job delivering newspapers in what was then a rural part of Texas while holding down other part time jobs and raising her kids. While grandpa worked in Houston, she took care of things in Jasper; including packing up their home by herself into a VW bug when a huge hurricane blew in from the Gulf.

She and her new husband would visit the pier at Freeport, Texas, where grandpa would spend hours fishing. She always packed thermoses of coffee and sandwiches since back then, the shoreline was not lined with stores, cafes or restaurants. One day some fishermen asked where she got the coffee one day and she told them, in her no-nonsense Tennessee way, “I made it at home and brought it, but I suppose we’ve got enough to share if you’re wanting some.”‘

This encounter inspired her to save up her money, find a bank willing to make a loan – probably to her husband, with her name included – and find a location on the beach where she could open a sandwich and coffee stand. She found a plot several sandy blocks from the edge of the ocean (the eroding shoreline would eventually bring the ocean up until the plot became, today, completely underwater) owned by “a widow woman” who gave her a 99 year lease.

That sandwich and coffee stand eventually grew over the years. By the time I and my brother and sister came along, Grandma had closed the cafe and was running a very successful souvenir shop (the Shell Shop) and inner tube, belly board and surfboard rental business. I used to joke that my little old grandmother was the surfboard queen of Freeport, Texas.

She was a very good business operator. She hired local high school kids each summer, lived on the beach first in trailers, then built a no-frills beach house, kept track of taxes and profits and dealt with numerous hurricanes. Unfortunately her husband’s hospitalization with Alzheimer’s at the end of his life ran through their life savings quickly.

Over the course of decades when women were expected to either stay home and take care of the family, or work quietly as a secretary or on an assembly line, she was out charting her own course. She herself came from what might be called hardy stock. Her own grandmother had lived alone in a Tennessee cabin where water came from the stream out front, heat from the stove fed by the wood pile out back.

My Grandma would probably never consider herself a feminist either. Grandma was actually a very conservative person politically (we all learned not to talk about the Bushes around her) though anyone telling her she should stay in the kitchen and let men run the world was asking for a whole heap of trouble.

When I think of what she’s done in her life, what her daughter – my Mom – has accomplished, then I begin to see where my nieces and my hard working sister get it. I’ll have to ask if any of them consider themselves feminists. I know my brother – father to two very strong willed daughters – and I are.

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