Feminism, Past and Present: an Interview With My Mom

By Cat Stewart
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A few months ago at a restaurant in downtown Indianapolis, my family got together for dinner with some friends from out of town who had come for a yoga retreat. Between discussing gong meditation and diving into our burgers, I brought up the fact that I was excited for the upcoming Ruth Bader Ginsburg special. My mom looked at my sister and I and chuckled, “Oh, you girls don’t even know what it was like.” I was taken aback: I considered myself a feminist engaged in the community and went out of my way to take classes and learn about feminist history. With all of the conversations we had over coffee or in the car about what was going on in the news, didn’t my mom know that? I was intrigued by not only my mom’s view of feminism, but also what she thought of my perspective, coming from a different generation and upbringing. So I decided to interview her to get some answers.

First I was interested in how she thought about feminism; having lived through the second wave in the 70’s, did that influence how she saw the current feminist movement?

I was born in 1962 … I remember seeing on the news and hearing… my mother and grandmother talk a bit about feminism and mainly it was focused on things like the National Organization of Women being founded and the equal pay movement of that time and the move for women to join the workforce and have equal opportunities.”

My first instinct was to be amazed: I couldn’t imagine witnessing such historic moments for feminism in person or seeing it on television while it was happening. But then I thought about all of the things that are currently going on and quickly realized that I am not removed from historic moments. In the past few years, we’ve seen the passage of the Marriage Equality Act, the Women’s March, and the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, all of which will grace the pages of history books to come. I knew that my mom had raised my sister and I to be independent and ensured that we had more than enough role models around us to reinforce that message. I realized, however, that I didn’t know much about my own family’s history and the women who influenced my feminism through their life experiences and legacies.

In my family, women always had a strong role. So for instance, my grandmother was a social worker and after she retired, along with her last husband she had about 30 rental houses that she ran – so even after she retired she had a thriving business. She was a go-getter and she was well respected in the community. People came to her, men and women, to seek her advice, and politically she was very influential … And so I grew up in a world where women were strong and they had a strong voice and they ran businesses.”

This was encouraging to hear, especially knowing the hardships that women endured for basic respect and rights to live as independent people, thinkers, consumers, and employees. There had to be more to the story though, because I knew that my mom had not just breezed through life as a working mother.

It was always taken for granted that I would go to college and that if I wanted to have a career I would have one. My mother worked because she needed to work… (and) when I had children and we were comfortable… she just assumed that I would quit working because I could, and she didn’t have that choice. But I actually accepted a job offer on your due date.”

A photo of the author, her mother, and sister.

So while the women in my family, particularly my grandmother and great-grandmother, had their own careers and provided for their families in ways that were not seen as the norm at that time, it had been out of necessity and not choice. Due to economic circumstances, the women who preceded me still weren’t able to make their own choices about what they most wanted to pursue or accomplish. That made me wonder whether they would have considered themselves feminists at all? Or if my ancestors had been forced to make life decisions that didn’t necessarily align with their beliefs about gender equality. As a deeply-rooted feminist this was a daunting thought.

They would have said that they’re for women’s rights; I don’t think they would have labeled and used the term ‘feminist’ because to them it also encompassed the more rancorous and the part to them that felt combative.”

Combative, aggressive, rancorous: these are terms that have been weaponized against feminists for decades. While I would never use them to describe feminism, I also take pride in my passion for women’s equality and in a certain way see these words as compliments: the message is being received and the depth of women’s conviction in this movement is being recognized. Rage is something I have been contemplating a lot lately, particularly women’s rage and rage channeled towards injustice. Productive rage is justified in movements that encompass such personal experiences for millions of people who have faced injustice and the generations that came before them. And what did my mom think about all of this? I felt like I had been raised to be a feminist, but now I wasn’t quite sure if that had been her intention all along or merely a byproduct of being surrounded by independent women all my life.

I asked my mom when she first considered herself a feminist, and was taken aback by her response:

You know, I’ve never used that term explicitly to describe myself … do I consider myself a feminist? I absolutely believe in that principle, and being a feminist to me also means that you are vocal in boosting chances for women, where you see that things are not equal, to try and change that. So … it’s as much an action as a view of yourself. So I would say, yes, I am a feminist.

I hadn’t even thought that she might not call herself a feminist. However, I was happy that she did, because I certainly do, and I hoped she would feel empowered to be a part of a movement rather than just one woman doing her best to raise her daughters with minds, hearts, and bodies of their own.

I now knew that we were mostly on the same page, but the comment she made over dinner still stuck with me: there was a divide somewhere in the way that she perceived my experience with feminism and my conviction in a cause that perhaps she thought I wasn’t educated enough about. I asked her, what do you think of my viewpoint of feminism and do you think we’ve diverged in how we view women’s rights?

You are more involved with [feminism] – the history of it, the women associated with it, the authors who were writing about it – than I have ever been, and so you have actually much more knowledge than I do, and I applaud that and respect it. It just seems like maybe there is some disconnect with, not what was achieved, but what it was like to live and to survive and know what those roles felt like from the earlier generations, and what they had to put up with and the overt sexism that they had to deal with.”

I had to admit: knowing something on paper is much different than experiencing it yourself or connecting to it on a deeper personal level. I have encountered this when I’ve tried to discuss feminism with men and came back exasperated that they couldn’t understand my perspective because they had never lived it themselves.

So it does color … how appreciative we are of having made the strides we made, whereas it’s not a [full] victory yet, and yet you feel like you’ve gained ground and you feel optimistic and positive and proud of having gained ground. And it feels sometimes as though you and your peers think that … we are willing to concede before we have a victory, that we’re not demanding enough and you may be right.”

I have kept my eyes on the future so much that thinking about the past has often only fed my conviction that we haven’t made enough progress yet. To be able to justify all of the hardships that women have endured, I felt like we needed to have achieved everything – and only then would it make it all worth it. But there is something important about reflecting on all that feminism has accomplished. I can’t expect the feminist movement to have clear-cut chapters with a beginning, middle, and end, separate other movements and removed from historical context.

Feminism is an ongoing and interconnected movement and we must continue the work of leaders that have come before us to make steady progress for feminist causes. My mom was very gracious in her remarks about the current face of activism and the hope that it brings her to see young people engaged and fighting:

I think … the women of your generation, it just seems like you are doing so much and you are so active. I have so much profound respect for you and just am amazed at what you are already accomplishing, much less what you can accomplish in the future.”

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