When everything changed: My mom the reluctant feminist

When Everything ChangedThis Christmas I gave my mom the best re-gift ever. A couple of years ago, Smarty Pants had bought me When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins.

The book details the struggle for women’s rights and how courageously individual women fought against laws they knew were wrong. It’s incredibly inspiring, especially for someone of my generation (I was born in 1979) because the changes my mother’s and grandmothers’ generations carved out meant that I could take so many freedoms and aspirations for granted.

I gave the book to my mom because she’d seen Smarty Pants give it to me and she’d briefly stolen it from me to read the first chapter. I stole it back and said she could have it when I was done.

Barbara Billingsley
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Mom was born in 1954. She grew up on I Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver. June Cleaver was her childhood heroine, and Mom dreamed of a future wearing beautiful clothes and putting on her pearls to vacuum the house while her husband and two children were at school.

She got the two children. And some of the vacuuming (though Dad does at least half of the housework himself, something that must’ve seemed bizarre to Mom when they first got married).

Mom once told me her parents didn’t encourage her to think about having a career. My grandmother believed (and still believes) wholeheartedly in thick foundation and heavy skin creams. When I was a teenager, Nonny admonished me: “Honey, you have to wear eye makeup. Boys won’t like you if you don’t wear eye makeup. And quit wearing those boy-cut jeans. They make you look like you have a ding-dong.”

I gave Mom the book this Christmas, and she started reading. I remember one of the early chapters talks about a woman who was thrown out of a courtroom by the judge because she was wearing trousers. That was the decade Mom was born into. It’s so foreign to me that it might as well have happened in Saudi Arabia.

After a few hours of reading, Mom shook her head and gave me an ironic smile. “I’ve reached the bad part.”

Remembering quite a few horrifying passages, I asked, “Which bad part?”

“The 60s. When everything changed.”

I rolled my eyes. “I can’t believe you’re reading this book as a tragedy, Mom.”

She just smirked and went back to reading, probably already dreading having to go back to work in a few days’ time and wishing she could stay at home instead, twirling a vacuum over a perfectly clean carpet while toying with her pearls.

So Mom wasn’t one of those women who marched for greater rights and freedoms. The barriers she broke down, she did out of financial necessity, not ideology.

She may cringe a little when I tell her she’s a feminist, but that doesn’t mean that she isn’t a consistently remarkable example of how strong women can be. Unlike her parents, she not only encouraged me to dream big but she worked her hind end off (or, as she would say, “I worked my balls off”) to make sure nothing stood in my way.

I can’t truly imagine her being happy living the June Cleaver lifestyle. I doubt she can really imagine it either. (For one thing, June would never say “balls”.)

And I know for a fact that she would hate for me to have no other option but that one.

What did you dream of being when you grew up? Were you able to achieve that dream? What women in your life have been an example of strength?


  1. Brilliant post.

    I was raised by a feminist and told I could be anything I wanted to be. When I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut. Then I got my paws on my mom’s day planner and became a writer instead.

    Someone asked me the other day what other time period I would choose to live in if I had the option. I didn’t have to think about it — I would stay right here. I wouldn’t choose to go back in time. I like being able to vote, to wear trousers, to have a modicum of control over my body (though that has been threatened in recent years). I like to be able to choose if and when I have children. I love my husband and that I was able to choose to marry at all — and to choose him instead of someone else. And that he’s only one year older than me and not thirty years older. I like that I can earn more than he does and that he isn’t threatened by that. I like that I can own property and start a business and travel alone and drive.

    Many women have inspired me — my mother, her partner, Libby Roderick, Maya Angelou, Madeline L’Engle, L.J. Smith, and so many others.

    1. I love this, Emmie! So beautifully sums up how I feel, too. All those little decisions we get to make ourselves without even considering whether someone else should make them for us…priceless.

  2. My mother was born in 1944. I don’t know what she dreamed of as a kid, but she got a bachelor’s in biochemistry at MIT, a PhD at Cornell and an MBA too… and she never talked about feminism as such. Neither of my parents did. But you can believe I was the only kid on the block in the 70s and 80s whose mom worked and dad stayed home with the kids.

    They didn’t talk about it, they just did it. We’re all oddballs, in my family…

    1. What an absolutely AWESOME mom.

      And like you, I had a dad who stayed home while my mom worked in the early 80s. It wasn’t what either of them wanted, but they made the most of it, and I’ll never forget my days at home with “Mr Mom” (yeah, how patronizing is that??)

      Thanks so much for sharing about your mom. She sounds amazing.

  3. I adore this post, and I adore your mom, balls and all. I’m of her generation when women automatically stood in the shadow of the men in their lives because, well, we were only women. So I understand her ironic smile.

    At 22 and unmarried, I had to get permission from my mother before my doctor would prescribe “the pill”. As a 20-something bride, I was turned down for a promotion because I was “in my child-bearing years” and therefore might not be around for the long run. We all have stories like that. So, yeah, we have come a long way.

    But it wasn’t always easy on men back then, either–being the sole breadwinner in a lot of families, and having to put work above family just to meet those demands. Big changes for everybody. So I applaud my feminist sisters who did march, because now my daughter has real, legitimate, worthwhile options. And that’s always a great thing.

    But having babies isn’t all that bad, either.

    1. You sound so much like my mom, Kaki. (It was the baby comment that did it.) If the two of you ever meet, I have to be there. (With my notepad.)

      The stories you talk about are almost unthinkable to me, even though I know they still happen – just usually in a more underhanded, quiet way. Mom worked for a big corporation in the early 80s and remembers two candidates going for an internal promotion, a man and a woman. After the interviews, one of the big wigs came out into the general office area, and someone asked him if the woman would get the job. He snorted. “Of course not! Her butt’s too big.”

      The really horrifying part is that Mom told me it seemed logical at the time.

  4. I remember reading books in the 70’s and 80’s about the radical womens movement and the burning of bra’s, not that I enjoy wearing one, but in my years I have come to rely *heavily* on them for support.

    I was raised (born 1967) to believe I could do anything I wanted to do, but I wanted to be a housewife, like your mom I would have liked to be June Cleaver with the pearls, dinner on the table, etc.

    But due to the womens movement and life with its ironic sense of humor, I have usually worked, and I have enjoyed most the places that I worked, I didnt do many of the traditional womens jobs, I have enjoyed not fitting into the mold, of being the tomboy of the group most the time.

    1. Ha! to the bra comment.

      And good for you, enjoying the quirks life sent you! Even though economics has meant that women’s choices are still limited (I mean, that many women can’t choose to stay home because their families can’t afford it), it sounds like you’ve had lots of interesting experiences and your attitude led you to embrace them instead of being regretful for what you couldn’t have. That’s awesome. 🙂

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  6. I dreamed of being a singer, a writer, AND an actress, now I’m happy teaching English and Writing. I’d still happily be a singer, but only if you could guarantee me a steady job in some little jazz bar rather than world wide fame, I don’t have the chops to deal with my life under the paparrazi lens.

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