A better life than hers
Every generation of women aspires to what mom didn't have. Now it's baby boomers' turn to be told that our frantic lives didn't cut it.
Kerry Clare is 28, with domestic gifts that have always escaped me. She bakes a mean strawberry pie, grows gorgeous vegetables and knits her own socks in eye-popping stripes. She also writes and blogs about books, which is how I discovered her.
Kerry has just read My Mother's Daughter. She enjoyed it—somewhat to her surprise, it seems. She didn't identify at all with my story of the conflict between me, a have-it-all baby boomer, and my mother, who lost her academic career for daring to get pregnant in the heyday of Tupperware parties. "That lack of identification is the very point," she says in her blog. "It's important that women my age know what not to take for granted."
I didn't set out to write a book about why feminism matters. I just wanted to capture the passion and pain that bound three generations of strong, ambitious women determined to excel. In fact, the clashes that drive my tale have as much to do with culture as with character. All three of us wanted extraordinary lives. All three of us hoped to fly higher than our mothers could do. All three of us collided with the shocking reality of barriers based on our gender. So there you have it: a feminist book.
My mother raised me on hard-luck stories in which she and my grandmother, a Jewish immigrant, played starring roles. Long before the old boys' club took her teaching job away, there was Grandma's even crueler fate in the Russian shtetl where she was raped by a Cossack at age nine—and then beaten by her mother (Damaged goods! Who would want her?).
I felt sorry for Grandma, but surely her life had nothing to do with mine. We had a faded old photo from Grandma's childhood, in which her peasant boots and embroidered blouse suggest an old folk tale handed down from mother to daughter. She looks positively quaint, except for the fear in her eyes.
My My mother's own childhood on the Canadian prairies seemed only slightly less remote than Grandma's. After all, Mother had lived in a house with dirt floors; she remembered when the King of England gave up his throne for love. Her family had no indoor toilet, let alone a TV. She'd had it tough all her life. As I saw it, her travails in the workplace were the sad but unsurprising result of being born in the silent-movie era.
I was a modern girl. The world was waiting for me and my whole post-war generation; I'd read this over and over in Life magazine. Grownups couldn't hustle fast enough to meet our needs. Spanking-new cinderblock schools, TV alter egos like Beaver Cleaver, the arrival of Barbie, the first doll in history with style and sex appeal...it was all about us.
I came of age as feminists declared, "The personal is political." This was back around the time that a glamorous young journalist named Gloria Steinem was going undercover at the Playboy Club by getting hired as a bunny. Her piece had spirit and courage, but I didn't see its relevance to me, a thinking woman who scorned the Playboy crowd. My grasp of daily life as political struggle extended not much further than the piled-up dishes in the kitchen sink. I waged a heated campaign to divide the housework with my husband.
We eventually called a truce the easy way. We bought a dishwasher and hired a cleaning lady. Gardening, for us, meant once over lightly with the lawn mower, once in a great while. No tomatoes and peppers for us; we were too busy working.
I thought the workplace would be eager to win my loyalty, just as Mattel and the networks had been. I became the first woman in my family with an office and an expense account. With hard work and talent, I could soar just as high as I pleased. Then I found myself fighting to be paid what I was worth. I had entered a world where men made the rules.
They still do. And young women, for the most part, still haven't noticed.
They haven't seen the isolation of women in corner-office jobs, who are so often the lone woman at the boardroom table.
They don't know how it feels to suppress your true self for fear of looking "soft" to the guys.
They haven't asked themselves why the range of acceptable behaviours for a woman remains so dismayingly narrow that women can't win (if we're tough-minded, we must be bitches).
I can't say I'm surprised. That women pay a price for being born female is a profoundly threatening idea. It negates our dearly held belief that we can be and do whatever we want. It challenges our view of human history as a march of progress. It tells us that our privileged modern lives, so brimful of options, may not be entirely different from the lives our mothers led.
This heritage of pain holds the potential to bring mothers and daughters together, but it can also drive them apart. I've never known a daughter who didn't want a better life than her mother's. I've never known a mother who didn't want her daughter's wish to come true. Yet mothers, unlike daughters, have a job to do—perhaps the hardest one they'll ever face. They must prepare their beloved daughters for the hazards of real life. They are keepers of hopes, but also of warnings rooted in their own experience. Their daughters, far from being grateful, may come to see them as killjoys.
That's what happened between my mother and me. I knew it wasn't fair that she had lost her teaching job to a man with inferior credentials. But I detected something shameful in her humiliation, as if it might contaminate me. So I kept my mother's pain at arm's length. (Meanwhile, I raged daily and loudly at the humiliation of black Americans who simply wanted to vote, go to school and ride the bus like everyone else. Speaking out for black people felt safe. What was happening to them could never happen to a white girl like me.)
I never had a daughter, but I've found a few surrogate daughters while mentoring younger women. Toward the end of my editing career, I noticed something new. Talented women in their 20s did not want lives like mine. Although they didn't say so directly, they thought their mothers' generation had missed a beat. We had worked too hard for dubious returns. So they resolved to leave the office at 5 o'clock sharp and cook a low-fat dinner from scratch. Their ideal job was part-time.
In spite of myself, I felt a twinge of dismay that these terrific young women would question the choices of women like me. Without us, where would they be?
One of them has since left the work force. From time to time I wonder if she's made the right choice. A divorced woman with a couple of kids and a 10-year-old resume will need retraining, not to mention luck, if she hopes to pick up where she left off. But why torture myself? It's her life, not mine, so I wish her well. I wish her challenge, joy and homemade strawberry pie, if that's her pleasure.
Most of all, I wish for an end to the barriers that still restrict women. Then she'll have a better life than I did.
My understanding of the mother/daughter bond owes much to Paula J. Caplan's rich and provocative book Don't Blame Mother: Mending the Mother-Daughter Relationship. And speaking of books, you'll find lots of good reading ideas at Kerry Clare's blog, Pickle Me This.