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One of the popular slogans of the second wave feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s was “the personal is political”. The main idea behind this slogan fits in with the idea of the feminist consciousness-raising groups of the time, where women opened up about their personal experiences in order to gain insights into the larger picture of women’s social, psychological, and political oppression. It’s true when women address issues that affect them (even today, when our issues are different from those of our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers), things tend to get personal.
One of the stories in my upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, integrates both the personal and the political. It’s one of the few semi-biographical pieces I’ve written. It includes both physical and psychological elements that come from my life, but, on the more political side, it touches upon two themes Betty Friedan, in her book The Feminine Mystique, discussed which sparked the women’s movement.
The story didn’t begin as this complex tapestry of public and private. In fact, it was one of those writerly moments where an interesting anecdote my mother related to me became the germ of a story. Years ago, I was chatting with my mom on the phone, and she told me an interesting incident that happened for her recent birthday dinner which, living on the other side of the world, I couldn’t attend. My dad took her to a nice restaurant, as he usually does on her birthday, and when the check arrived, the server informed them the bill had been paid. It turned out my father, who was working as a quality control consultant at the time, befriended one of his assistants whom had recommended an elegant restaurant for him to take my mom on her birthday. The young man, who met my mom and been impressed with her warmth and vivacity (as many people usually are), then surprised my parents by paying the restaurant bill.
I wrote the story as a contemporary work of fiction and posted it for a while as a freebie on my website. When I made the shift last year from contemporary to historical fiction, I took the story down, meaning to revise it. Toward the end of last year, when I began examining my first book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories, in preparation for this upcoming second edition, I removed the title story (as it didn’t fit in with the themes I had planned for the new edition) and went searching for another story to take its place. I realized the story I had written about my mother’s birthday dinner (then, titled “A Birthday Gift”) would fit in nicely with the new collection.
I kept the incident of the birthday dinner and the paid bill, but when I reworked the story, these moved to the background while the story became more about the relationship between the protagonist Leanne and her husband of twenty years, Calvin. Leanne, like many suburban housewives of the mid-20th century, had been indoctrinated into the feminine mystique and, like many of these women, had become frustrated by what Friedan called “The Problem That Has No Name”. The story opens on the day of her forty-second birthday. Her husband Calvin (an intelligent but emotionally distant professor — somewhat modeled after my father) “suggests” she head on over to one of their neighbors (Paul, a young man who is Calvin’s lab assistant) and offer to help with Paul’s six-year-old son’s birthday party. Leanne agrees, though reluctantly. The party proves to be a turning point for her, as she bonds unexpectedly with Paul’s wife, Arlene, who represents a familiar sort of young woman we see today, but who was a anomaly in the 1960s: The woman who was making a name for herself in her chosen field while juggling the role of wife and mother. Leanne, like many women brought up on the feminine mystique, judges Arlene at first, but comes to realize her judgement is misplaced:
“Arlene says women today can have a career and a family too, if they just make sacrifices and balance everything correctly,” he said. “It’s what she’s trying to do, and so are most of the girls who graduated with her at Mills College.” He looked at her again. “Do you think a woman who has a job can’t be a good wife and mother too?”
She felt the breeze around her turn into waves, returning the strange chill she had felt that morning. The noise of happy children dimmed, replaced by the loud caw of birds. She realized they were standing under a nest where baby birds chirped out their starvation. She saw the head of the mother, its grim beak set and its gorging eyes searching the ground. She recognized the basic instinct of a mother on her children.
“I think any woman could do anything, if she sets her mind to it,” she said softly. “And I can see Arlene has her mind set on it. I’ve no right to judge her, and I’m sorry I did.”
“Oh, I don’t blame you,” he said. “I do the same thing myself, when I’ve seen her going into the den and locking the door, and Arnold looking after her like a lost puppy.”
“She has no choice.” The veil of hostility that had been weighing over Leanne’s eyes lifting, along with the chattering of baby birds. “She wants to be more than what women of my generation were.”
Later, Leanne sees how she and Arlene are both trapped in the same cage of feminine expectations, though their lives are very different. They are, in fact, the two sides of life for women in the mid-20th century.
The story takes place prior to the women’s movement era, but there are sparks of what would drive women to fight for their place in the world beyond home and family in this story and in others in the collection. For my mother, there was no Arlene, but after my siblings and I left home and built our own lives, she found her own interests and activities. However, my mom had the benefit of the times on her side. I don’t think anyone can dispute the late 20th century was kinder and more progressive toward women than the years forty or fifty years prior to it.
If you want to read more of “Two Sides of Life”, you can do so when Lessons of My Mother’s Life comes out in March 2020. More about the book can be found here.