Marching for Women’s Rights—Once Again
By Michael A. Calvert
January 31, 2017
“We’re all in for the Women’s March on Saturday,” exclaims my daughter, Tracy. “We’ll have three generations there! Mom, me, and your granddaughters. Tricia and your four-year-old granddaughter are going, too. We’ve got the pink pussy hats, and we’re busy making signs.”
“Good for you. Michelle’s flying in from Minnesota. I hope the crowd’s bigger than at his Inauguration. That would send a message to Trump. He’s impressed by big crowds,” I tell her.
“He won’t change his Neanderthal ideas, but he might think twice before he tries to attack women’s rights. He could even outlaw abortion. Scary shit! I’ve been in a low-grade depression since election night.”
“What’s do your signs say?”
“Not sure yet. Some clever ones on the internet: ‘Fight Truth Decay,’ and ‘Super, callous, fragile ego, Trump you are atrocious.’ My favorite: ‘Electile Dysfunction. He’ll really hate that one.”
“Right. You know he’ll watch it on TV,” I say with a chuckle.
“I just can’t believe women have to do all of this all over again. I’m pissed!” Tracy says. “I thought women’s rights were won years ago.”
“I thought so, too. It’s a hundred years after women got the right to vote, but I guess sexism is more deeply rooted than we thought. Still lots of bias. Now we’re backsliding. Terrible,” I reply.
“It sucks!,” she almost shouts.
“I agree! Hold your signs high when you see the cameras. I’ll look for you on TV,” I say before saying goodbye.
After watching the evening news stories about the next day’s march, I started a fire, sank into a nearby armchair, and listened to the soothing strains of Debussy’s Nocturnes. Like my daughter, I was frustrated with America’s snail’s pace in achieving women’s rights. Now, I thought, maybe the snail was sliding backwards in its own slime. Sexism seemed to thrive despite a century of efforts for women’s rights. My native optimism was slipping away, and cynicism was beginning to take its place.
As the fire warmed my face, I recalled my dad saying that women should not hold jobs that a man needed to feed his family, especially if they were just earning extra money for frills. He conceded that women had to work during the war when all the men were away fighting, but not after the men won the war and came marching home.
Mom didn’t challenge Dad directly, but she quietly said, “Rosie the Riveter and all those other women showed they could do all the men’s jobs.” Sometimes she continued by singing and performed a little jig, “Anything you can do, I can do better; I can do anything better than you.” She concluded by shaking her finger and nodding affirmatively at Dad. He laughed, but still shook his head in protest. She performed this ditty often enough that I remember the tune from the musical “Annie, Get Your Gun.” It was good-natured banter, but Mom’s point was not lost on her children.
Mom was a telephone operator before she married and I was born. Then she quit, and we lived with her parents while Dad was fighting overseas. Mom didn’t work outside our home for many years—until it was necessary for her to go to work to support our family. Few of the women in our neighborhood held jobs.
Although Mom had a driver’s license, when Dad returned from the Army she let him drive our one car and allowed her license to lapse. She knew Dad would be embarrassed to ride in the passenger seat with her at the wheel. In those days before power steering and automatic transmissions, it was the man’s role to operate heavy machinery like an automobile.
From the back seat of our car and my friends’ cars, I often heard men curse and complain about women drivers, saying they were a menace, and shouldn’t be allowed on the road. Women drivers were the butt of jokes on radio and TV.
I heat water for lemon tea, put dishes into the washer, and wipe the crumbs from dinner off the counter. When I was growing up, every task in the house fell on Mom’s shoulders. She served breakfast, fixed lunch, and cooked dinner for our growing family. Every Monday she washed clothes in a basement washer and fed them through a wringer that nipped fingers. Then she lugged baskets of wet clothes up the steps and out to the back yard, pinned them on a clothesline while keeping an eye out for rain clouds. Later she retrieved the clothes, folded and stacked them on our beds. When we couldn’t find a favorite article of clothing, she located it. We often said, “It’s not really lost until Mom can’t find it.”
Mom sewed clothes for us from tracing paper patterns and repaired tears in our shirts, pants, blouses, and dresses. She even darned the heels and toes of our socks, a task unknown to my grandchildren. Of course, grocery shopping for our growing family fell upon her as well.
Dad occasionally made a show of cooking pancakes on Sunday mornings. More than once he proclaimed that the best cooks in the world were men, the Cordon Bleu chefs of France. Mom said those chefs could do more than pancakes, and offered to help him broaden his menu. His reply: “I’m a busy man.” Not just busy, but a busy man.
As soon as we were old enough, Dad recruited my younger sister Kathy and me do the dishes. No one we knew had a dishwasher. We argued about who would wash and who would dry. As we probably hoped, Mom conceded she would do it, but Dad refused to let us escape this chore and flipped a coin to resolve the issue. In good weather, they would sit outside and have a cigarette together in the twilight.
As we progressed through grade school, Kathy helped Mom in the kitchen and occasionally babysat for the younger children. My jobs were boys’ tasks of taking out the trash and cutting the grass. I couldn’t do anything in the kitchen but make toast. Sometimes I consumed half a loaf of bead and half a jar of Skippy Peanut Butter with several glasses of milk in lieu of a meal.
The memory prompts hunger. I abandon the warmth of the fireplace for some peanut butter toast and milk in the kitchen. My thoughts turn to my sisters. Kathy recruited my youngest sister Margy to help her with cooking and babysitting. Margy did more and more of these tasks as Kathy became a teenager pursuing school activities and an active social life. Most girls didn’t play sports then, and there were no college athletic scholarships for them.
After Mom began working, Margy took on more and more responsibilities in our household.
My brother Steve and I did little at home as we pursued sports and other activities with our friends. The two youngest boys, Tim and David, were Margy’s charges after school from the time they were babies. I am appalled to admit this, but we sometimes referred to her as “the domestic.” Yet she knew Mom needed her help and did her work faithfully without complaining.
Kathy followed me to The Ohio State University (OSU insists upon “The.”). As she rode to and from campus with me, we complained about eight o’clock classes, excessive required reading, and essay tests. We also discussed my plans to pursue city planning and what she should choose for her major. In grade school, she was told that girls are not good at math and science. She did not like her biology professor and found the lab experiments revolting. She nearly gagged when she told me about them. Nursing did not seem a promising profession for Kathy.
Teaching was the alternative. Grandmother struggled to gain employment when her husband left her with three young boys during the Great Depression. Mom experienced the same difficulty two decades later. Jobs for women were scarce, pay was poor, and advancement unlikely. Clerical or secretarial positions were generally all that were available. A liberal arts degree might not make much difference.
Mom and Grandmother urged Kathy to prepare for a teaching position, repeatedly pointing out it’s a profession you could fall back on if necessary. “God forbid,” Grandmother counseled, “If you are widowed as a woman with children, you could always go to work at a local school.” She did not utter the word divorce, but it was implied from her personal history. Teaching was a respected profession that would always be in demand. A teacher could be home with her children after school. Summer vacations were another attraction. No one suggested business or engineering. In any case, Kathy did not want to be someone’s secretary or, at best, an administrative assistant.
Kathy graduated with a BA in Education, but boldly embarked on a move to California and took a job there in sales until she could qualify for a teaching job, but she enjoyed sales so much she never returned to the front of a classroom.
Margy finished high school when the youngest boys were in grade school and no longer needed someone to watch them. She found a job, rented an apartment, bought a stunning red Mustang, and accepted an engagement ring. College was not on her agenda. She had escaped babysitting, cooking, and housecleaning, and was ready to embrace a new life.
Kathy and Margy, one five years older than the other, planned a joint wedding in Columbus, a lovely event with our extended family in attendance. Mom and Dad watched the first of their children pass that portal to adulthood. Vows, photographs, bouquets, toasts, and tiny sandwiches without crusts. A joyous occasion.
I glance at my watch and am surprised at time although I have not yawned once. I pour an inch of Old Hickory add ice and a little water, and return to the fire.
Kathy later recognized that advancement in business required further education and she earned an M.B.A. She often noted that an undergraduate degree in business administration would have been a far better choice. Nonetheless she rose to become a senior member of an international sales team for hydroelectric generators and traveled the world in that position.
Margy worked in clerical positions at JC Penny’s distribution center in Columbus, became a valued manager in a massive warehouse, and retired after four decades. Like Kathy she did relatively well—for a woman without a degree in those days.
I stare at the fire and wonder how my dear teenage granddaughters, coming of age half a century after my sisters will navigate the treacherous waters of bias and discrimination. Although laws have changed on the surface, strong undercurrents remain even two generations later. And I worry that some of the progress achieved may be slipping away. I drain my glass, rattle the ice cubes, and plod toward the bedroom shaking my head.
On the afternoon of the march, my phone buzzes as pictures of all the women in our family appear. They hold their signs high with enthusiasm on their bright faces. Even the four-year old beams from her hooded parka.
“Fantastic! A great experience. All these women, old and young, white and black, marching together. Lots of men, too,” says Tracy through the phone. “The girls loved it. We all did!”
“Great. The crowds were big in DC but also across the country and around the world. I hope Trump was watching from the White House. Good for you!” I reply.
“Really good for me,” my daughter says. “For the first time since the election, I’m not discouraged. In fact, I’m pumped. We’ll survive Trump.”