A Celebration of My Life
(Editors Note: A memoir from a former paid staffperson of the CWLU.)
you'd have to understand where I've been to appreciate fully where I
am now, because in many ways the New Me is not remarkable at all. My
new head, new skills, my new hair style are all fairly common place,
indeed. Certainly not the kind of success story glossy magazine will
carry on the cover, not even "MS."
me, the growth and discoveries and achievement have been enormous, and
I'd like to share some of this joyous new thing of becoming a person.
All the more so, in fact, because I'm not an extraordinary person. I'm
not rich or gifted or beautiful or blonde. I don't have a college degree,
and I'm a lousy cook. What is extraordinary is that there's more of
me than there has ever been in my entire life. And that's exciting!
begin at the beginning.
"ELBOWS OFF THE TABLE"
my oldest-of-seven white Anglo-Saxon Protestant childhood trying to
be to be invisible, to hide my ugliness and unworthiness, and to avoid
distressing people with my presence, for I was convinced that I was
responsible for every bad thing that happened in my household.
my grossest weight at any time was 140 lbs, at 5 '5", I can't recall
a time in my life when I did not think of myself as fat. In fact, I
thought about little else. I did not think about what I wanted to be
when I grew up. I thought about my body. My sole aspiration in life
was to be long and lithe, with a flat tummy and beautiful breasts -
like the cover girls on "Seventeen" and "Cosmopolitans,"
and the very real girls that occupied so much of my husbands attention.
But more of that later.
were decent, well-meaning people, but if they ever had any great expectations
of me - aside from standing up straight and keeping my elbows off the
table - I can't think what they might have been.
always had to sign his approval to my high school curriculum choices,
a quarterly source of grief for both of us. I elected groovy things
like Latin, Greek and Ancient History, but my father urged me to be
practical and to prepare myself for a job-before-marriage with typing
and shorthand. Although he yielded to me, my own judgment was continually
undermined in the process.
there elsewhere, I was always in awe of "smart" people and
I grew up believing in a kind of preordination for book learning. Alas
I was not one of the elect! As soon as I was old enough, I began working
after school and weekends to avoid failure in competition for dates,
social clubs, cheerleading whatever girls are supposed to compete
for. If you dont try, you cant lose.
my job was supposed to be an escape, it was public and, in many ways,
rewarding. I was a nice girl with a friendly smile. Over
the counter I met young men, who became dates as I fell in love
with each one, and I met older men, who became benefactors. The
latter were members of an alumni association that granted me a years
scholarship, for 1956-1957, to Boston University.
had a Christian commitment. So, in 1957, my little New England church
paid my way to Chicago and the Baptist Missionary Training School. I
endured two years of convent-type living, then quit and took a clerical
job and a girls club room, with no plans whatever for my future.
MY CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT OF FAILURE.
of course, was marriage, 1959 and children, 1962, 1964, and 1967, If
I had failed as a daughter and failed as a student,
my crowning achievement of failure was as a wife and mother. Although
I worked faithfully and without complaint while my husband completed
his education; although I bent over backwards to keep his socks picked
up and his castle neat and clean and welcoming; although I dieted constantly,
learned to use make-up and tried desperately to like cooking; although
I typed, even wrote, his term papers, shared his interests and enthusiastically
supported his ambitions he strayed continually and ruthlessly.
fashion, I accepted defeat as my lot. I just buried my hurt and more
than ever became a non-person. Motherhood, finally, I felt, was something
I could do. Giving birth must mean something, doesnt it? I mean,
I couldnt be a total failure...
try as I might to be a good mother, my babies cried and fussed, there
ears were always dirty and they wouldnt pick up their toys. My
head ached all the time. I yelled and got cross when Dr. Spock said
I shouldn't, I couldnt manage daily baths and walks in the park
and peaceful bedtimes. The house got messier, my husband strayed more
than ever, and far from feeling fulfilled I felt more than ever my utter
inadequacy as a person. I lived doubled over with knots in my guts and
knots in my throat. I clenched my teeth and spoke very little, and sometimes
I burst into tears when reading aloud to the children. I kept struggling
and hoping, but couldn't see any hope. I hurt and I wanted to die.
POLITICS WAS FUN
meantime, however, the world changed a little bit, and I suddenly found
myself in the midst of the civil rights movement, marching and picketing
with babies on my back and a whole new sense of purpose. Something to
live for - giving other folks a chance to be as free as me.
the peace movement, and my head began to swim with the realization of
the violence perpetuated against mankind. And during the course of these
struggles my moral outrage began to be informed by politics, and I soon
discovered I'd become a radical.
I RUN FOR OFFICE
a period of great growth for me. I was doing important work outside
the home and I had a social milieu that challenged my world arid everything
I stood for. I was forced. For the first time in my life, to deal with
the hard fact of being really different - not inferior or inadequate,
but of being radically set apart from the familiar mainstream.
boasted posters demanding "Let the People Decide". And I was
always in the streets, gathering signatures for independent candidates,
marching against the war, and exercising free speech on Morse Avenue,
while my friends were fighting it out with cops during the Democratic
Convention. I developed a lot of strength living in the midst of neighborhood
hostility as my lifestyle and politics became more public.
to feel better about myself; I was helping to make a revolution. At
first my part was small, mostly organizing the office and maintaining
the files. But I moved quickly into organizing people, newspaper writing
and making speeches. In 1968, I became a candidate for state representative.
all this time, however, I was still a follower. Decision-making in our
group was democratic. What happened in practice was that the men debated
the issues and we women voted.
THE WOMAN QUESTION"' ARISES
same time the, world shifted again, and "the Woman Question"
came into vogue. Some of my women friends - single women; without responsibilities
and without husbands to account to - began talking a whole lot about
the Woman Question and agitating for respect and equality in our organization.
They criticized the men for male chauvinist attitudes at meetings and
for relegating to women the least significant work. They criticized
the husbands, and urged us wives to overthrow our masters.
going too far. I had finally found my place in the world. My husband
and I were a team, making the revolution side by side for the sake of
the children and our childrens children. But my women friends
persisted and in no time at all I found myself in a rap group.
DRAGGED KICKING TO A RAP GROUP
liberated is like being in labor, long arid arduous, building in intensity
till you think you cant stand it any longer. Even the outcome
is uncertain and you panic in fear of a stillbirth or deformity. But
theres no reversing the process once it's begun'; you can only
persevere and hope for successful delivery.
group was a mind blower. Though I was dragged in kicking and screaming,
and suffered reprisals from my much threatened husband, it quickly became
the most important place in my life.
first, that every one of us suffered feelings of inadequacy and had
spent our lives preoccupied with, the size, and shape of our bodies,
comparing ourselves to the glamorous models of the media. Secondly,
I learned how all of us had suffered from stunted intellectual growth,
how we were taught to be dependent, not independent. I learned too,
about. how even the single women in their relationships with men and
how mobility and sexual freedom were no guarantee of respect. Nor was
education any guarantee for them of meaningful, gainful employment.
WHAT TEAMS WE HAD!
rest of my sisters, I learned about marriage, that great team
my husband and I had developed. None of us women had help with the children.
If we couldnt find or afford baby-sitters, we missed our meetings
or carried the kids along and spent our meeting times dealing with bottles,
diapers, and crankiness. None of us had help with the housework.
together how we had been molded and shaped according to models of women
that bore little relation to the potential each of us had as a person.
The men in our lives, far from rejoicing in our newfound freedom, had
no intention of relinquishing the power they held in maintaining us
in those molds. Most important, though, we realized we could change.
I was basically OK. With the loving and sympathetic support of my sisters
I could start from scratch and make a new life for myself, in my own
image, according to my own needs and abilities.
over thirty and mother of three, I continued to work in earnest for
the liberation of women I participated in the founding convention, that
year, of the CWLU, and have been actively involved ever since.
I STRUGGLE TO POSSESS MY SOUL
victory in the power struggle for possession of my body, mind, and soul
was mine. I had my tubes tied, got my own bed, and said No
when No was what I was feeling. No more sex because it was expected
of me and certainly no more sex as a way of resolving conflicts.
to arranging my own schedule of activities and involving myself in the
political pursuits of my choice. Not without grief, mind you, for I
was constantly being ridiculed for my decisions. Nor was I getting any
assistance with the housework and child care, I just did less of each.
As the women's movement grew up around me, more and more women rallied
to my support, sharing the lessons of our common struggles and the care
of the children.
I FIX THE MIMEOGRAPH MACHINE
new sense of confidence in myself and my abilities grew. I began to
read and get excited about ideas. Though licensed to drive many years
before, a nervous driver, I had let my license expire. Now I renewed
it, and for the first time felt secure as a good driver at the wheel.
I was learning to take control of my life, my decisions, even machines.
Formerly intimidated by them, now I tackled them. I dismantled a malfunctioning
mimeograph machine, diagnosed its problem, repaired the faulty parts
and reassembled them. It worked and I was high for days from sheer joy.
Tomorrow I will tackle the typewriter.
I have also become economically independent. I have served the Chicago
Women's Liberation Union as paid staff person for the past ten months,
sharing administrative responsibility for the entire organization with
another woman. The work and decision-making are harder in many ways
than anything I've ever done, but all the more rewarding for that very
for my soul is the hardest part of all, because there is nothing to
show me what I'm struggling for. When I free myself from all those things
in life that oppress me, what will be left?
impinging. My mother role keeps trying to keep me at home; my wife role
keeps demanding another chance. Anxiety about my children and uncertainty
about the future interfere a whole lot with the excitement of forging
a new life for myself.
rewards are too great to ignore. The pains of the past are too fresh
in my memory; I can no longer pretend it was better before. It wasnt.
For all its newness, for all its uncertainty, being the decision-maker
for my own life is its own best reward and I am like a brand new person
discovering the world.