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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

four decades of feminist mamas

In my class this week we read Miriam Peskowitz’s “Cheerleader” and an excerpt of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. We’ve now read motherhood pieces published in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and today, and I’m very interested in how the concerns and struggles of women and mothers have changed over the last forty years and how they have remained, largely, the same.

In Of Woman Born, Rich uses journal entries from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, and reflects on her feelings of anger and ambivalence towards motherhood and her children. She talks about how her writing was not considered the real work in her family, though she had published two books of poetry by that point. She struggles to make room for her needs as a writer and poet when these needs, and her skills, are not taken as seriously as her role and responsibilities as a mother.

Ronnie Sandroff’s and Jane Shapiro’s pieces, from Mothers, are written from an 80’s feminist perspective. About her story “You’ll Be Crying in a Minute,” Sandroff says: “This was written at a time when motherhood was out of fashion amid all the excitement over women entering and succeeding in the workplace. Those of us who were pioneering working moms got plenty of encouragement for our career advancement, but no acknowledgement for the incredible emotional labor involved in parenting.”

In “Cheerleader,” published in It’s a Girl, Peskowitz is struggles with her young daughter’s obsession with cheerleading. (Peskowitz is also the author of The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars, which is on my reading list.) She moves beyond her personal experience with her daughter to engage in a larger political and gender equity discussion, but the heart of the essay is this: “how do I let my daughter navigate her own world without revisiting the scars of mine?”

I can relate to all of these writers, have felt the anger and frustration of being a mother who writes. I have worried that no one takes me seriously. (I am not exactly bringing home the bacon.) I try not to talk about Stella when I’m around other writers who don’t have children. (God forbid they think I actually like parenting—most of the time.) I have the same worries as Peskowitz. I want Stella to grow up a strong woman, a feminist, but I don't want to squelch her interests, her love of pink and princesses. And I wonder: how do I let Stella navigate her world without imposing my fears and struggles on her?

There is a passage in “Cheerleader” that I love. Peskowitz writes about taking her one-year old daughter into a café in 1999 and seeing, on the television, the final of the Women’s World Cup, in which Brandi Chastain rips off her shirt after the US wins. Peskowitz says: “I’m in tears. I can’t help it. Watching women win, watching women take center stage and work hard and sweat and be thrilled and filled with wonder when they succeed, lifting their arms overhead—not with a forced, pretty smile, but with proud, accomplished eyes—that does it for me.”

I can totally relate to this. I have recently become a runner. I’m not very fast, and in fact I think people are often surprised by how much I love it even though I’m so slow. But I do love it: running along the river road when the sun is shining and it’s spring and tons of people are outside. And I love to watch other runners. At marathons, I wait impatiently for the winners, those marathoners with bodies that defy nature. The male runners inspire awe, certainly, but it’s the female runners that make me cry.

When the first women runners pass me with their arms pumping, all sinew and strength, my throat tightens. For a moment I try not to break down, but I can’t help myself. I start thinking about all that women do—and are—all that we’re up against and all we accomplish, and it feels as though these women, these runners, are proving something, for me, for all of us. I hold Stella high in my arms and jump with her, screaming, “Aren’t they amazing? Isn’t that amazing? See what you can do!”

Isn’t that what we all want for our children?


Mandy said...

I teared up.

Toby's Mom said...

Beautiful post, Kate. Yes, you're right, that is what we all want for our children.

Anonymous said...

"And I wonder: how do I let Stella navigate her world without imposing my fears and struggles on her?"

Yes. Yes, yes. It's a question I ask myself everyday. They are so small, so aware, watching us, to see if our actions are equal to the truth that we say. And I don't feel equal to it a lot of the time, but maybe that's part of the journey too. Telling our daughters, "this is the dream. This is how I am still trying to achieve it. This is how much I have left to go. And you can go even further than that."

Amazing post. Thank you for sharing it!