Lauren’s post defies summary; it just demands to be read. Particularly since I’m in a context where I teach a lot of first generation college students, I found it particularly fascinating, but also reminds me that teaching at lower levels is a harder and more important job. I want to hit at it from a slightly different angle; her discussion about the importance of ideas within families reminds me of the answer I always give if someone asks me why I’m a feminist.
My parents both grew up poor on a Saskatchewan farm, and were both first-generation college students, and have the work ethic you would expect from people who grew up in that context. My father isn’t really someone with a great interest in abstract ideas; he got a law degree, quickly found a good corporate job after a few years of private practice, and methodically rose up the latter in a big, secure company in a way which is now somewhat rare. My mother, on the other hand, has some traits of an intellectual, and in some ways she’s unhappy because she would have liked to have been a researcher. She works (and still does part-time) as a dietitian, working with people with diabetes and other serious health issues. She also keeps up with the literature to a far greater extent than would be minimally required for her profession, and she would have liked to have been able to produce research itself. But it wasn’t possible, because it was too late. I don’t mean to say that this is the result of the patriarchy in its crudest form; my father never had objections to her working or anything like that and they have the happiest and most stable marriage imaginable, and my sister (although not a feminist) has an extremely successful career in a male-dominated profession and her education and choices were always encouraged. Rather, my mother’s occasional status taught me about the subtler ways in which patriarchal norms work; it’s about internalized expectations. She couldn’t become a researcher because she finished with a BA in Home Ec, and would never have considered grad school because getting married and having kids and taking care of them after graduating was what a woman did. By the time she started her career, she was in her mid-30s, and has often worked only part-time. She just wasn’t in a position to achieve her ambitions, and it’s always been important to me that women do have these choices.
The other big reason, which is even starker, is my mother’s mother, my only surviving grandparent. My grandmother’s husband passed away in the early 80s, and since then her life has essentially been over, even as she keeps living. Her identity was so thoroughly bound up in being a wife and mother, in taking care of her husband, that after he passed away there was essentially nothing left for her to do. She had no interest in reading, or music, or any kind of culture, and slowly retreated from any human contact at all. When she moved from her small town home to be closer to her daughters, she would periodically complain that she didn’t know anybody and didn’t see her old friends, but if her old friends came to visit she would quickly get tired of them and want them to leave. She talked for a long time about taking a train ride through the Rocky Mountains, but when my mother and her sisters paid for an expensive luxury train ride from Calgary to Vancouver she just stared at the seat straight ahead, not wanting to go to the observation car and look at the scenery or go to eat the gourmet meals or anything. She basically had no independent interests, nothing that brought her any joy other than caring for her spouse, and seeing the last stages of her life has taught me that the legal dissolving of a woman into her husband when she married had very tangible human costs, even when the legal forms themselves changed. Being in a committed, caring relationship is a great thing, of course, but the damage wrought by a certain level of dependence that some people would require of women for the sake of the “family” can extract an awful toll.
Which is why–even though I was otherwise pretty conservervative as a teenager–I gave a less-than-strategically-appropriate pro-choice speech at my high school’s “Speech Day,” and have always strenuously opposed attempts–whether through state or cultural coercion–to restrict the autonomy of women’s choices about childrearing, and was particularly hostile to reactionary idealizations of the patriarchal family. There’s another lesson, of course, which is that cultural norms are stubborn and do not necessarily have easy legal remedies. Pace Maureen Dowd, feminism’s victories are real but far from complete; it’s a slow process, but also a necessary one. Freedom doesn’t bring guarantees of happiness either, of course, but it’s infinitely preferable to the alternative.