Thursday, March 08, 2007

Blog Against Sexism Day: Letter to my Daughter

This is blog against sexism day, as well as International Women's Day. Even more significant to me, it's my only daughter's 17th birthday. In honor of all those things, here is an open letter to Alexa McKenzie, with all my love!

Dear Alexa,

Your great-great grandmother Von Pein was widowed in her 40's, with 12 children. Her options were very limited about how she could keep her family fed. She had a farm, and worked on it. But the family boys had to contribute money they earned to buy things they could not grow or trade for. Great-great grandma Von Pein never voted in her life. Although she lived long enough to see women voting, she had been raised with strong opinions about the "right" role of women, and deciding about government was not right for women.

Your great grandmother McDaniel was abandoned in her 40's by her husband, leaving her with 11 children. She had had to drop out of school in 3rd grade. Her parents thought it was worthless for a girl to get more education than that, and wanted her at home to help them run their leased poultry farm operation. She ran away from home when she was 16, married and then, amazingly for that time, divorced her husband. She had 2 children at that time, and supported them by taking in laundry and doing janitorial work. She married James Earl McDaniel, and had 9 more children. She kept chickens in the backyard, and a garden, to make ends meet. When her husband left during the depression, Grandma McDaniel again took in washing and took janitorial jobs, and all the children worked to keep the household fed. When times were at their worst, Grandma McDaniel had to swallow her pride, and go "on the dole." But she managed to get all her sons through high school, and your grandfather through college and medical school. She felt, though, that daughters did not need that much education, and strongly favored the boys.

Your grandmother Hilda McKenzie was widowed in her 40's, with 5 children. She had actually worked outside the home before being married. She was a secretary briefly, at a candy company. But she told me many times that she told them, smugly, that she was going to be married, and could not come back to work. Although Grandma Hilda had a high school diploma (unusual in those days), and was very bright, she stayed home after marriage, and even after her husband died, relied on Social Security and her brother to bring in the money needed in the household. She told me about women who competed with each other in housekeeping skills to the level that they would measure the setting of the shades on each window, to be sure they were even. That was their measure for success in life, that and their children.

My father made a point that both his daughters should get college educations and more. He always said that every girls should be able to support her family by doing more than janitorial work. He watched his mother (your grandma McDaniel) struggle along, and felt her lack of education made her life much harder. But thinking about the times she lived in, I think it probably would not have helped her farther than perhaps getting a secretarial job. It has been a huge change during my lifetime, that women can expect to get work as lawyers, doctors, politicians, and leaders in business. That would never have been available to our grandmothers. Women in their day relied on their husbands, brothers and fathers, and really had very few options when those men failed them.

However, as much as things have changed, I feel that live is still so much stacked against women. I am so grateful that you have had gumption all your life. You needed all that practice speaking back to big people and arguing with your brother. You will be glad you learned not to back down, just to let a man feel better about himself. But you will also be glad you learned to modulate your voice, not strident as women with no power must be, but assertive, as women with some power can be. We ride upon the shoulders of those who went before. Both in our family and in our society, we live as we do because of those grandmothers, and those suffragettes and feminists who pushed to change our world. I know you are aware of how fortunate a time and place we are in, and are grateful. I also have faith that you will live your life so that your daughters and grand-daughters will have as much or more chance in life.


Anonymous said...

A wonderful message. I've been blessed to have been raised by a strong woman, with strong women as sisters... To have fallen in love and married a tough woman who had a remarkable daughter... And now there's young Josephine who, at age two, promises to be the toughest of the lot. But it will take all of us to help her meet her promise. There's still a long struggle ahead of us.

Betsy McKenzie said...

Sounds like Joesephine has a terrific dad as well as a strong mom. She's very lucky! It's not easy growing up female, even as much as things have changed for the better.