family. feminism. war. other ephemera.
Still sick. Hope to get back to posting books for sale next week.
This post was in part inspired by a recent event, and in part inspired by reading this.
My dad and I went to an Occupy teach-in last week, on racism and white privilege. The second half of the event involved a panel discussion, which got kind of awkward when a young black college educated feminist rightfully took to task an older black blue collar male for the misogyny she has known from black males throughout her life, including at the Occupy Memphis site, including from this particular black male worker. The older black guy had spoken incredibly condescendingly toward the young educated black women to start the panel discussion, and this set up the debate that ensued.
Overall the event, I think, could have been handled a bit better, and the venue (union hall) didn't match the first half of the event (two academics giving an academic style lecture together) and the panel consisted of people who were Occupiers who most other Occupiers there knew didn't get along. It didn't impress the union brass there - one of the leaders of the local Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) there said "I'm not really inclined to get involved in Occupy Memphis if it means I have to listen to this bullshit." My dad, whose been to a lot of teach-ins in his day, wasn't much impressed either.
Anyway, during the drive my dad told me something about my mom which I don't think I'd ever heard before. It turns out when in high school, even though she was a straight A student who excelled at science and math, she wanted to become a beautician. She wanted this because in the world she knew, a union steel town neighborhood in Canton, Ohio, the only women she knew who owned their owned businesses and had their own means of income were beauticians. Even though my grandmother was one of the few women in that neighborhood who ever worked outside the home (a part time retail job), my grandfather apparently hadn't liked that experience. He refused to help my mom with the money for beautician school because he thought she should get married to one of the guys going to war (as he had done) and/or then to the shops (as he had done) and keep a house. My mother told this to her high school counselor, who found out that there were two career paths my mother could choose from which, because of my mother's excellent grades, would require absolutely no financial support from my grandfather - nursing and teaching. It seems my mother had seen enough of the life of a woman married to a man in the shops who tried but never succeeded to drink away the experience of war - so she got the hell out of dodge, as they say. I'd never known she had first wanted to become a beautician to earn her freedom.
At the nursing school my mother went to, one of the old 3 year diploma schools, everything was paid for but she was in indentured servitude. Every article of clothing, every essential of life, right down to feminine hygiene products, was chosen by the school's matrons and there was no variance at all allowed. The students studied exactly when they were told to study, ate when told to eat, slept when told to sleep, they spent outrageously long hours in the hospital working for no pay (because the teachers at these schools were women who were low paid, and required to be single women who lived in the dorms with the students, the hospitals must have made out well from all of the free labor from students), and they had to do everything exactly as told. It was like 3 years of being in boot camp.
Maybe that's why my mother then looked at the military. When my mother got out of nursing school she went into the Navy. There she thrived - a female lieutenant at 20 years old, she was telling Marine orderlies and Navy corpsman what to do. But she also went to war, getting sent to Asia at the height of the Tet invasion.
The world my mother came from was very, very conservative by today's standards. Everyone was a Democrat, and everyone was union, but that mattered little in terms of how women and minorities were treated, and in addition to misogynistic expectations with regard to women's roles there was that unfortunate belief in "America" that was typical of early-mid 1960s American life. Remember when organized labor sent people to beat the shit out of anti-war protesters, instead of marching with them as we see today at Occupations? It was the beat the shit out of protester side of organized labor my mother grew up in. She honors that debt. I've seen her not cross picket lines in my life when it inconvenienced her, pay her union dues to the most incompetent of unions, and she happily tells the stories of the multiple Chrismastimes in her childhood when the only Christmas presents she and her two sisters received were from the union.
But something happened because of Vietnam. My mother had to come home for a spell because her mother had suffered a terrible and debilitating aneurysm, and when home mom saw Robert McNamara on TV telling Americans that no U.S. troops were in Cambodia and Laos. But my mother had zipped the body bags of Marines who had died holding her hand, and she knew, because of the talk of other officers (who probably thought nothing of speaking freely around a cute little nurse, what did she know?) and because of the written euphemisms (which lots of military folk knew to be euphemisms) in paperwork concerning those wounded in which words were changed so that there was no formal record of being wounded in places they weren't supposed to be, that those Marines had been wounded in Cambodia and Laos.
My mother's desire to become a beautician was a natural "feminism" if you will - she had never known or met a feminist at that time and had never read any feminist literature. I suppose she just didn't want to be owned by a man trapping her in a small blue collar house and forcing her to watch as he played russian roulette with his demons. She had wanted to avoid patriarchy in the particular then. But like all the rest of us, she was inclined to believe the myths we'd grown up having around us. There was order in her world as it was given her, and it ran red, white, and blue. Our wars were good wars. The men in charge had good intentions and we should all work together with them.
But when, fresh back from Asia for a spell, she saw McNamara spewing his lies about the boys she had had to watch die, or get stable enough to maybe get back to a VA hospital in the States in order to face more surgeries and life without a limb or limbs, something changed in her, and there sparked a feminism that was more of the metanarrative variety - she wasn't taking any shit from any men anymore. I wonder if the connection was made then between her particular "natural" feminism of wanting to become a beautician and the feminism which would lead her to become a bra burning ERA supporting feminist. There she was, watching McNamara on TV with her own father, and perhaps she connected his fear of change, reflected in his inability to support her in her desire to become a beautician, with the fears that war had created in the man.
My grandfather, after his destroyer had been hit with a torpedo in the pacific in WWII, managed to get up from the boiler room where he worked and which was filling with water, and then he was ordered to close a large seal-able metal door in order to prevent water from rising as quickly in the rest of the ship. Like a lot of ships in WWII, many of the men on my grandfather's were from the same area - in this case the Ohio Valley hollows of WVA, and some of those guys my grandfather knew were still alive down in that ship were men he'd known for many years. At first he refused the order, but then an officer put a pistol to his head. He then obeyed the order, leaving for dead men who hadn't made it up yet. After closing the door he later heard the pounding of men who had made it there late. Obeying that order haunted him for the rest of his life. Maybe my grandfather's desire for my mother to please some fellow who came back from war to go to a shop was his own way of trying to appease for the fact that he made it back to have the little house and the wife and the kids and the job at the shop, and men he loved didn't because of an order that couldn't wait a few goddamn more minutes. I wonder if my mother watched McNamara on the TV, sitting there in the small living room with her father after taking care of her younger sisters when my grandfather couldn't as he faced the new reality of his life with a disabled wife, and maybe glancing over to see her father watching McNamara, perhaps seeing on my grandfather's face his own fear still bent on supporting the myth of the great and holy U.S.ofA., and I wonder if she just decided then and there that these men are all terrified little boys who have royally fucked this world up.
I don't think I'll ever ask her about the details of her trip back from the war because those things are, though decades gone, too close. My grandfather is dead, and in the end a softness and a humanity took off most of the hard edges. He cared for my ill grandmother for years after she suffered her aneurysm. My mom eventually came home and married an anti-war activist with an FBI record a mile long (years later I saw her strength when being bullied by an FBI agent as my dad's record was being thrown in his face, but that's a long story for another day). I used to ask my mom more of these sorts of questions when I was younger and less familiar with regard to the costs and tolls of a human life. I don't think my mother needs to be reminded anymore of war - she managed, despite worry, to have her military son not get killed in one in recent years, and for all of my life when waking her from sleep she has awoken startled and gasping for breath, having to do with some unnamed memory. Not many women I know have taken off in airplanes receiving artillery fire, or seen the gruesome things she has seen. Anyway, there are some things you don't need to know in order to know.
*The above photograph was taken by Diego Rivera, who as all you Google users know, was born 125 years ago today.