EXCERPT: 'The Feminine Mistake'

My grandmother's family owned a great deal of land out west, but as a woman she was deemed unable to manage her own affairs, so her only brother assumed control of her share of the family assets. Over time, he apparently "managed" my grandmother's property out of her name and into his own. As a result, she was forced to depend on the charity of her four sisters—or, to be more precise, their wealthy husbands—for support.

My grandfather's abdication of financial responsibility also torpedoed my mother's dream of attending Vassar. She was elated at being accepted, and my grandfather had promised to pay the tuition. But the day before my mother left for college, she learned that her father hadn't paid for her enrollment—and wouldn't be doing so. By then my great-uncles were all tired of being saddled with financial responsibility for their sister-in-law, so my mother went to work and supported them both while putting herself through school, eventually graduating from Barnard College.

My grandmother spent the next forty years mourning the loss of her marriage and waiting for her ex-husband to come back to her, even though he had long since wed his mistress. Until the day she died, my grandmother clung to the illusion that her husband would eventually return to her. In all those years, she never looked at another man, politely but firmly turning away all suitors. Nor did she ever question the strictly segregated gender roles that prevented her from exploring her own potential. As far as she was concerned, marriage was "for time and all eternity," just as her wedding ceremony had promised, and her role in life was as a wife, even when there was no husband around.

In the meantime, my mother had met and married my father, giving up her budding career as an actress in order to stay home and have her own family. But when she asked him to take over the financial support of my grandmother, my father declined, unwilling to shoulder that long-term responsibility.

So when I was five and my brother was four, my mother took a job at a publishing company where she worked her way up from secretary to copy editor to children's book editor. From her own earnings, she paid her mother to take care of my brother and me after school. This was fine with us; our grandma made up wonderful stories and sewed elaborate costumes for the plays we wrote and staged in our basement. My mother never had to worry about whether we were well cared for, and I don't think she ever had a guilty conscience about going to the office every day, because we adored being with our grandma.

Our mother left the house every morning with a briefcase and commuted into the city with all the men in their gray flannel suits. In an era when such choices were rare, I was the only one of my friends whose mother was a professional woman. But in other respects, she functioned like a typical 1950s housewife. Every night she came home and made an elaborate meal for our family—no TV dinners for us!—along with baking cookies for the next day's Girl Scout meeting, cleaning the house, washing and ironing our clothes for school, and helping us with our homework while my father dozed in front of the television set.

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