Sunday, May 6, 2012

We've come a long way?

Repost of something I wrote years ago.

(Trigger Warning for Domestic Abuse)

Several years ago, I was watching a history channel special on JFK.  The show asserted that the reason JFK had won the election was because of two things: women and TV.  Women voted for JFK because they saw him on TV, and he was cute. 

At the time, I was living with my grandmother, who was in her eighties, and I remember asking her, "Grandma, did you vote for President Kennedy because he was handsome?"

"No, I did not," my grandma snapped back, startling me with the vehemence of her response.  "I voted for him because he said that he would raise the minimum wage, and I had five babies to feed.”

“Oh, okay,” I answered, but Grandma was just getting started.  I’d obviously touched a nerve.

“I voted for him because he said that he would pay women the same amount as a man,” she continued.  “You don't know what it was like back then.  No one talked about sexual harrasment.  No legal protection.  You could get fired just for being a woman, so you made sure that you worked three times as hard as the men, didn’t complain when the boss grabbed your behind, and didn’t whine about getting half of what the men got, even when you were working harder than they ever would.  I used to tie the strings of three tampons together and put them all inside, layer my panties with two pads, because if I took a break I would’ve lost my job.  It didn't matter if I was doubled up pain that would have sent any of the men home, I worked.  There wasn't a choice.  I worked right up through my first labor pains, and had to beg for my job back two weeks later.  No such thing as maternity leave.”

Grandma shook her head and lit a cigarette.  “You don’t know what it was like back then,” she said again.  “You had no choice but to have babies, and then you got punished for it.  They didn’t hand out the pill like candy back then.  Back then, you had to be married, and you had to have your husband sign off on it.”  She snorted.  "*** sure wouldn’t let me on the pill; he wanted sons.  And in my day, when your husband wanted to exercise his marital rights, you let him.  So I had baby after baby, until he left.”

She stared off at the space behind my head, and I asked, gently, “Do you miss him?  Did you love him?  What was he like?”  I had never known my paternal grandfather, or her first husband.  It was a subject we never talked about in our family. 

Grandma looked back at me, a twist to her lips suggesting that she was thinking hard.  “I’m gonna tell you a story,” she told me, finally, “but you’re not to tell your uncles, you hear?”

“Okay, Grandma,” I said, eagerly.  A story about her past?  A secret from my family?  I was totally up for that. 

“I mean it,” she snapped.  “I hear this from someone else, I know who has a big mouth, and it's the last time I tell you anything.” 

“Pinkie swear, Grandma,” I said, and we crossed pinkies. 

Grandma used her smoldering cigarette to light another, and leaned back in her big stuffed chair.  I sat at her feet, waiting.

"When I was pregnant with your Uncle ____,” she said, “I got morning sickness worse than anything.  I thought I was dying.  I couldn’t keep anything down, and any little smell would set me off.  So the doctor told me to have a couple crackers in the morning, then lay down until it went away.  He also gave me some castor oil to drink.  ***, he hated the smell of castor oil.  Made me go out on the porch to drink it, didn’t matter that it was dead winter, and I near about froze each time. And ***, well, he wasn’t going to have his wife lay around in the morning while he got ready for work.  He wanted his breakfast.  Problem was, the smell of the food would make me sicker than anything.  So sometimes I’d be cooking, and have to leave to go urp, and one morning, I burnt his eggs.  And ***, he took that pan, boiling oil, eggs and all, and threw it at me.”

“Oh my god,” I breathed, horrified.  I was a pretty sheltered child.  My parents had an idyllic marriage, I’d seen them raise voices maybe twice in my life, and the thought of my dad ever raising a hand to my mom, or even treating her with something less than love and respect, was unthinkable.
My grandma pulled her shirt up, and I leaned forward to look.  There, on wrinkled, paper-thin skin, a small, penny-round scar was still clearly visible.  She tugged the sleave back down. 

“Is that why you left him?”

“Left him?” Her laugh was short, humorless.  “Angel Baby, he left me for another woman.  Left me with four babies and one to come, and no idea how to support myself.  I married him when I was fifteen, never even finished high school.  And by that time, he’d moved us out to California, away from all the family back in Kansas.

“It’s what I’m trying to tell you,” she continued.  “It was all different back then.  There wasn’t no child support.  I went to court once to try and get some money to feed the kids, and they laughed me out.  Told me to get a laywer, like I had the money for that.  They told me to talk to my husband, and maybe he'd forgive me.  The court officer walked me out, grabbed my arm like I was going to fight, and told me I should try prostitution.  Told me he'd be my first customer."  Her lips were pressed tight together.  It was obvious that even so many years later, the memory still stung. 

"I was just lucky I got to keep my babies.  And believe you me, I had to fight for that.  Social services were inside the house every five minutes.  And anytime anything bad happened in the neighborhood, well, you know it had to be my boys.  ‘Oh, those boys, they don’t have a father.’  Like their father was anything to write home about.

"I saved and saved to buy those kids a TV.  We had one of the first TVs on the block.  And someone, they called social services.  That woman came out and said that the only way I could have bought a TV was by whoring.  So I took her back to my bedroom, where three of my babies were curled up in bed.  I said, 'If you can find room for a man in there, you're doing better than me.'

“I never wanted charity, even when we split two hotdogs between us and called it dinner. I just wanted to do an honest day’s work and get paid the same as a man. I wanted to be treated like a lady and not a prostitute. I was a lady,” she said, firmly. "But men see you with five kids and no man around, they think you'll spread you legs for anything."

She lit another cigarette, and stared at me with her steely gaze, with the intelligence and strength that all her years and even dementia couldn’t take away.  She took a long drag.  “And that’s why I voted for Kennedy,” she said with finality.


Today, I was doing my homework while my dad flipped through the channels.  Half-listening, I heard one commentator remark that Obama had won the election in part because he was so physically attractive, and women were drawn to him.

I was instantly transported back to that living room several years ago.  I thought about my Grandma’s story, about when I had learned, for the first time, what life had really been like for women years ago, what life had been like before women like my grandma stood up and fought for change. 

And I thought about how a commenter, in 2009, could still imply that women were voting with their vaginas, not their brains.   

Times have changed.  I have rights and opportunities that my grandmother couldn’t even dream of. 
But I’d be a fool to think that our work for equality was completed.

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