My Mother the Feminist

There are some members of my family who are still waiting patiently for signs of my rebellion against my mother, Dorothy. I explain that I have tried to rebel, but it doesn’t do any good. You only want to rebel against someone (a) as a way of protesting their values or character, which you dislike, or (b) as a way of determining your own Values. I couldn’t rebel against my mother for reason A, because I love and admire her values and character. She was an independent thinker, career woman, and feminist long before these were fashionable activities for women. Moreover, my mother’s character is based on empathy, logic, and humor, so rebellion would require one to be selfish, irrational, and solemn, none of which is much fun.

I didn’t even need to rebel in order to determine my own values. My mother has always been willing to accept my choices and decisions, as long as I could explain them (and even when I couldn’t). It is no fun rebelling for the sake of rebellion if your mother understands what you are doing. By “understands” I do not mean that fake, saccharine tolerance that masks disapproval, but the realization that children need to make their own mistakes and eventually lead their own lives, and you might as well let them do it with a minimum of whining. My mother was not entirely “happy ” for instance that I did not marry until my mid-30s, and she is still not happy that I will not, for reasons of fate, have children. But she understands the reasons for my choices and the circumstances that have shaped my life and made it different from hers, without a single guilt-inducing remark or snide hint. Sometimes she worries that she will be drummed out of the Jewish Mother Corps. “I can’t even make chicken soup” she laments.

I recognized my mother’s subversive feminist lessons only in retrospect, when, as an adult, I learned that biographies of Elizabeth Blackwell and Harriet Tubman were not standard children’s fare. Other girls read Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew mysteries and I did too, but my mother also gave me stories about Pocahontas, Phyllis Wheatley, Susan B. Anthony, and any other woman she found interesting. It also wasn’t until adulthood that I realized how cleverly my mother had solved the “what shall a Jewish family do about Christmas?” dilemma. On Christmas morning I would always find a little something from “Mrs. Santa Claus” who, my mother explained, was undoubtedly doing all of Santa’s work, including the gift wrapping, without getting credit. She would remedy this injustice.

My mother’s feminism seems to have been influenced in part by her father, who was a nonreligious freethinker, and her mother, who was religious but never dogmatic. But mostly it seems to have come from an independent streak that made her determined to have her own way, even if there weren’t many other women traveling in her direction. Nowadays we hear so much about the importance of role models and mentors, but my mother always did what she wanted without benefit of either — flying in biplanes, driving across the country on her own, and becoming a lawyer (which she did, in Chicago in 1927, at the age of 21).

My mother may have been deficient in one key requirement of the revolutionary: anger and a corresponding inclination to regard the enemy as uniformly malignant. Instead, my mother regarded the enemy as fodder for persuasion and conversion, which meant that she was prepared to argue from a stance of empathy rather than hostility. Naturally she has encountered ample amounts of sexism and anti-Semitism, but she has handled them as if they were bedbugs in the cot of life: unpleasant but natural forces that were to be eradicated, as best one could, with persistence and pluck.

For example, she once told me about the time she interviewed for a job as clerk in a law office (a job she needed to support her night school law courses). At the end of the interview, the employer suddenly looked at her and said, “By the way, you aren’t Jewish, are you?” “Why yes, I am” said my mother, “but surely that doesn’t matter!’ The interviewer sheepishly admitted that office policy was not to hire Jews. My mother neither accepted this statement passively nor protested it angrily. “Why not?” she said. “Well, um, because Jews are so loud and boisterous” he said.

At that moment the brassy voice of the Irish office manager suddenly rose above the office clatter — cursing a customer. “Oh, I see your problem” said my mother. “You obviously hired one Jewish woman already, and are regretting it!’ The interviewer laughed. My mother got the job. Eventually she overcame his other major prejudice too, against women lawyers.

From time to time, when I speak of my mother, people ask me three questions: Doesn’t she have any warts? Wasn’t there a downside of having a feminist mom? Did you yearn for anything else? Thanks to my mother, I can emphatically understand the reasons for these questions, for our society is so used to blaming mothers for all our ills, and is so skeptical of people who sing only their mothers’ praises. So I will answer these questions: Yes, but none as matters. No. No.

All her life my mother has been teaching me wise lessons in word and deed, and now she is showing me how to grow old. For her 80th birthday, my husband and I found two photos of her: one on a horse in the Rockies in 1929, at age 23, and one on a camel in Egypt, taken 50 years later. Now we have a new picture, because my brother’s birthday present to her was a ride in a hot-air balloon. “Aren’t you nervous about going up in one of those things?” asked a friend the night before the adventure. “I’m not surer said my mother, “but I have a reputation to uphold.”

Carol Tavris is the author of Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion and the co-author of The Longest War: Sex Differences in Perspective. She has published extensively in the field of women’s studies. She is a social psychologist and writer living in Los Angeles.