first wave feminism, birth of

Shortly after they were married, my parents went over to my grandparents’ house one Friday night for dinner.

My mom and her mother set plates of food down on the table for the men, then busied themselves straightening up the kitchen before spooning their own portions. My mom was finally carrying her own dinner over to her chair as my dad — who had been raised on a farm and was accustomed to wolfing down meals in a rush — was shoveling his last forkful into his mouth.

Just then, my grandmother turned and saw my dad’s plate sitting empty in front of him and my mom’s full plate in her hand. Her eyes went dark. “What do you think you’re doing?” she scolded my mother, and gestured over at my dad. “It’s your job to serve him.”

My mom froze. My dad went wide-eyed, his last bite tucked inside his cheek, mortified to be at the center of the controversy. My grandmother waited expectantly for her daughter to go back to the counter and fix her husband a second helping.

For one long, tense moment, the kitchen was silent.

My mother finally sighed. “Well, his arms aren’t broken,” she said, and pulled her chair out and sat down.

7 Responses to “first wave feminism, birth of”

  1. Oh man, that was a tense read. I’m very thankful for the feminist movement. You mother sounds rad. 🙂

    • Thanks! She really went her own way. Her sisters still describe her as the “feminist” of the family. She told me this story a few weeks ago and it felt like such a turning point in her marriage and in her family — I couldn’t help but try to write it down.

  2. Beautiful, I love it. You have a great role model. I think my mom would have done the same. She loves showing me this book she has from the 50’s that instructs women on how to be a good housewife. One approximate translation “Before your husband comes home from work, ensure that the house is tidy and dress up the children. He doesn’t want to be made aware of the chaos at home after a tiring day at work.” And then we both laughed and laughed…

    • Oh man, I would love to see a book like that in person! I cannot believe that that used to be the norm. I’m so glad I wasn’t alive in the 50s!

  3. go mom!

    (incidentally, my mom was exceedingly fond of asking us if various body parts were broken if we asked her to do something for us. me: “mom, can you bring me a glass of water?” mom: “what, are your legs broken? get it yourself.”)

    there was this moment, in college, where i started to realize how fortunate my life had been. it was an ethnic studies class and we were supposed to all be sharing an experience we’d had being discriminated against. and i had nothing. i panicked! what would i say? i think i made up some bullshit, but the incident gave me pause. say what you will about growing up in a family full of divorce and abandonment, but as a result i grew up in a family dominated – and mostly populated – by women. women who had been failed by men, women who relied on themselves and each other. there was never a time in my life when i thought there were things i couldn’t or shouldn’t do because of my gender.

    i don’t want to overextend this argument. my mom and i had numerous arguments when i was in high school because she didn’t like me hanging out solely with boys; because she allowed jody to do things alone that she didn’t allow me; because she used to caution me about how i walked when i was walking around town alone (“don’t swing your hips”). and let’s not even get into my grandmother’s scoldings about acting “ladylike” (even at nine, i mostly thought “well, fuck ladylike, that doesn’t sound fun”). and yes, at family gatherings, the few men would do manly things like grill while the women cooked (and the cleaning was largely left to the kids).

    there were divides in how my brothers and i were treated. but ultimately, we were all raised to be strong, independent individuals, regardless of gender.

    i continue to believe our mothers would like each other.

  4. that’s awesome. my mama says that this nearly same situation occured at her in-law’s house when she and my daddy were first married. in her words, “i put a stop to that bullshit real fast.” that was 50 years ago. feminist mamas rock it hard.


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