A mother and daughter discuss the lineage of feminism throughout their family in two separate parts.
I’m 47. And I’m an angry feminist. I come from a line of feminists who never knew they were feminists. My great grandmother worked for the railroads during the second world war. She did the grueling job of cleaning the engines in the pits during a time when the men were away at war and the nation selectively forgot women weren’t supposed to do this work. A few years later, of course, they came back and she was ‘retired.’ She was my age when she did that. I think about that sometimes when the pain in my hands gets bad.
But that’s not the reason I’m a feminist.
It’s also not because my grandfather wouldn’t let my mother go off to college because the world was dangerous and she was a girl. And it’s not because I, myself planned to go to West Point until my boyfriend decided to get me pregnant effectively ending any career I would have in the military. And then joined the army himself.
I’m a feminist because I never understood why I wasn’t just a person. They tell you the rhetoric that they tell everyone: you can achieve any dream, you can do anything. But they don’t tell you the unlikelihood of these things. They don’t tell you there are places that you can’t go. They don’t tell you how differently you will be treated and that even when you do the job, in some environments people will dismiss you as a token.
I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys. I never thought of myself as being a boy. I just never thought of myself as not being a boy. Over my lifetime as I would be interested in things and try them I was always surprised at the reactions of others. I played flag football on the boys team. It never occurred to me that I was the only girl. I was always the only girl in every group. I was just me. All the boys in the neighborhood played football or baseball. So it seemed that I should play. Otherwise who would I play with outside of the house? It was strategic and I was trying to keep up. If they respected you they would play with you. I didn’t want to be alone.
When I was in my mid twenties I became a plumber. It never occurred to me how odd that was. The general manager was encouraging when I applied. I was surprised to find myself the only woman in the company nationwide. The men frequently didn’t know how to treat me. Even more difficult, when I showed up at jobs the customers were bewildered. I was constantly proving myself every single day. And it was so tiring. I just wanted to support myself and my family and make decent money. My neighborhood friends growing up were electricians and plumbers and construction workers able to support their young families. I was willing to do the work and didn’t understand why doing so would be a monumental display everyday of representing my gender. If I had a bad day I felt like I was letting more than myself down. I didn’t feel like I could ever be wrong about anything.
I grew up in an age, where the idea that women could be anything was something that was possible. Women could become pilots and firemen and doctors. ERA was on everyone’s lips. My teachers were hippies. They had marched, hitchhiked across country, they took our rights seriously. My parents were a military man and my mother the athletic tree climbing tomboy. And I never once thought about it because as a child I thought I was already a person. But change takes time. I would be passed over for jobs because of my gender or the assumption that I couldn’t do the work necessary since I had children. The attitudes of my upbringing were in direct contrast to the world I found myself in.
My feeling over the last decade has been that the conservative environment that has overtaken this country has done much to degrade whatever progress it is that we have had. There has been a duality that has risen up across the world. With all the things we can do in this country as women we are still not people. We are still objects that are used to sell products. We are objects that in some countries must be hidden away so that we aren’t raped or dishonored. And in my lifetime we are still not people. I want so much, before I die, to just be a person. I want people to concern themselves with the fineness or roughness of my mind and my spirit, of my heart. I want to be a symbol of humanity and hope and not judged by terms that separate me from others. I want everyone to have that same right- to live, to be happy, to explore their mind and spirit and offer others something real and lasting. That is what feminism is. It is the belief that everyone should have those same rights.
I know that it isn’t likely to happen in my lifetime. It is so difficult for people to change. But I know it is possible.
I came from women built for war. There was no question whether I could succeed only how I would weather the changing tides that came my way. Like my mother, and her mother, and her mother a generation fighting an entire ocean of regret and finding strength within ourselves to carry on. And as a mother now it is as if all at once I see my daughter becoming a part of a great lineage moving forward in the world toward an endless destination.
My great great grandmother Dothy is famous for many things. I was told stories all throughout childhood even when she was around in her old age. She died at 103 and I can still remember her stern face as it peered out at me at family gatherings. It was an expression that once held great passion and tragedy between her eyes, on the bridge of her nose moments of great pride, and beneath her cheek bones big full smiles of great happiness when the world felt comfortable and safe. I was brought up with tales of how she braved the border crossing in Mexico with children on her back. There are endless romantic stories painting her as a lone woman rogue who despite all odds worked on the railroad and raised children. She built businesses and in her Native tongue spun a fantastic web that allowed her family to flourish. She was a hard woman. There is a single photo of her I look at from time to time. It is of her in her younger years and she’s wearing a fur coat and looking very severe at the camera. It is as if on the surface she’s telling me to get my shit together or so my mother recounts a dream she had of her after her death when she did just that. To me she has always been this great myth of a woman.
My grandmother never took no for an answer. She was the pinnacle of integrity and grace. She worked a job helping young teen mothers for the State even before programs like WIC existed. Her life was to be a nurturer. I’ve always had the best moments with her. When I was younger in times with great turbulence we would go to her house and I would play as I saw my mother off in the distance holding her mother’s hand across arm chairs and speaking in hushed tones. I remember Sunday morning coffee with a little extra nutmeg, almond scented lotions, and coffee table books on napkin folding. And I remember how kind she was even when she was attempting to be severe with eyebrows down but little crinkles of laugh lines on the edges of her mouth. And I have replayed every time she leaned over to touch my arm gently and say, “You don’t worry about what anyone else says. You just keep your head up and do your work in the world.” My grandmother was someone who lived for her family. She attended every game, every recital, and never let her kids get away with any unkindness. She has always been this hero to me. Even now and again when we come over for family dinners on special occasions and I see her wave her hands about as she laughs or talks I can see how dainty they are. How graceful the undertones of her gripes are. If you ever want to see the beauty in someone look at their hands.
My mothers are covered in tattoos. This is a fact I am very proud of and I often tell strangers about them. She has always been a one woman revolution. She is the first person who taught me that art is seeing and that you can have anything as long as you have integrity and compassion. Before the age of 12 she made me read most of the cannon of literature, properly educated me in art history, movements of progression, and prepared me for a well-practiced Armageddon out of survivalist hand books. I knew of the history of man waged wars before I began a veiled war against them. But there were things I didn’t learn from books. There have been many hard lessons I have learned from simply watching her as she struggled to raise three children as a single mother. I grew up on college campuses and help from others. When I was younger I begged my mother to put me in the girl scouts because all I wanted to be was like the other little girls. Their mothers all had Polo shirts and marked out calendars full of kid friendly events while mine had tattoos and a dark room in our bathroom. I just wanted to be normal but she was the first person who taught me to be extraordinary. Because I got to subconsciously take in every time she gave a homeless man a sandwich, or paid to get new clothes for a family in need even when we were barely scraping by. I got to witness every first hand moment of weakness where she cried and the speech thereafter where she rallied us behind justice, integrity, and compassion for our enemies. I thought perhaps sometimes we shared the same karma. The world felt like it was attempting to beat us down in waves but she always stood still like a mountain. A force to be reckoned with. I still tell my friends she’s the scariest kindest woman you’ll ever meet. She was the one who coined the quote for me, “We do not negotiate with terrorist.”
I did not always appreciate the lessons she taught me. In my young arrogant haze I glossed them over because in her world third wave feminism was a thing while the rest of the world was constantly telling me we were already equal. This is a lie big men told little girls like me, an internalized oppression. I remember once when I had a boyfriend who was treating me badly my mother sat me down and said to me, “We must be kind to men. For they can be weak. They do not carry the same burdens that we carry. They do not do the same job.” This idea that they and not I were the weaker sex played over in my mind through endless trials where I met strong men who, without quite recognizing the privilege of their sex, would shout me down and belittle me until I was very small. As if the very nature of me as a woman was a threat to them. When they crumbled it was from pin drops and guilt and I wondered how when they were meant to be strength itself I could carry whole mountains on my back without breaking a sweat. When they argued it was passive aggressive while I became direct so as to pierce through the very soul of my opponents. I learned to do things from her like become gentile say they would listen or use my energy like a great sword so they would disappear. Because as I grew up the one thing that was beaten into me by the men in my life was that nothing is scarier than an intelligent woman. My mother taught me to be a tactful warrior.
We are in a new era where I am a person not a prop. I have often times said that my being a feminist comes second to my being a person but now I see how ridiculous that sounds. Us, the We that is the new wave of feminists, who speak of color, sex, race, love, and glory stand on the backs of those who came before us. I am made from them. My mother’s voice is in my voice. And as we speak at times I feel as if we are not simply two women living congruent lives of oppression and fighting it in our own ways, but human beings that have become this beautiful one. A lineage of great love and hope.
Photographs are personal archives from artist Jacqueline Moreno-Garcia