My Dad’s mother – my grandmother – was born Dorothy Ebersole in 1912 in the Upper part of Milton, just outside of Tacoma, Washington. The Upper designation separated her from the dregs who lived in the Lower half. To me – I grew up a few miles away – Upper and Lower Milton was the same place with a hill and a baseball field separating the two. But, in her day, good gawd, Upper Milton set a boundary around Milton royalty, all four of them, elevated enough to look down on the chattel of Lower Milton. Later she would debase herself and deign to marry my Grandfather, a lanky red-haired denizen of Lower Milton. For whatever she gained from the union, he never veered from his opinion that he caught the cutest girl in at least fourteen counties. Probably the meanest too. My opinion.
Grandma attended Pacific Lutheran College around 1930. Her story – Wikipedia notwithstanding – is that it was called Pacific Lutheran Normal School when she attended. As a kid, I couldn’t let this go and taunted her constantly about going to school to learn to be normal. At college, she said, all the students lived upstairs in Harstad Hall. Classes were held on the first and second floors, and the kitchen and eating hall were in the basement. Besides school, she played starting guard on the women’s basketball team. She never lost her love for the game and, when I grew up, she came to every one of my high school basketball games. I trembled each time she stood in the bleachers and cupped her hands around her mouth to yell at me.
She graduated with a teaching certificate and was hired by the Vaughn School, miles away in the woods. I’m not lying: she taught grades one through eight in a one-room classroom. Daily chores – besides teaching – included stoking and feeding the wood fire and any sort of cleaning. The teacher’s union was of no help when it came to women’s work.
As a teacher, she was probably spared the question of how fast she typed. In the 1930s, most women, never mind their degree or field of study, were grilled about typing as it was fully expected that they would do secretarial work. “Oh, I see you did physics research under Paul Dirac. That must have been fascinating,” a professor might say. “Now, how fast can you type?” The date of her last period was more important. No employer would hire anyone self-inflicted with the wound of pregnancy.
Hired as a woman, though, she was later let go as a woman. She married Brick from Lower Milton, my Grandfather, and duly reported the marriage to the school board who promptly let her go. Men were typically the sole breadwinner, and single women worked mostly to supplement themselves and to help parents pay bills. Culturally, they were expected to live at home, unmarried, until another man agreed to support them. I never heard any grievance about this from my Grandmother. She gladly acquiesced with the idea that a person supporting themselves should give up their place for someone supporting a family.
Grandma was finally hired by the school up the hill from her house in Milton and taught first grade at Milton Elementary with Mrs. Short for a couple decades. I doubt entirely that she saw herself as a feminist, but am sure she raised the individualist flag. That she could vote – the bar of first-wave feminism – was a simple calculus to her. “I am a citizen and not a prisoner. I pay taxes with my earnings. Certainly, I have a say in who takes an elected office.”
But her attitude toward stupidity never tapered. In fact, at the Milton school, when the school board, sometime in the early ‘sixties, said that first-grade teachers would teach reading by sight and memory, she gave it a try. When the experiment failed her students, and she secretly reverted to phonics. If observed, she would put on a sight-reading show, with the observer always impressed with how well the class read. It never occurred to them that the cute teacher was duping them, thinking of them as stupid administrators and teaching what she knew worked.
My Mom’s mother – a peasant immigrant from what was then Czechoslovakia – might have been seen as a feminist, too, but it was mostly the effect of her hardscrabble upbringing and her husband’s rampant laziness and drunkenness. I never heard a single mention of calling the police when he drank and hit her. Neither was there a question of calling the police on that night when she had enough. They were at the top of the stairs, him yelling at her again, when she belted him with the full weight of her eighty pounds, across the face. He tumbled and somersaulted down the stairwell, coming to a stop and slamming the door behind him as he dragged-tail to the barn. I have no doubt they both invented Slovak swear words that night while he cuddled up to the milk cow to sleep. True to her nature, she sent the girls to him after dark with food and blankets for the night. He never hit her or yelled at her again.
My Mom was the appointed farm field-boss at twelve because she spoke English. They had a raspberry farm in Fife, and Grandma hid as much money as possible from Grandpa. Grandpa stacked pallets at Western Farmers on the tide flats, and he turned his paychecks over to Grandma, who kept him in gas, cigarettes, and whiskey. Older sister Annie had married and moved to downtown Tacoma in the upstairs apartment of her husband’s business. Unbeknownst to a soul, Grandma looked for property in Tacoma next to Annie’s, and one day she announced to Grandpa that she bought a house and apartment adjacent to Annie’s. She was moving. He could come along if he wanted, but it wasn’t required.
Only in the broadest sense of the word would anyone call my Mom’s mom a feminist. And it’s this biggest tent that, to me, that is most important and incorporates the attitudes I want my girls to take. In some ways, both women acquiesced to their cultures and era. But neither women would have had the slimmest of chances of pulling off their shenanigans a century earlier. It would have been abjectly impossible. But, in their way, both women slammed their fists on the podium, declaring that they would have what they would have. They wouldn’t be controlled except by themselves. It’s a sad travesty that they were forced to take these routes, but they plucked the courage and strength to do it.
Both women would have been completely confused at the mention of intersectionality, and neither would have put up with any hint of same-sex marriage. My Dad’s mom, a shoot-from-the-hip Christian, would have gone out of her way to declare any gay couple driven by sex. Mom’s mom would have been nice, made as pleasant a face as possible, and offered the couple some fried cabbage. When alone, though, mopping the floor at night and humming a haunting Slovak lullaby, she would have scolded the wall for such an egregious act of immorality. Grandma Mitton, as a 1950s Christian, reviled abortion. Grandma Makaj was more calculating. She might make a stink about anyone having an abortion, but, push come to shove, she would have secreted her daughter to the root doctor and sold a dozen goats for a treatment. And never mentioned it again.
I think about these women and my girls. I work in science and work with as many women as men. I honestly don’t think my company would give a wit if you self-declared yourself as a stapler. Getting the work done quickly and correctly, and within regulations is what it’s all about. My concern for my young girls and grandchildren is more cultural than intersectional. I knew my contracting business was in trouble when I went to Home Depot at six in the morning. The parking lot was full of Hispanic men and women sitting in the back of pickup trucks who were willing to work for ten bucks an hour, cash. I felt for them: I would do the same thing if I needed to, but knew that, at three times that amount, I couldn’t complete on a stick by stick basis.
I worry that fourth-wave feminism, intersectionality, and woke individualism, has worked itself out of any meaningful input to culture. I’m a biologist and evolutionist, after all, and it means something if you carry an egg or make sperm. I am a child of the sixties and still side with Dr. Martin Luther King, who claimed that a man or woman should be judged by their character: who they are and what they do. Intersectionality categorizes people based on self-declared sexuality, color, and loyalty to belief. Character and doing are of almost no import.
So, for my young girls, I hope that they are infused through and through with their mother’s and their grandmother’s fierce determination. Strong individuals have been doing that for ages. to
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