Four Generations of Feminism

CN: mentions of child abuse, none graphic

Grandma was born in Puerto Rico. She moved to NYC in the early 50’s as a teen. She worked at a factory. Although she was a devoted housewife, she also smoked and worked the bar at the bar and grill she ran with my grandfather. My mother tells me Grandma wasn’t the most loving parent. She was strict. My grandparents had separate incomes, so my grandmother took care of the household and child care expenses. This was the setup until they retired and moved back to PR. Except Grandma never stopped working; she ran her house and kept it in tip top shape.

My mother grew up in sixties NYC. She was an average student, had boyfriends, worked every summer, went to clubs on school nights. She would tell me of the times that she’d return home at around 3AM, only to wash up, rest for a bit and then head to school. She calls herself a latch-key kid. My grandparents were never home. They were busy working. My mom wore the typical fashions of the era. She had children but never married. Like her mother, she also smoked. As she raised me she would tell me that I could do anything I set my mind to, that I wasn’t limited because I was a girl. I was just as important as my brothers.

As a child, I saw the strength in these two women. But I also noticed that Grandpa never did anything around the house. He would watch TV while Grandma went from one chore to the next with seldom a break in between, and my Grandpa had the audacity to ask her for a drink of water. I wondered why he couldn’t just get up and get it himself. I asked mami once. She told me she had wondered the same when she was a child. She even went as far as telling him to get it himself, but she was scolded and given a “tapa boca” (colloquial speak for a smack to the mouth) for being disrespectful.

My brothers could do what they wanted. They didn’t have to do chores. They would eat and leave their plates in the sink. I attempted that once. Grandma scolded me and told to not only wash my dish but my brothers’ as well. I protested, but again I was scolded and then spanked for disrespect.

I began being street harassed and catcalled at age 11. I complained to Mami and Grandma but all they said was that I should be flattered. I should only worry once men stopped looking.

Mami would tell me I didn’t need to impress anyone, but then say she needed makeup to make herself look good. I’d ask for who and she would say men. But she was single the entire time she raised us.

Although I didn’t know these words as a child, I now recognize the casual sexism and slut-shaming I was raised with. At the same time, there were constant affirmations that I could do anything I set my mind to, at least from mami. From my grandmother all I’d get was chastisement for dreaming of having a career. I don’t remember how old I was exactly when she told me that all my hopes for a career would go down the drain once “a man dominated me”.

My relationship with my grandmother was not a very healthy one when I was a kid. It has become better now that I’m an adult. I can talk to her about certain things, like birth control. She’s OK with that, but I would never talk to her about abortion. Now, Grandma tells me that I’m right not to want to marry, because “marriage is just a piece of paper”. My relationship with Mami is pretty close. I can talk to her about pretty much anything. Through my feminism I’ve been able to unpack a lot of the messages I received as a kid. I’ve been able to talk to my mom about the harm a lot of those ideas did and still do. I have a daughter, so I’m very careful about what I say. Mami and Grandma weren’t aware of the mixed messages they were sending me.

I’ve asked my mother about some of those messages and she told me she wasn’t very sure she believed them herself, but she had been conditioned to think that way and she had never stopped to think about those messages critically.

In a lot of ways Grandma and Mami were, for their times, modern women. But they were also conditioned to believe a lot of the sexist ideals of their time. We all are. I was.

I think that by listening to me, they feel comfortable being able to tell me what they really feel about sexism. They’re feminists in their own way. It may sound a little conceited but I do think I’ve been able to help them, at least in some small way to rethink some things.

I’m sure my daughter will do the same for me.

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