After writing a paper on my family’s socioeconomic history for sociology, I felt that there was so much more I wanted to know about the women in my family and how they’ve grown and adapted to feminism. This post will be dedicated to exploring the differences between generations when it comes to the opportunities available to women, specifically my mom and (paternal) grandma.
My mom was born on a farm in Wallace, NE in 1956 to a farmer dad and a stay-at-home mom. Her high school was small—a class of 17 students—yet she participated in several clubs and sports and graduated top of her class. During the summers, she spent her time working as a waitress, dishwasher, or nursing home aide so that she would be able to go to college. After several years of schooling, she became a registered nurse and has been working at a hospital ever since.
Although I know my mom loves being a nurse, I had to wonder—did she have any other options? In the past, she told me that most women ended up as a secretary, nurse, or teacher, but I wasn’t sure how much say she had in her decision. To answer this, we talked about raising a family. My mom knew she wanted get married and have kids, but in order to do that she believed working would help her family have the right resources to succeed later on. In other words, she knew that by having a job she would have enough money to support us and allow her to have certain luxuries. Also, there were many other benefits to being a nurse: she never has to bring work home with her, she can work either full-time or part-time, and whenever one of us is sick she can take care of us without questioning what she’s doing. I can easily say I agree with her, especially for how all of the privileges I’ve been granted for having a working mom.
Going back to my question, apparently my mom did not decide to be a nurse all on her own. Sure, she said she always knew she liked helping people, but in college her opinion was swayed. When asked if there was ever a time in which she felt discouraged for being a woman, my mom pointed out an instance in college when she had a meeting with her advisors. My mom had been taking some science classes and enjoyed them, but at the meeting, her advisors said that she shouldn’t go to med school if she wanted to get married and raise a family. Knowing she wanted a family, my mom took their advice and became a nurse instead. However terrible that sounds, my mom said she was glad she ended up becoming a nurse. Coming from such a small town, she had no prior knowledge about upper level math and science courses and would have felt out of place with the city kids going on to become doctors.
I continued to ask my mom about her job and its impact on my siblings and I. She felt somewhat odd for saying this—which is understandable, because I know she doesn’t want others to think it’s the only option—but she feels that a woman joining the workforce is the best way for her to appreciate her family. In my mom’s case, she only had 6-8 weeks off for maternal leave, and afterward she went back to working full-time. Though she missed being with us during the day, she knew her career would get her back to being an efficient and organized person, along with make her better appreciate spending time with us when she got home. Neither of my parents was/is a homemaker, so they wanted to be productive with their time and earn money to give us more support.
Unlike my mom or my generation, my grandma did not have as many choices for her future. Born in 1925 in western Nebraska, my grandma helped out with the (WWII) war effort and went straight to working at a secretary in an insurance agency after high school. I asked her if she knew she wanted to be a homemaker—rather than opting for a higher education, she knew her place was at the home. This also led to other interesting answers, such as the fact that she has never felt discouraged for being a woman because she had her place and didn’t have to question it.
None of her responses surprised me, especially because of the structure of society during the time period she grew up in, but it was odd to realize that my very opinionated grandma was okay with staying home and raising the family. A devout Catholic and progressive-minded woman, my grandma once told me about her admiration for Hillary Clinton and Harry Truman. She has been working and ballroom dancing for years, yet I had never come to terms with the fact that she did all of this after my dad and his siblings were out of the house. She never participated in anything political, and though she agrees with women’s rights and other equality issues, she is not one to follow the radical reformers. Despite all of this, I’m proud that she has such a strong mind for being a homemaker for all those years.
Though the opportunities presented to us are much greater now, it’s hard to forget how far we’ve come as a society to receive them. In my grandma’s generation, I would have been in the minority of women wanting to work full-time and be regarded just as intelligent as postsecondary men. In my mom’s generation, I would have struggled with the pressure to decide between a demanding career and a family, not realizing I could have both. I admire both of them for learning to love their lives, appreciate their families, and being part of the group of feminists who may not realize they’re feminists.
As said before, neither my mom nor my grandma is very political or involved with women’s issues, but they do find little inspirations and stories that keep them going. For example, my mom has always looked up to her mother, who, like my paternal grandma, was a homemaker and started working later on in life. My (maternal) grandma also took up the opportunity for free community college tuition—until she was forced to quit, due to my grandpa getting in an accident—and proceeding to work as a secretary. The only reason why she stopped working was because of being diagnosed with breast cancer, and she remained optimistic even until her death.
I’m extremely fortunate that I have the opportunities for a successful future and the choices of what I want that future to be. Like my mom and grandma, I would like to get married and have kids someday, and I hope that my experiences lead to their successes.
If you ever get the chance, Feisty Femmers, I’d recommend talking with your older relatives to learn about their struggles and experiences. Whether they were like Gloria Steinem or Phyllis Schlafly, it’s beneficial to know where you come from and to see the changes set up for our generation.