Thursday nights—when my dad met his boys for tennis at the 59th Street courts, followed by burgers and drinks at PJ Clark’s—the ladies gathered in the living room to talk about the breakdown of communication in their marriages, the insidious and daily oppression they felt, the depression and malaise in the absence of career or workplace engagement. They looked for meaning in their lonely if sometimes pampered lives, often spent serving their husbands and children.
My mother’s “rap” group was a consciousness raising event, similar to the CR groups founded in kitchens and living rooms across the country. These groups had rules and themes derived from effective strategies of the Civil Rights Movement.
Here are three of the popular guidelines:
- No men allowed at women’s CONSCIOUSNESS-RAISING SESSIONS this year; maybe next year. Separate male groups are probably possible if they are initiated by males.
- Neutral ground for a meeting place is preferable so that one woman does not have to play hostess. It is better not to be distracted with the problems of refreshments, so that two or three hours may be a time limit. The group can chip in for whatever expenses are involved but the amount should be self—determined so that no woman is excluded for financial reasons. Remember, the wife of a wealthy man may feel financially strapped when she has not a resolved within herself whether the money is hers or his. Serious CONSCIOUSNESS RAISING groups require babysitting facilities nearby so that mothers of young children need not be excluded. A woman with an infant should not be discriminated against and the group could chip in for a baby sitter (perhaps the husbands).
- Let any woman in. Do not be exclusive. We’ve been in purdah too long. Women have too long socialized in hierarchical, competitive, compartmentalized groupings. Women are women—all enduring the sexism of patriarchy and the oppression that is part of being a woman in a sexist society. CONSCIOUSNESS-RAISING must never be a closed club…
There were a few regulars.
Janet M., a Smith graduate and divorcee who resembled Ali McGraw and worked as a paralegal, gave disheartening reports from the frontlines of the 1970s dating scene. She hoped to become a real estate agent, but was trying to break from the ingrained doctrine that a husband would come along to rescue her.
Stylish Joyce F. lived in an upper floor of our building with her husband and poodle. She complained that her bald, ruddy-faced husband whom I knew from riding the man-operated elevator, never asked her about her domestic day, but demanded nightly sex as Walter Cronkite signed off on the CBS evening news.
Janelle, an actress who had appeared in Two Gentleman of Verona in Central Park, and had spent some weekends at our summer rental on Fire Island, may have been the only black woman in the group. My mother used to say that Janelle offered new perspectives on being a woman in America. She was quick-witted and matter-of-fact as she described her painful put-downs and assaults from white male directors, cab drivers who often meant their disrespect, well-meaning fellow actors and the female salespeople at Bloomingdales who seemed suspicious of her or failed to recognize her as a regular shopper.
I am, I was, my mother’s only daughter. I eavesdropped on her women’s group and was invited to leave my bedroom and listen in a few times. These drop-ins to the CR group were memorable. I was glad to uncover the mystery of the muffled female voices, yet uncomfortable when adult women talked confidently about sex, or their lack thereof; or about their private parts; or about their chauvinist doctors who said things like “I’ll put you on the pill,” or “maybe that uterus needs to come out since you’re not using it anymore.”
While Dorie Previn and Carole King played on the stereo and the smell of pot sweetened the hallway, I heard the word “abortion” from more than one woman, who felt free in her graphic descriptions. I pondered the phrase “hippie dyke” for the first time when it belonged to Sandra, a not- yet-out lesbian. She wore black turtleneck sweaters and shared that she felt “hated for being who she was.”
These memories have taken on new urgency in a political landscape in which lawmakers propose and pass cruel and aggressive anti-abortion laws, and Margaret Atwood’s prescient Handmaid’s Tale becomes as real as George Orwell’s 1984. Perhaps our collective agency is in telling our mothers’ stories—and our fathers’, too. We must raise consciousness and recognize where we’ve been, and in order to see where we’re going.
In sixth grade, I got chosen by Ms. Mosson—yes, she went by “Ms.”— to appear on “Not For Women Only,” a TV show hosted by Barbara Walters that covered mainstream topics of equality. I don’t think I opined as much as my teacher hoped I would—but I remember thinking this “women’s lib” thing must be a hot topic if they were devoting a whole show to it.
It seemed so hard to be a liberated woman, and a mother, and a wife—nearly impossible to achieve. But I had no choice. My mother was a feminist who quoted from Ms. magazine and wrote her grocery lists on a refrigerator pad with a “Supermom/Wonderwoman” graphic, and that’s where I was headed, too.
My mother was a good listener, an empath, a non-judgmental person, someone whom younger people liked to confide in. She came from very humble roots and had little pretense despite her glamour. She knew how to turn off her actor’s persona when others needed help.
In these CR groups, she shared about my father’s bullying, his self-centered belief that she came second. “If I’m not getting jobs and making money as an actress, dinner better be on the table,” my mother said, using her deep theatrical voice in the smoke-filled room, “and I better be ready to meet all his needs.” Heads nodded. Janet shared that she had dated an overweight man who told her that her body “needed reconditioning” after the birth of her child. He suggested she take up jogging.
There seemed to be a consensus about the white male patriarchy and how it manifested at home and in the workplace. At the time, of course, I was a tomboy, an afterschool mini pool player and banana-seat bike rider. I could only glean that men were treating women unfairly.
Listening to my parents fighting about the same things the women at the CR groups complained about, I developed the general theory that women weren’t considered as important as men in the overall picture. Money or paychecks seemed to have something to do with all the anger.
But the consciousness-raising groups at home were only a part of my mother’s campaign for liberation.
My mother often pointed out the awful ways men operated in society, and was candid about the countless assaults she had endured. She talked about assertiveness and the idea that women had to speak up for themselves, push for their equal footing and “refuse to be a doormat.” She reported that in her modeling days, men assaulted her in dressing rooms, pinched and licked her when she went up for “go-sees.” They whistled from the curbs and bus stops of Manhattan and groped her in crowded subway cars. A good Catholic, she waited until she could marry a much-older producer from the “Hit Parade” show to leave the family home. Her first husband physically and emotionally abused her, and the marriage was annulled by the church when she was only 19.
Years later, Pat was told by casting directors to wear miniskirts, put “falsies” in her bra and “why not show more leg?” Hounded by my father’s friends and business associates who insisted she must be lonely when my father left for European business trips, including yacht-hopping at the Cannes Film Festival, she learned not to pick up the phone.
“That’s how they are—pigs,” she said about a friend of my dad’s from his post-collegiate days, an advertising man whose wife had apparently given up on sex, who became angry and aggressive when she refused his drunken advances. I remember thinking how strangely adults behaved when my mother hosted this same friend, six months later at our family Christmas party.
We were lucky. I was lucky. We had arguments and conversations, books and magazines and playbills from Broadway shows lining two large built-in sets of shelves flanking the fireplace. My mother read Betty Friedan, Kate Millet, Gloria Steinem, Our Bodies, Ourselves and later, Bell Hooks and Roxanne Gay. She argued and lashed out, stood up for herself and gained some respect from my father when, a year after returning from rehab, she decided to enroll at Fordham University, where she trained to become a substance abuse counselor.
My father had always agreed that if she worked, he would acknowledge my mother as an equal partner, but there were too many years where the domestic work she did was dismissed and negated. She claimed that my father never believed her daily routines and responsibilities fully counted. This inequity was the basis of their numerous years in couples counseling at an Upper West Side office, where they shared their troubles with well-to-do couples, including a Time magazine editor and his wife who grappled with recognizing their son was gay.
From what I overhead after family dinners, Bob and Lydia put each other down too often, while another couple, Burt and Harriet, had “problems in the sack.” Each week, the morning after the couples-therapy sessions, my dad could be heard complaining bitterly that the “lady therapist” was a “ballbuster” who was stealing their money. I don’t know if their years in group therapy held their volatile marriage together. I want to believe it was love and a flickering passion that triumphed over half a century of upheaval and gender differences in America.
When my father died in 2002, my mother started to unravel. Her sorrow was deep and justified: though she had wanted independence and a kind of respect she may not have fully achieved in the marriage, she was lost without his love, companionship and paternal devotion.
In the early 2000s, when my husband soothed my daughter with a milky bottle or, on occasion, picked her up when she cried, my mother would practically stand up and applaud him. If I questioned why she was so impressed with what seemed like a loving gesture, she explained that she was confounded by the new normal. “Are you kidding?” she’d say. “Your father never changed a diaper or put you to bed. Men just didn’t do that in our generation.”
“What did they do?” I asked, though I thought I knew the answer.
My mother grinned and exhaled the drag of her Winston cigarette. “What did they do? They did whatever the hell they wanted.”