When my father died in 1959, he left his widow without much money and with three young boys. He died after a long illness, and not much was left over after mom paid all the medical bills and funeral expenses. The oldest of us kids was four, and the youngest was one; I was two. Mom decided to leave the city and raise us in a nearby small town where her sister lived and where she had friends.
There was a small housing company in the town. It was such a small company that, for years, running it had been only part time work. But now it was about to expand county-wide, and so its board was looking for a full time executive. The chairman of the board knew mom’s sister and he offered her the job. She declined it for herself, but told him that my mom could do the work. Thus, the job fell into mom’s lap without her having to compete for it with any other candidates.
As it happened, the company was in the red. She turned that around. Next, she oversaw a couple decades of growth as the company moved into every housing niche in the county — all the while staying in the black. Gradually, the company gained a good reputation as a provider of well-kept, reasonably priced places to live, and a rather long waiting list of potential tenants.
Growing up, I and my brothers never wanted for the necessities. We always had food, clothing, medical attention when needed, and heat in winter. But mom’s job didn’t pay well, and we had few real luxuries. I didn’t realize it at the time, but mom raised us on an income slightly below the Federal Poverty Level for a family of four.
Yet, mom did remarkably well with very little. For instance, she avoided expensive retail stores and instead she attended estate auctions where she bid on high-quality furniture, rugs, and furnishings in unpopular styles that sold cheaply. She found cheap deals on science and history books, somehow managed to pay for private art lessons, and took us to movies or to an occasional symphony or ballet.
Although she wasn’t able to help us pay for college, all three of us went thanks to the low cost of education at that time, Federal grants, scholarships, and by working various jobs.
My aunt died some years ago, while the three of us were in college. After we got home, a friend of our family — Ann — offered to let us stay in her house for a couple days so that mom could provide our rooms to relatives.
Over breakfast the morning of my aunt’s funeral, Ann told us a secret that mom had kept from the three of us all the years of our growing up.
Now, mom is remarkably stoic. She almost never complains. And I’ve only seen her crying twice in my life. She likes to laugh, but that’s about it — the rest of her emotions are typically not on public display. So, I should have suspected she had a few secrets.
Still, Ann’s revelation that morning that mom had, all during our childhood, lived in fear of loosing her job came as a shock. So much of a shock that years later, I can still recall Ann talking to us over breakfast that day, but I can no longer recall much about my aunt’s funeral on the same day. As Ann explained it, mom had been told the day the housing company hired her that her job was temporary, that it would go to a man once the company grew a bit and the job became more demanding. That is, the chairman didn’t think a woman could handle the job much past a certain point.
Mom’s tactic for dealing with that fact of life had been to keep her salary artificially low. Her hope was that she would not be replaced with a man if she worked for substantially less than any man would be willing to work. She also had another reason for keeping her salary artificially low.
She knew that, at that time and place, any man in the community who was both qualified and interested might successfully argue for her job simply by pointing out that she was getting paid “men’s wages” or “a man’s salary”. That is, if she was so foolish as to pay herself a decent wage, she would open herself to loosing her job on the grounds that a job which paid so well ought to belong to some man.
Ann then went on to talk about a certain man in the community who had wanted my mom’s job bad enough to start making noises about “women doing men’s work” — until he found out how poorly her job paid.
That was the first I had heard even a hint of my mother’s fears for her living. Mom had entirely kept her worries from us.
I was pretty much apolitical at that time. But the more I thought about Ann’s story, the more disturbed I became. After the funeral, I went back to school and thought about it some more. And I never forgot what Ann had told us that day. Of course, it wasn’t the only reason I became a feminist. But it was what jolted me out of my apolitical indifference. It’s what woke me up.