Thursday, January 29, 2009

Where Men are Men and Women Hold Public Office

There was a column by Marcy Meffert in our local paper today that I thought contained an interesting quote (emphasis mine):

For example, my Lower East Side Milwaukee ward’s alderman lived across the street from our brownstone apartment. I often wondered if I could be an alderman one day, but since only men held the job, I assumed that I could not. Fortunately, when I was grown up, and in Texas, where it’s been said that men are men and women hold public office, I became a council member, a mayor and chairman of a regional council, three of the most rewarding endeavors of my life, other than rearing five children.

When I was a child, most people I knew were second-generation Americans who still identified with their European origins and lived with their own kind. My grandmother never learned to speak English. She lived in a Polish city and a Polish neighborhood; there was no need. Although my Lower East Side neighborhood was predominately Roman Catholic, the Catholics were of Irish, Polish and Italian origins.

I found Meffert's comments particularly interesting because Auntie and I have been working on a project that involves scanning a lot of old family photos. Seeing them en masse, and in approximate time order, gives me a much better appreciation for my own family's culture, than did randomly paging through multiple photos. I also found it interesting that, in direct opposition to the anti-feminist stereotypes, Meffert appears to perceive the culture of Texas as allowing more freedom for women, a view that I happen to share with her for the most part. In the past, Texas and the South were culturally very similar, and indeed, my own ancestors frequently moved between Texas and Arkansas, although they tended to retain Arkansas as their home base.

The thing that is most striking to me, looking over more than 100 years of sequential photos of my family, is that stereotypes don't apply. There are stories of a jerk or two, a frail person here, a mistake there, but there are no rules about "little women" and "men ruling the roost" and "dinner on the table at 5:00." Oh, there were some little women, and dinner probably was on the table at the proper time most of the time, but there is a big difference between having to do it, and wanting to do it -- because you love someone and you want to take care of your family.

It's easy to look at law books and decide that women couldn't do this or they had to do that, but the reality on the ground may have been entirely different than what the books say. In the U.S., for example, there are a multitude of seatbelt laws. It would be easy to look at the existence of those laws and conclude that everyone in the U.S. wears a seatbelt whenever they get into a car. If you look at the accident statistics, however, you'll see just how wrong that conclusion is. People not wearing seatbelts are in accidents every day. And the statistics only show the people who are in accidents; there is no way of knowing how many people get into a car without a seatbelt in general because most of them are not in an accident. By the same token, we have no idea how many women in earlier times were able to do exactly as they wished because they were unremarked and left no record. i.e., They caused no trouble because no one minded.

This photo, taken in 1950, shows my great-grandmother, Mai Smith Beasley, with her son and her four daughters. My grandmother is in the polka-dot dress on the right.

My grandmother and her sisters went to college, and they worked, and in various combinations, they married, and had children, and lived their lives. They are remarked mainly for being kind, loving, intelligent women; they didn't cause trouble. None of them held public office, but had any of them wanted to, I doubt very seriously that anyone would have been able to stop them!

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