My mother grew up in the hills of rural Tennessee. Opportunities were limited, especially for women. You married. Had children. Or found whatever work you could, which wasn’t much.
Not just in Tennessee but almost everywhere women had few career options in the 1940s, other than becoming a teacher or nurse. Both were honorable choices then and still are today. But forget any other dreams my mom might have had at a time relegating women to certain areas of life.
My mother was smart and a voracious reader. Talented. And beautiful. She looked like a movie star or model with her slim figure, flowing blonde hair and sparkling blue-green eyes.
She wanted to be an actress and had the leads in all the high school plays. But her parents — good country people — protested. She also was a gifted artist and dreamed of a career in commercial art.
After graduating from high school, she moved to Nashville where she worked as an operator at the telephone company. She learned the maze of plug-in wires and connecting calls from coast to coast.
Meanwhile, she was writing to my father and after a three-year courtship through the mail, they fell in love. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/a-love-story/ They married and mom moved to South Texas. They began a family. I was the oldest and then more children came. One after another.
The dream of acting had disappeared but she hadn’t given up on becoming a commercial artist. And so, in the midst of a high chair and a playpen, she set up her drawing table in the living room, with trays of oil paints, pastel chalks and brushes.
As a three-year-old I would sit on the floor with my piece of loose leaf paper and crayons, in awe of her, trying to imitate her drawings.
Then it all stopped. Family was demanding more of her time. And as I grew older she would urge me in spoken words and unspoken messages, “Go do what you want in the world. Do it when you can. Use your gifts.”
So I did. In the early 1970s, I started a career in journalism when few women were in that field. At my first newspaper job I was one of three women in the newsroom. The section I worked for was called “Women’s News” and we wrote about engagements, weddings and women who poured tea at social galas, their names in bold type.
At that time, the newspaper ran a daily stock photo of a woman on page six in a scanty bathing suit or bikini. We in Women’s News demanded a stop to the blatant sexism. We weren’t heard. The editor barked: “Those photos sell newspapers! That’s what matters.”
The editor also told us one day — to our faces, “You’ll never write as well as the men in the newsroom.” Why? Because we were women.
Determined to prove him wrong I put my head down into the typewriter and began to write about more worthy topics other than the color of the bridesmaids’ gowns and who poured tea. My first feature article was about a woman hiking across the country alone, promoting peace during the Vietnam War.
Feminism was in full blossom and I found myself in a strange place in my early 20s. One foot was firmly planted in the role model I had seen in my mother, the traditional homemaker; and the other, trying to find my way in this brave new world for women.
But mom didn’t hesitate. She saw doors opening for our gender and when she was in her 50s and her children had grown, she decided to take back her life. She went to college, managing one or two classes at a time, until 10 years later she had earned her bachelor’s degree.
At the age of 62 she graduated with a Master’s degree in English literature and all her children were at the ceremony, cheering her on, her face beaming on that summer afternoon.
Today, I am older than my mother was then and I look back on her journey as a woman — and mine.
The truth is, I am who I am today because of my mother. She invited me to use my gifts — to choose a new path and find a career I loved, an opportunity she had not been given.
But I could not have done that without her urging, or without the women who came before, again and again, demanding their equal place at life’s table. For the vote. For equal pay. For a voice. It was never easy. They struggled and sacrificed to make inroads for us all.
We stand on their shoulders. We thank them. We bow to them. The Suffragettes. Susan B. Anthony. Eleanor Roosevelt. Rosa Parks. Our great-grandmothers and mothers.
Never forget this, young women of today. You hold a precious gift from the many trail-blazing women — and the men who supported them — who sacrificed to give you more choices than you ever would have had in the past.
So go forward. Break more glass ceilings. Take us to the next exciting step in our journey.
When you speak up for gender equality, when you fulfill your potential — not only do you benefit, but everyone benefits. The world wins.
It’s up to you now. Go get ’em.
(Blogger’s Note: It’s been a long journey from that “Women’s News” section and writing about weddings to one of the proudest moments in my career — winning the Jane Cunningham Croly Award for Excellence in Journalism Covering Issues of Concern to Women in 2009.
I won this honor for articles I wrote when employed as the staff writer for Soroptimist International of the Americas, an organization working in 19 countries to improve the lives of women and girls. I was in distinguished company with past winners including Glamour Magazine, The Dallas Morning News and The Wall Street Journal.)