Riding the Waves of Feminism
by Dr. Patricia Arroyo
Gloria Steinem, the iconic torch bearer of the women’s movement, will speak in a few days at the Massachusetts Conference for Women. As I reflect upon the women’s movement over the decades, I’m especially drawn to the unsung women of my youth, such as the wisdom and experiences of my mother. She was a “career woman” in a male-dominated industry, banking. Hispanic and a high school graduate no less.
Gloria Steinem was right. In the 1960’s, her name was a bad word in my home. “‘Women’s Lib’ movement, getting on your high horse,” my father snickered. My mother, however, was making her rise in banking. She started off as a bank teller with a high school education at Security Pacific National Bank. We didn’t come from a family of higher education, nor did any of the Mexican-American families in our small southern California town. My grandparents on both sides immigrated from Mexico around 1918. One grandfather worked the orange groves, and the other worked at the railroad. My grandmothers stayed home with their sprawling families.
In the early 1960’s, racial integration was on trend during my early grade school years. We “were bussed” to a distant school until third grade, after which we attended schools that we walked to. Our schools were mixed, roughly half Mexican-American and half-white. A very small percent was African-American. The bigger divider did not seem to be race. We all spoke English, especially those of us having Spanish last names. We all got along, played on the same sports teams, and did the same activities. The bigger divider, however, seemed to be who was “well-off or not well off.” Who had better clothes, or lived in bigger houses in the better parts of town. Who was going to “get out” to have a better life.
My mother rose from a bank teller, to a supervisor, to a branch manager, and finally to lending. Eventually, she retired as an Assistant Vice President at Bank of America after nimbly making it through several rounds of industry re-consolidations. She was unique among her relatives. They either ran small businesses, had “supplemental income jobs,” or were stay-at-home mothers. My mother was a “career woman.” She and my father, who ran his own business, both worked full-time.
“It’s About Empowerment.”
Equality was the goal of the national women’s movement, however empowerment rang more true within my family and community. Work, education, and upward mobility, it was all about empowerment. Choices. The power to have choices. My mother commented, “we already know we’re equal, who has time to march in DC., I have mouths to feed, I have to work.” Whoever held the money, held the choices and decisions. Sometimes that choice was to leave a bad marriage. Without that choice, I saw some women confined to miserable and marginalized lives.
It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t work and have a career. Nor did it ever occur to me that I wouldn’t go to college, although no one around me did. Both seemed natural. Whether by design or default, my parent’s work schedule left their five children as “latch key kids”, which ultimately fostered independence not restriction. They also fostered the belief that I could go out into the world and do whatever I wanted. They didn’t instill limitations, impose stereotyped gender roles, or pressure to remain close to home. “Getting out” was a desired objective.
Below are some of my reflections on the lessons and messages that I gleaned from my mother over the decades, from what I now understand to be the Second Wave of Feminism in the 1960’s. The era where inroads were made in the workplace, higher education, family and reproductive rights, and civil rights. Equality during this era hit a flat note with us because we lived an experience that was not just gendered, but it was gendered across race and social class lines. We lived it all at once. It wasn’t until the 1990’s with the advent of the Third Wave when this experience was crystalized into “the intersectionality of oppression” across gender, race and social class. By that time, I was among a half of one percent of Hispanics who earned a Ph.D., and who would became a strident diversity advocate for Hispanic students during my first job at Dartmouth College. It was also a time when the term Latino/a came to replace Hispanic, given the influx of immigration from Latin America.
Here are a few reflections from my mother that came during the “Second Wave of feminism.”
~ On the Women’s Movement ~
Feminism was more about empowerment than equality. “We already knew we are equal. I have to provide for my children.”
~ On Career ~
Working was about self-reliance to acquire a better life, and to have power and choices within the family. This choice allowed one to leave a bad marriage.
~ On Racism ~
On the anger others had about discrimination, “Just work harder, 100+%, 200+%. Shouldn’t you be doing that anyway?”
~ On Sexism ~
“I just knew I was smarter than the men, and could out strategize them to get things done.”
~ On Being Hindered “By Being a Woman” ~
“You still have to excel at what you do.”
My mother didn’t see obstacles or experience being held back because of “being a woman,” even though she worked predominantly among men especially as she rose the ranks. She had a high confidence in her intelligence, skills, and work ethic.
~ On Mentoring Programs ~
Laughs, “We had none of those. My peers became my friends and allies. We bonded and respected each other based on our skill and work ethic. We helped each other.“
My mother’s two closest friends and allies were Irish-American. Brenda, a talent like my mother. Mike, an advocate for talented women in the workplace.
~ On Childcare ~
“I paid the next door neighbor teenager 50 cents an hour and half of my next raise.“
This stopped at the age when we become latch key kids.
~ On the Women’s Liberation Movement ~
(which really did look like a white women’s movement at the time.)
“Who has time to march in D.C.? I have to work, I have five mouths to feed.“
~ On Birth Control ~
“After five children, I had to go on “the Pill, and quit the Catholic church.”
~ On My First PMS Cramps ~
“You think you can stay home a few days every month? You won’t have a career.“
~ After Work ~
Yes, my mother still made the meals. However, the five children did the housework. All of it. My father did the yard, fixed the cars, and had t.v. time, until they divorced.
About the author, Dr. Arroyo
Being the middle of five children, I graduated with a Ph.D. at a time when half of one percent of Hispanics earned that degree. I assure you that neither my mother nor any of my aunts have a shred of deference or submissiveness in their DNA.