Thursday, May 31, 2007

On Not Being Special

I used to think that I was special, that being the good daughter meant something. And then I learned differently.

One of the things I see in my female students sometimes is what I think of as the "good daughter" thing. They think, as I did, that being a good daughter means that sexism isn't going to get you, that you're somehow special and protected. And because you're special, you don't have to support feminism or other women. That was my idea, anyway, and I see it in some of my female students, too.

But as I said, I learned differently.

In my family, when I was growing up, there was a family business, a metal working shop. When I was a kid, the boss was my paternal grandfather; my father also worked there. In legend, my grandfather had started in the shop after high school, working for his father and grandfather, cleaning up welding splatters and racking steel, and then been promoted to the office side to learn that end of the trade. In legend, my father and his brother, too, had started in the shop after high school.

Then my father went off to college (go GI bill!), working in the shop summers, and eventually made his career there. That was the legend.

My brother, several years older than I, started in the shop the summer after high school, before going off to college; he came back to work summers. My uncle's son, cousin Joe, a year older than I, too, started in the shop the summer after high school, before going off to college.

And when I graduated high school, I thought that I'd work at the shop. (I knew that there are rules about how much you can make people lift and carry without mechanical aid, and I knew I could lift that much.) And I knew, for a summer job, the money was good, far better than the usual summer jobs. And it was a family tradition.

Except, as you might guess from what I've said so far, I didn't go to work at the shop. My father told me, frankly, and not trying to be unkind, that he wouldn't hire a "girl." (And yes, if you've got a small enough business, this is--or was--quite legal.)

And that summer, Joe's younger brother, Ray, who'd also graduated, joined my brother and Joe working at the shop. I got a job at the local mall department store, making maybe one third what my brother and cousins were making.

In seeing the family tradition, I'd just seen all the men who'd gone to work at the shop, and somehow thought I fit in the family. I somehow, blindly and stupidly, hadn't noticed the aunts and female cousins who'd never been welcome at the shop. And I thought I was different, special.

But I wasn't. Because I was always defined more as a female than as a family member.

I wish I could have learned that lesson without it hurting as much as it did, and I wish I could communicate that lesson to younger women without it hurting them as much as it inevitably will. The truth hurts. But only if you see the truth can you work towards changing things, and that would be my goal.

I wish I could say things have changed substantially, but I can't. Early in its history, disaster hit and the shop burned, leaving only one small piece of equipment surviving the destruction. By the time I was a kid, this one piece of equipment had been framed and put up on a wall with a commemorative plaque. And when the shop closed, my Dad gave the piece to my brother.

That's how family heritage works. Because he'd worked at the shop. Because he's male. And he plans to pass it along to his son. Because he's male. I didn't belong in the same way, and now my niece doesn't. It kills me to see this sexism persist in my family.

The last huge fight I had with my Mom involved this sexism. (It's too late to fight with my Dad about such things, seeing as he's dead.)

And yes, this is unfair. Life sucks and then you die.

PS. Later, I ended up working in the office part of the business doing a variety of jobs. But in my family's terms, I never worked "at the shop" and I will never count as a family member the way a male does.


  1. I wish your family could have read this post - very touching and shocking at the same time.

  2. I was just wondering, what do the women in your family think of this attitude?

  3. Medieval Woman, My family has changed a lot in 25+ years, as has everything.

    MWWAK, I graduated high school in the late 70s, so attitudes all around have changed. Most of the women in my family are pretty solidly feminist. I think there's residual sexism, still. But there's still a feeling that men are special in carrying the family name (the women in my generation who've married have changed their names).