She eloped across the county line at fourteen, lied about her age, and married a man almost twice her age. In today’s world, he probably would have been arrested, but in 1923 it was a different world for women and children, at least slightly different. She came back and told her Pa, “I ran off and got married. What do you think of that?”
He said, “I think you have made your bed, and you are gonna lay in it.”
It was not an easy bed to lay in. No sooner had she moved in with my Grandpa and his family than she was burdened with taking care of the whole lot when they came down with fever. She says that’s when she learned to cook. Grandpa’s mother despised her. Grandma stole her little boy, the baby of the family who had never moved out even at the age of 24.
By the time the Great Depression hit, they were trying to raise two children on the scruff of the Ozark Hills with another child on the way. There was barely enough for them to get by, so they went to the bottoms (flat land down around Memphis) to pick cotton. Granny gave birth to all five of her children at home, without a doctor and without the benefit of medication to sooth the pain. Grandpa didn’t realize it, never admitted it maybe, but she was tougher than he was. Still, he controlled her, and she let him. He demanded so much control over her that the first check she ever signed on their joint checking account was to pay for his funeral.
Throughout their marriage, she did all her chores and half of his. She raised five children, did the laundry, the cooking, the house cleaning, the canning and gardening. Then she went to the fields with him, hoed and picked cotton, picked corn, mowed and hauled hay, milked the cows, fed the chickens and pigs, and for this she didn’t even get a thank you.
When I was five years old, my mother was killed, and they took me in to raise. They never contacted my father, and I didn’t even become aware that I had a father until a little later in life. The men in my life were my grandpa and my mother’s oldest brother, neither of whom, in my opinion, qualified as real men. My uncle had been the first born and only boy in the family, and at 33 years old when I came into the family, had never married and never left home. Granny took care of all three of us, and considered it her divinely ordained duty. After all, the Bible says the man is the head of the household. In my opinion, the family took that a bit too far.
I grew up watching my grandma be a slave to my Grandpa and uncle asking myself, “What’s wrong with this picture?” My uncle was drunk every weekend from Friday through Sunday with a very rare exception. She paced the floors at night waiting for him to come home, praying he would be okay because he would go straight to the liquor store on Friday night, and start drinking as soon as he walked out. Sometimes, he would drive the backroads and drink till after midnight before he came home. Sometimes, he didn’t come home at all. When he did come home, it could be guaranteed he would drink all night. He would drink till the last drop was gone out of his bottles, and start his sober up sometime Saturday night. On Sunday, he rarely got out of bed. Sometimes he worked, and sometimes he didn’t. When he did work, more of his money went to whiskey than it did to helping with the house or the farm. He never did a chore. I can’t remember him going to the barn to milk, or to the fields to work. He might have helped haul hay a few times, but that was about it.
Grandpa wasn’t much better. He had quit drinking before I came along, but there wasn’t much he contributed. If it hadn’t been for Granny we all would have been lost. As I got older, I did what I could to help her, but until I matured and realized what was going on in the family, I resented my chores. More than anything, I resented the fact that I was asked to do chores when my grandpa and uncle rarely moved from the front of the radio or the television. In retrospect, I realize I was learning the responsibility they never took. By the time I was in college, I had observed enough to realize there was something grossly wrong with the dynamics of my family. This whole idea that a woman had to serve a man, or that she had to submit to him, was something I couldn’t wrap my mind around. It was an idea that appeared completely unfair to me. I could understand that if a man worked outside the home, and brought home the only income, it might be fair for a woman to take care of the household and the children, but the opposite is also true. However, that wasn’t the case in my family, and what I grew up with was a magnifying glass on a problem that has gone on in the world for far too long.
When I was in college, I was home for the summer. Grandpa, Grandma and I had gone to the back of the farm to cut wood for the potbellied stove, our source of winter heat. We would cut wood around the edge of the pastures and leave it to dry before hauling it to the house. That summer we had finished working for the morning, and were headed back to the house to get lunch. Grandpa was driving the truck, I was sitting in the middle with my hands braced on the dash, and Granny was on the passenger’s side. Grass had grown up around one of the stumps left from the previous year’s cutting, so Grandpa didn’t know it was there until it hit the drive train of the truck. The impact threw us forward, but the only one who was not braced in that old truck that had no seat belts was Granny. Her head hit the windshield hard enough to put a crack in it, and leave a sizeable bump on her head. Grandpa didn’t even ask if she was okay. He merely backed the truck up, drove around the stump, and drove on up the lane to the house.
When we got to the house, I helped Granny out of the truck, into the house and to her bed in the back bedroom. I then put ice in a damp wash cloth for her to hold on the knot in her head. Grandpa sat down in his living room chair while I checked on her, and tried to tend to her wound. After a while, he got up, walked to the back bedroom, stuck his head in the door and said to her, “Ain’t you gonna fix me no dinner!”
At that point I turned on him. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I told him, “Get your ass back in there, and leave her alone! If you are too damn lazy to fix your own dinner, I will fix it for you later, but you leave her alone.”
He quietly turned, went back to the living room and sat down. I have wondered what might have happened if I had not been there, but at that point in my life, I had had enough of watching him treat her like a piece of property instead of a wife and mother of his children, instead of a human being deserving respect, honor and dignity.
Although my family may have been an extreme example, women rarely get the respect they deserve, and they are considered second class citizens more often than not. Research shows that women typically have about 40% less leisure time than men. The glass ceiling still exists, and research also shows the continued discrepancy in pay for women when they have equal qualifications to men. I had a man from Zimbabwe tell me in 1979, “There will be a black man elected president of the United States before there will be a white woman.” I didn’t believe him at the time, but now I realize that what he was saying was prophesy, based on keen observation of how women in America are treated. What I have never been able to understand is why women are so disrespected. The prejudice toward women is very subtle, unlike the usually overt prejudice of racism. I have literally heard some men comment, “At least they don’t have to wear a burka and walk five paces behind their husband.” This is supposed to somehow excuse the fact that one of the wealthiest, and what should be one of the most progressive countries in the world, still lacks true equal rights for women?
What is important to understand here is that in every group that is subject to prejudice, there are those within the group who buy into the stereotype, and buy into the expectation of their role as prescribed by outer society. Despite some of the most disrespectful behavior I have ever seen toward women, Donald Trump would not have been elected president had it not been for women voters. There is a passive acceptance of disrespect, and double standards by many women themselves. My grandmother accepted her role. She lived it, and made no attempt to rebel. To her, it was a woman’s place. She lived what she had been taught her entire life, and didn’t question it. I once asked her why she had never considered divorcing my grandfather when he was such a tyrant, and she said, “Because I made a commitment, for better or for worse.”
I responded, “And all you got was worse.”
The problem with women is that too many of them passively accept their “role”, and do not put forth the challenge necessary to make legitimate change in American society. There are certain situations in which women have very little choice. A woman in a relationship with an abuser, may be very limited by the fear that he will kill her if she tries to break free. However, it is important even then, for women to understand that most of the time they do have other choices they can make.
As long as women buy into and perpetrate the myth that men are somehow better than they, the mistreatment and lack of respect for women will continue. There are many women who treat their sons like a prince to be worshiped rather than teaching him that he is an equal to the opposite sex. There are both mothers and fathers who don’t hold their sons accountable. The hero worship of men in which they get a free pass for sports and macho behavior, has to stop in order for women to find a place in society in which they can truly be considered as equals. Both men and women have to stop worshiping masculinity in order for “rape culture” to be eliminated.
Because the prejudice is more insidious and subtle, it will take something more than the symbolic gesture of Rosa Parks refusing to go to the back of the bus for these changes to take place. It cannot happen without women themselves taking a good hard look at their own internal belief systems. It will take challenging their own beliefs, and then challenging those beliefs in others when they are subtly displayed. For years, gay people put up with the ridiculous question, “When did you know you were gay?” They began to return with the question, “When did you know you were straight?” People asking the question didn’t have a clue they were doing something offensive. They thought they accepted gay people, but in truth held the underlying belief that someone just makes the choice one day. It will take something similar to that for women. Women and those men who understand and affirm their equality are going to have to start questioning and challenging the double standards. This is about more than calling a woman a bitch if she is assertive, or calling her a slut if she behaves as sexually open as a man does. This is about refusing to passively accept behavior in men that is degrading, disrespectful or demeaning to women, no matter how subtle it may be. This is about challenging things that both men and woman say, challenging the idea that it is okay to grab or touch anyone without at least their implied permission. It is about challenging the idea women are less capable or as hard working. It is about challenging rather than passively accepting, period!
My grandmother was smarter than my grandfather. She worked twice as hard, and kept up with him every step of the way. She was a successful mother and housekeeper, a successful farmer and gardener. She had more potential in her little finger than he had in his whole body. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if she had grown up in a world where women were respected, and given full equal rights and permissions to pursue whatever they wanted, including being a housewife or a sex symbol if that were their passion, instead of being assigned to a man. Perhaps I wouldn’t be here to write this right now, but perhaps her life could have been far better than it was.