I’ve been watching the Olympics this past week. Women athletes are setting new records on the world stage and breaking stereotypes in their home countries. Last Friday morning, I saw Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia run an unbelievable 10,000 meter race, blasting the women’s world record which had been in place for twenty-three years. Women were not allowed to compete in this event until the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Now, it seems the most natural thing in the world for these extraordinary athletes to show off their skills and be rewarded for it.
We are also watching Hilary Clinton run for president. To many people in our country, this is a radical departure from what a woman should be doing. After all, it wasn’t until 1900 that all married women in the U.S. could own their own property; until then, husbands retained property rights. Women were only given full voting rights in 1920. It was 1973 before women had legal control of their own reproductive systems. And, although women were allowed to enter Harvard in 1977, it wasn’t until 1999 that the name Radcliffe was taken off the diplomas those graduating.
Clinton’s presidential race has me reflecting on the heroines who have come before us. We all are familiar with the long list of women who have broken the mold in politics, law, science, leadership, sports and the arts. And each of us has stories of our mothers and their mothers, who are heroines in their own right. I’d like to tell you the stories of my grandmother and my mother and why their stories matter today.
Hildur Lyceen arrived in the United States in the early part of the 20th century. She had left the grinding poverty and hopelessness of pre-WWI Sweden. She spoke no English and had no money. Her only skills were those that she had learned in her hardscrabble upbringing on the family’s plot of land. She met a young man on the crossing, whom she married. Hildur and Samuel started their new life on the East Coast. They had two baby girls. But Samuel had contracted tuberculosis during the hard conditions of ocean voyage. He died when the girls were one and two years old.
Hildur had no resources to turn to. She had some distant relatives outside of Chicago who were willing to take her in, but the babies weren’t welcome. Her only recourse was to put the two girls into an orphanage, where they stayed for years. Hildur learned English. She also learned a trade, becoming a seamstress for a downtown department store. When she finally had enough money and enough security, she was able to get her daughters back. A single mom, she raised her two girls during the Depression by making alterations to other women’s clothing.
My mother, Hildur’s oldest girl, grew up in the Swedish enclave in Chicago. When she was fifteen, she changed her name from Aina Borg to Carol Martin to escape the stigma of being the child of an immigrant. She graduated as valedictorian of her crowded urban high school. She trained for the only job available: secretary. This wasn’t enough for her, though, so she applied to go to college and was accepted, the first in her family.
As WWII was ending, Carol left college to join the corps of stenographers recording the war crimes trials in Manila. All the court reporters were women; all the lawyers were men. They took down the proceedings in shorthand and then transcribed them by typewriter. She traveled throughout the Philippines recording witnesses. She heard General Homma’s testimony of the Bataan Death March and was present at his sentence. When the trials were over, she was stationed in Japan for several years, where she continued her military court reporting.
When she returned to the States, times had changed. The post-war culture pressured women to marry and become excellent homemakers, which she did. Her energy, spirit, and intellect were now expended on how best to clean house, how best to cook three meals a day, and how best to raise her children. The loneliness must have been overwhelming. Husband gone all day, daughters at school, and the expectation that the house must sparkle and the food must be delicious. She excelled, of course, out of smarts, pride and duty.
Can you imagine her delight when both of her daughters graduated from Stanford? Can you imagine how she felt when her eldest, my sister, received her MBA and began her own business in the Bay Area? Or how if felt when she saw me perform on stages in Seattle and San Francisco? How proud would she be now of my years teaching at Harvard and the work I do giving women a voice in their lives and careers.
Sadly, my mom and dad’s marriage, which had always been rocky, seriously disintegrated. They lived in a state with no community property rights for women. She had been out of the work force for nearly thirty years, and her job skills, which had been in such demand before WWII, were seriously outdated. My dad refused to offer her any assistance if they divorced. The fear of returning to poverty overcame her, so she stayed. But the price was enormous: a total nervous breakdown.
She rebounded. She retrained herself. She had the guts, despite her fears and insecurities, to apply for jobs. In the early 1980s, she began working in the Government Accounting Office in San Francisco. She was so happy to get up early in the morning to take BART into the city. She was so proud of her paycheck. Now, it was up to my dad, who had retired from his business, to keep the house clean, plan the meals, and do the cooking.
Here’s what I’m thinking about their stories. First of all, immigration isn’t about now, it’s about the future. Every immigrant community has stories just like my grandmother’s, my mother’s and mine. Each generation takes the opportunities that are offered and makes life better for themselves, their families and the people around them. It’s a shortsighted policy to prevent people who are looking toward the future from joining the American experiment.
Second, the safety nets offered by the government are there to help hardworking people. If more comprehensive public assistance had been in place, my grandmother would not have had to give up her children for all those years. The damage inflicted on both her and on my mother and aunt was untold. What a difference housing and food assistance, affordable medical care, and access to job training and free education might have made.
Third, women have been gaining ground in the U.S., both legally and culturally, since my grandmother arrived in the U.S. Yet the Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in 1923, still hasn’t been ratified. And right now, there are political currents which could set us back decades. When she was First Lady, Hilary Clinton was vilified for saying, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.” She continues to be vilified for being strong, articulate, accomplished and successful.
Almaz Ayana ran the 10,000 meters faster than many of the male Olympians of the 20th century. Soon, the times will be equal. Women are the future. Think about your moms and their moms. Think about your sisters and wives and daughters and nieces. Think about your granddaughters. We are just at the beginning. When a woman becomes President of our country, we’ll finally see what’s really possible.