Everything I Know About Feminism I Learned From Mother (Who Never Called Herself A Feminist)

I don’t know how to tell her that she made me think everything was possible, how proud she makes me, how brilliant I think she is, how one of my biggest fears is not living up to her example.

I got my feminism from my mother, there’s no doubt about that. But when I scour my memory to pin down exactly where it came from, all I picture is her legs and the click-clack-clicking of her heels on the tiny pebbles in the driveway outside our small second floor apartment. When I was a kid, she, my sister, and I lived in a one-bedroom sectioned-off space in an old green house in a predominantly black city in northern New Jersey.

To me, my mother has always been fierceness incarnate, sometimes stern and serious, but also smiley and teasing. She has a loud laughter that bellows deeper and stronger than people expect from such a tiny woman.

I guess these vivid images of my mother rushing to her car in heels makes it seem like she was often busy or neglectful, always rushing to be on time for work or church meetings. But I don’t remember it that way. To me it meant that she was always moving forward—that she had purpose.

I needed no clock as a child, my mom was time to me. She was early morning wake-up calls to prayer while it was still dark outside, phonics lessons from PBS playing softly from the television set, blankets yanked off of cold legs, and the smell of freshly ironed clothes in the air.

She was afternoon joy, arms I leapt into when she picked me up after a long day at school and running around the playground. At night, she was pans of fried goodness cooking on the stove and soapy washrags rubbing roughly before we went to bed. She was the gentle bedtime moments, when she sometimes let me comb her hair oh-so-softly as she fell asleep.

Because of my mother, I was never one of those girls who worried what a man would think of a woman who worked. I saw the way men looked at her when she walked by in those heels, holding tightly onto the hands of her two little girls. Those men looked at my mom like they were hungry. Despite all the news stories and political rhetoric that tried to convince me otherwise, I knew what those hungry men knew when they saw my mother coming from work, getting out of her new car with her well-coiffed daughters: that nothing can stand in the way of a black woman with ambition. I learned that if one should bet on anyone, it should be the gifted black girl with a sense of herself.

I watched her closely, allowed her to become my first ethnographic study of black women in this society. There was the time she had to call the police the night she thought someone was trying to climb into our apartment through the fire escape. I saw her affably negotiate conversations with our landlord, who seemed to think she owed him more than the rent. Often when my mother drove, she sat leaned back with her legs wide, her left leg up on the dashboard, foot resting lightly against the windshield, and her right foot down on the gas pedal. She insisted that I always have brown dolls because even then she wanted to instill a love in me for my dark brown skin, so much darker than her reddish-brown hue and my sister’s fairer tone.

It was my mother who found a nice Christian school for us to attend—she explained that she wanted a good school but, even more, she didn’t want me to endure the physical violence she had gone through as a schoolgirl. “I don’t want you to have fight like I did,” she told me.

She took me to church where I had 1,000 aunties and a million uncles, a community that imbued me with faith and compassion. Whenever I got the chance, I listened to her dissect the day with the girlfriends, offering up critical analysis and insights for all the interactions I had witnessed firsthand. Even now, when I visit, I find myself eavesdropping when I wake up in the early morning.

I have gotten my best and worst traits from my mother—my strength and willingness to fight for the vulnerable, as well as a constant worry that I’ll never be good enough. I got my laughter from her, too.

To me, my mother had it all. Friends, family, work that gave her confidence, and a relentless drive. Now that I’m older, I find myself horrified when I hear her saying that she wished she could have been a stay-at-home mom, that she regrets not giving us more attention and energy. I don’t know how to tell her that she made me think everything was possible, how proud she makes me, how brilliant I think she is, how one of my biggest fears is not living up to her example. How can I describe to her that what she sees as failure provided me with the very blueprint of my life? She showed me how to bend, but not break.

I think that my feminism is surprising to my mom—she taught me far more than she had intended. She doesn’t see that my pride in her makes me grateful she went to work, instead of wishing she stayed home. But that’s OK. I am her creation, too, and there’s a lesson there, as well.

I can’t remember if she’s ever used the word feminist, but she never had to. My mom chose to be a mother. She chose me. She chose to be married—and when it became necessary to do so, she chose not to be. Through all of that, my mom taught me that love made a family, that a woman can navigate this world without a man and still have everything she could want.

This was, perhaps, the most important lesson of my life. It’s a lesson that too many of my friends still don’t get. Not only can a woman manage her own life, she can create her own happiness, too.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Khadijah Costley White is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.

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