Op-Ed: My mother, the stealth feminist

A little girl holds her mother's hand
(Sukanya Sitthikongsak / Getty Images)

“Never need a man to live your life.”

Mom says she doesn’t remember giving me that advice. I’m not sure where we were living then. In my mind there are palm trees, but that’s an unreliable backdrop. Dad wasn’t home much on either coast.

My mother insists she had nothing to do with the woman I am today. She doesn’t see how much we have in common, even though we’re both prone to giggle fits and usually have our heads tilted into books.


She’s convinced herself I just turned out like this, as if she didn’t fight like hell to make a path for me. I’m outspoken, a writer and performer who loves to destroy both the patriarchy and power ballads at karaoke. Meanwhile, Mom’s so terrified at the thought of someone seeing her very existence she hides from cameras like some people dodge bees.

My grandmother was barely 17 and definitely wasn’t pregnant by choice when she was sent to a home for wayward girls to live until her secret was born. Stubborn was Gramma’s native tongue, so I’m not surprised she refused to give her baby to the nuns who urged and expected her to sign her rights away as a form of redemption.

My mom entered this world labeled a mistake, a mystery, a problem. Living proof of someone being up to no good. Some neighborhood kids weren’t allowed to play with her because she wasn’t from the right kind of family. I suspect this is partly why Mom avoids attention. Attention can get you punished fast.

When Mom finished high school there was no money to go to college, and even less of a reason. She had a few jobs, but it wasn’t long before she met my father, who secured the rights to her future in a front porch face-off with my grandmother. In her inimitable style, Gramma swore at him up and down, and he swore he would take care of my mom for the rest of her life.

It didn’t exactly work out that way. Mom’s financial future was ruined once she took Dad’s name. A wife couldn’t even get a credit card without her husband’s approval back then, but worse than that, Mom married into my dad’s existing debt, which he would secretly transfer to her name before he died.

Her life was always under his control. Mom’s paychecks went straight to Dad, even during years when he was unemployed. She was given an allowance, always careful never to ask for more than what she thought she could get, what she thought she deserved. Consequently, she never got what she was worth.

I was maybe 7 when Mom got off the phone that day and started giving me advice honed by years of regret.

“Dont let any man own your freedom. When you give over your money, you give over your life.”

I don’t think I knew the word “feminist” back then. But that’s the day I saw what one looked like, even if my mother might disagree.

When I was even younger, I promised Mom that when I grew up she’d live down the street from me. We moved a lot, so this was a wild dream that Mom would only bring up from time to time — usually when we were at our most heated, or if I was dreaming of a future far away from her.

Years ago, we were on the phone talking about where I might end up, where I might write.

“It’s a shame you can’t have a kid now that you’re divorced,” she said. “You would’ve made a great mother.”

I swallowed my first reaction. Went with another: “Mom, I can still have a child. Lots of people raise a kid on their own.”

“It’s not fair, making someone grow up with all that judgment,” she said. “I know you’re brave, but please don’t do that to someone else.”

Eventually I did get pregnant. I wasn’t married, but I had a partner. A man who is good with money and best under pressure, who could make my mother laugh, who was patient with her questions and who reminded her all the time that she didn’t need permission to do what she wanted.

Mom couldn’t move west fast enough. She sold her house (without consulting anyone) and moved to be close to her grandchild. I couldn’t have the life or career I have without her, and to thank her for that, she lives a few houses down the street from me, just as I promised.

Our kid is 9 now. She is smart and funny and very much her own person. One time when she was younger, maybe 4, I was standing at the kitchen sink when she asked me, “If one day I was suddenly pregnant but I didn’t want to have a baby, is there something I could do about it?”

I gave her kitchen sink wisdom that day, without going into detail but assuring her that nobody could make her do something with her body that she didn’t want to do. And then I donated to Planned Parenthood to make sure.

But I was wrong. The Supreme Court is ready to cavalierly eliminate a constitutional right to abortion, and possibly to same-sex marriage, even contraception. This country is dangerously tipping back to a time my mother vividly remembers — because nothing burns hotter in the body than shame.

When I think about all the futures my daughter might soon be denied, I want to tear everything apart. So I will keep fighting. This time I bet my mom will join me.

And if she asks, “Who taught you to be like this?” I’ll tell her: “You did.”

Pamela Ribon, a screenwriter whose credits include “Moana,” is the author of “You Take It From Here” and other novels. She co-hosts the podcast “Listen to Sassy.”