This post is dedicated to:
…was born in a tiny seaside village in Normandy, France, in 1927. She was the second child of ten and the oldest girl. Her father died when she was eleven years old leaving my grandmother only just pregnant with her tenth child just before the outbreak of World War Two. My mother was devastated by her father’s death and I don’t think she ever quite got over it.
Her adolescent and early teen years were spent under Nazi occupation, never quite knowing where the next meal was coming from. Sometimes the soldiers were helpful and allowed them food. Other times, they weren’t. My mother told me about a raging gun battle going on behind her one time as she ran home from school through a field at dusk and there was a sexually abusive uncle around at that time too – though she didn’t say that he ever abused her. Mind you, she never left us alone with him whenever we visited as children.
When she wasn’t at school my mother was helping her mother care for her younger siblings. She didn’t have much of a life, really. Her ‘teenage rebellion’ amounts to one night when, after the Nazi imposed curfew, she and a couple of her brothers goose-stepped down a sleepy village lane shouting anti-nazi slogans. Pretty daring really, when you consider what could’ve happened to them if they’d been caught.
The Allies landed and the war ended. My mother became a typist in the nearest town. She found the work mind-numbingly boring and was totally hacked off because her mother took all her wages and still expected her to skivvy around the house. Her older brother kept all his wages and was allowed to do as he pleased. Not fair.
My mother was a vibrant young woman. She was full of passion for life. After years of occupation and oppression she seriously wanted to live a bit. So she responded to an advert for student nurses she saw in the local paper. The job was in the burgeoning ‘mental health belt’ just north of London, England. My mum’s English at that time was the pre-war French school variety – all ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and not exactly English like wot it is spoke – but she got a position and came over here for her big adventure in 1948. She was 21 years old.
The tales she told about the sexually predatory nature of English men towards all those young, foreign, non-english speaking nurses that had been recruited from all corners of a devastated Europe would feed your feminist fury but that was just ‘how things were’ for my mum and millions of women just like her. Luckily for her, my mum was a bright young woman who learned fast and wasn’t easily taken in. Till she met my father, that is.
1950 - and the male nurse from an impoverished background in Liverpool fell deeply, deeply in love with the bright French girl with the endless legs and that twinkle in her eyes. I believe he did love her then – I’ve seen the letters he wrote to her after they were married and she went back to France to give birth to my sister. He most certainly loved her then. He couldn’t wait for her to come home with their firstborn.
I was next, then my brother and then my other brother. My mother, obviously, couldn’t work and nurse’s wages were as poor then as they are now. I really don’t know how she did it but, despite being abjectly poor, we were well fed and well clothed - she made all our clothes and could create a meal from the most ridiculous ingredients. I guess it was a re-enactment of her teenage years during the war – all that traditional ‘women’s work’ - but my mother never stopped. Even in the evenings after a day of cooking and cleaning she’d be knitting, sewing, darning or mending. She was a drudge and her life was non-existent. Seriously, we didn’t have a bean. There were no labour saving devices and my mum had no social life whatsoever.
But, mysteriously, my father did have money for whisky…and women. When my mum became pregnant with my oldest younger brother my father didn’t speak to her for months - like it was her fault, or something. We children were just ‘links in the chain’ to him; evidence that my mother was conspiring against him having a life. But my mother loved the very bones of him and would’ve sacrificed just about anything if it made him ok. She loved us too – and it’s quite paradoxical really because I remember her saying when I was quite young that it was especially important that my sister and I work hard at our studies so that we would have a better life than hers.
He beat her. Sometimes, she’d be so bruised she was painful to look at. It was terrifying to be lying in bed hearing my father hurting my mother and to see her in the morning, all bruised and bloody. (Anyone who ever says of children and domestic violence “oh, they’re ok, they don’t know what’s happening”; believe me, they do.) My mother wasn’t allowed, you see? Whatever it was, she wasn’t allowed. She was his property and he was very controlling.
As I grew older, some nights my mum and I would lock ourselves in the bathroom in the small hours while waiting for my father’s drunken rage to subside and she’d brush my hair while we talked feminism. Isn’t it strange how mixed your feelings can be? I loved those talks – even though the world was falling out of my bottom with the fear I felt.
This was the late sixties/early seventies - the time of the rise of feminism in England. My mum rose with it. She grabbed it with both hands and ran with it. In feminism, my mum found a counter argument to ‘well, you made your bed, you lie in it’; she found a counter argument to ‘well, that’s what women are supposed to do’. She never actually met another woman who identified as feminist but she read everything that was going. And she passed it on to me – all the books, all the ideas, all the theories and the evidence. She made me know that no man has the right. She taught me that women are people too. She showed me how patriarchal capitalism is intrinsically oppressive – not just of women, but of everything. She sewed the seeds of radicalism in me.
After my mum divorced my father she qualified as a college lecturer and was an active feminist until old age did something to her capacity for reason. I think she was quite proud of me and my radical stance but she never fully understood my take on pornography. She thought I objected to the naked female body – huh? I live in one, don’t I? – and never quite grasped the atrocity that is modern pornography. Well, she’d never really seen anything apart from Health and Efficiency…. but she always supported me in my work with abused women. She was always interested in what I was doing; how I was helping, what I thought. And she always had her own particular take on women’s issues that I found extremely helpful. We had many a heated discussion about ‘things’ and generally found that we had similar beliefs but just reached them from different angles. I guess that’s the generation gap at work but her experience informs my views and, coupled with my own experience, deepens my understanding of the historical impact of ‘women’s place’.
She had a shit life, my mum, all in all, and mine is better. But mine is only better because of her strength, her resilience, her insight, her support and her love. It would probably have taken years for me to relate to radical feminism without her input. My sister doesn’t understand it…but then, she didn’t have those hours in the bathroom.
My mum died three years ago – a cantankerous and belligerent old French woman. And I don’t half miss her.