Feminism, it has come a long way in the past 70 years!
By Hollis Taylor
Out here in Colorado I decided to do private care for the elderly instead of working in a facility. In PA where I worked in a facility I mostly got close to women, many of whom were widows. I often enjoy the company of elderly men as well but often we clash ideas once we get to know each other fairly well. I am a progressive feminist and rarely are my ideas understood or even heard by the elderly. I rarely share my ideas about feminism or gender. My interaction with the elderly is more like a history project. I learned that the more independent the woman the healthier she was and often dementia of any kind was limited. I discovered that the more dominant a woman’s husband was the more likely she was to be obese and develope alzheimers. The obvious conclusion is that they never got the opportunity to fully become themselves therefore comforted themselves with food and often found boredom as their children grew up and moved out.
Out here in Colorado I am getting the opportunity to work with a couple, together, in their home. I fully support in home care and find it to be one of the healthiest ways to support our elderly population as they age. I am happy to see the evolution of elderly care from lots of nursing homes to more private care and assisted living. Now that I am in their home I get to see just how they live with each other. Colorado is also known for more progressive people moving here, even the first frontiers were progressive for their era. A couple that I am taking care of was no different. This couple moved here because he was drawn to the area after serving in WW2 as a pilot. She of course followed and happily made home here in Colorado. In the winter months they used to live in Arizona until more and more health problems pushed them to stay here in Colorado, an excellent place to get great health care. This couple has a typical background about being high school sweethearts, his return from the war, her quitting her home economic teacher job to be a wife and mother. She raised 3 children and now has numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.
I was hired to assist the couple as needed. One of the days I work he likes to go to a social gathering at the communities lodge, where they have coffee and people bring snacks to share. When I took him to this social event it became apparent that there were huge gaps in perspective. There were social rules about hanging out with the women or men, all based on sexual characteristics. I usually present myself and identify as GenderQueer. Of course I sat alone because I don’t do gender classifications like that. I thought it was cute that a few of the ladies came up to ask me about the tablet I was frantically typing away on. When I began to explain they were very polite and listened. I knew they were trying to draw me in but I just couldn’t bring myself to bend to the gender ways. He said that he noticed the ladies talking to me, as if I should feel accepted into the group. I realized that from his perspective he likely assumed I just didn’t know any of the women and was being shy about interacting with them. Really I had tons to do on my tablet and I don’t like to participate in gender roles. An assumption on his part leads to understanding for both of us. The ladies just assumed I was super busy after their investigation. I was happy they had asked about the tablet and realized I was not being impolite. Gender roles are very deeply ingrained in our senior population and often it is my biggest challenge in working with them.
As she sat at her desk organizing her bills like her daughter had recently asked her to I wondered about her perspective. She had thought of herself as a strong woman because she took care of the house and the money. She took care of everything for her husband and children, this was how she identified as being strong. In service to her husband and family she found her identity. Now her daughter wanted to take it away. She is obese but doesn’t suffer from much dementia, in fact her husband has more than she does. She keeps herself reading and taking care of the bills, this is likely the scientific reason her wits stay about her. She is beginning to show some early signs of dementia so her daughter is not out line but I imagine that her perspective is challenging regardless of the reality.
As I listen to her stories I realize her perspective about her stance as a woman. From her era, it was a pretty big deal to manage the money. But I could hear the frustration in her voice when she told me that her husband sold her dream home because she was cutting the grass. She says “He didn’t want our neighbors to see me pushing a lawn mower.” She said he didn’t like to cut grass and she didn’t mind. She said she at least got all the special touches in this house that she wanted. I could see it wasn’t exactly what she wanted but she settled. Maybe it was a couple compromise. I also noticed that at every meal he is expected to say the blessing and she gets frustrated if he doesn’t remember. Although there is always her desire to see to it that he is taken care of, even if she can’t do it herself. Interestingly he will often tell me to take care of her first. He seems to be clueless about what is happening around him even though he tends to be rather demanding. She tolerates this demanding behavior but you can see by the roll of her eyes it bothers her. They are very sweet to each other most of the time and they show true love towards each other. When I pointed out that she had done something sweet for him he acted as if he was entitled. She behaves as though her giving to him is expected and she wouldn’t imagine it being any other way. The dynamic between them was intensely traditional and often I found my ideas about how relationships should work to be challenged. Its great practice in keeping your opinion to yourself.
When she talks about her childhood and her father she clearly speaks of her dominant father. She says a lot of things in her tone, eye brows and the crossing of her arms. When I talk to her about high school and her choice to be a home economic teacher she makes it clear that her favorite part was cooking and sewing. But then she follows that with a story about being a homemaker at a young age because of sick family members. I wondered if she had made other choices would she have been a fashion designer or a chef? Regardless, her choice was to eventually be with her now husband when he returned from the war. I asked her why and she said “Well I loved him and I needed a husband.” I have heard this statement many many times so I inquired as to why she needed a husband. She explained that a lot has changed since the 40’s and although she was progressive then in her ways today she must seem traditional. She needed a husband to pay the bills and support her financially. Her husband was willing and able as he retired from the military and entered the working world.
Some of the romantic story is traditional and idealistic but the dynamics are not. She tells about him calling at 2 am to tell her he was headed home from the war and to get a preacher ready. It was so important to marry back then and it is reflected when she talks about her grandchild. Seems her grandson is living with his child’s mother rather then marrying her. I could see in her voice this made her lose some respect for them, but she was working on not expressing her opinion. A wise choice just like mine to keep my mouth shut. We enjoy each others company and there is no need to express our differences. I enjoy romance so for me some of it is kind of cute. Watching her lean into kiss him while he is passed out in his recliner or how she decides what a good meal would be for them. She will sit with him because he is likely “lonely” she says. She always considers his experience and that tells me its true love.
Towards the end of her story telling and my questioning she looks at me. I have a shaved head, colorful alien scrubs on and often appear very masculine. She says, “There were not any women like you back then, if there were they kept it a secret. I see you are strong, smart and kind – that is all that matters.” When I tried to clarify what she meant about women “like me” she didn’t refer to me as a lesbian, and I didn’t say anything. She did say that I was a tomboy and she could see my strength. She also thinks that cutting my hair like that would have been very unacceptable back in the 40’s. She is absolutely right but so was wearing a baseball cap or fedora. She smiled, I could see she didn’t care about my hair that much.
It seemed she understood my perspective but expected me to respect hers. I do although I don’t have to like it, and for me it would be torture. She said there were a lot of changes since the 40’s and the more I sat and thought about that, the more I respected her position. For her era she was progressive, she was a feminist. Although today she would be considered the opposite back in the 40’s she was seen as Wonder Woman! A hero for this feminist for sure!