This is the final installment of a set of meditations that began here/.
There was a time, when I was much younger, that I resented my mother a bit for not teaching me the rules about how to be a girl. I had to learn all that stuff all by myself—from books and experience. She didn’t tell me not to fight with boys, and she didn’t tell me not to climb trees or get dirty. She didn’t curl my hair so I’d be pretty, and she didn’t dress me like a doll. She didn’t tell me I wouldn’t be able to do things when I grew up. When, in the fifth grade, I decided I wanted to be an astronomer, she got me books on the planets and took me to meetings of the amateur astronomers’ club in a nearby city. I was totally unprepared for the “You can’t do it, you’re just a girl” attitude I would encounter later, beginning in high school, and continuing into college and graduate school.
My mother was a housewife, to be sure, but she was a housewife by choice and not by default, and that was always clear. My mother was very aware that she had a choice in matters that affected her life, and she felt quite free to exercise her options. She had had a career as a college English teacher, which she gave up when she married my father. But she didn’t passively give it up; she chose to become a housewife (although she hated housework). That was the kind of cruel choice that confronted women in those days. I have a great deal of admiration and respect for several other women of that era who made that choice another way and, against all odds, became competent and respected professionals. Unfortunately, none of them I know has daughters—or sons either, for that matter.
As a graduate student in English at Bryn Mawr, my mother wrote a master’s thesis correlating the events of Elizabethan England with the themes of plays from Shakespeare. In her thesis, she suggested–based upon some coincidences she found, and the point of view of several of the characters–that the author of some of the Shakespearean plays might have been none other than Queen Elizabeth, herself. When my mother first mentioned this to me, I was in high school, and I thought it was just some kooky idea of hers.
Later on, I heard and read numerous arguments supporting the hypothesis that the man we know as William Shakespeare could not have written the Shakespearean dramas. Several alternative authors have been suggested, among them Marlowe and certain male members of the court. But I have never heard or read the name of Elizabeth I of England mentioned in this context by established critics or scholars. Elizabeth was a brilliant woman as well as a devotee of the theater, and her father, Henry VIII, was a highly talented, creative man who wrote music under a pseudonym.
Just imagine, if you can, the greatest monarch of the English-speaking people and the classic master of the English language, both embodied in a woman! If that is even possible, then anything is possible.
The hardest question to answer is: How can a daughter examine the legacy she has received from her mother in a wise but critical way and question those aspects that diminish her sense of self-worth? Perhaps the first step is to stop and analyze the situation any time she feels a conflict between self-esteem and femininity—for example, between accomplishment and the favor of some man of the moment—and do the thing that enhances her sense of self-worth.
There is a temptation to take the easy way out, to try to find a man through whom one can obtain a vicarious sense of self-esteem. The hardest but most rewarding route is to take life into one’s own hands, to live it event-by-event, to take advantage of the real opportunities for choice which one does have and, in the process, to become convinced of one’s own worth as a unique human being.
Then, pass that legacy on to your daughters!