I can’t put my finger on the exact moment that the word “feminism” or its concepts entered my conscious mind. But I can tell you that as far back as my memory stretches, I had a very clear idea of a concept I called “even-stevens.” If someone got more pizza than me, I noticed. When Mommy was reading Cinderella to me and I heard how the stepsisters were treated as opposed to our heroine, I noticed. Later, when Jessica Savage took her seat at the anchor desk of the American news we watched on our only cable channel, I noticed.
I don’t think that is unique to me. Most kids have a strong sense of fairness from an early age and can tell you if something is even-stevens or not. What made me different was that I was keenly aware when the imbalance I was experiencing was due to being a girl and I would never take it sitting down. I had a killer instinct when it came to even-stevens.
I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back now, I realize it was my parents’ relationship and their polar opposite personalities that turned my need for fairness into full-blooded feminism. My dad was a male chauvinist and my mother was, in my opinion, under his thumb.
Mommy and Daddy were born in the 1920s when the roles for men and women were very different. My mother was a study in contrasts. She was taller than most women of her generation and physically very strong, but incredibly timid and unassuming. She didn’t swear or drink or raise her voice. She was emotionally very strong as well, quietly supporting the emotional well-being of each one of us, but she would rarely express her own feelings except for how they pertained to us—her love, pride and joy for us. I never heard her express her own wants and needs.
Every day, 365 days a year for the better part of seventy years, she put three meals on the table. She made her own bread and cookies and cakes. All summer she harvested the bounty of our land, and in the high heat of the summer, she stood at the kitchen stove putting up her preserves: jams, pickles, beets, chow all sat row upon row in their jars ready to be opened through the winter, when we would taste the summer freshness and all the love she put into each jar. She cleaned the house, put the sheets on the line every week so we could sleep with the heavenly smell of the east wind in our bed linens. She toiled in a quiet, dignified way and never wanted to be singled out or have attention brought to her.
Daddy was a different story. I think he was naturally a fairly sensitive person, but his childhood caused him to hide that sensitivity with a very sharp tongue. He was “old” my whole life. Comically, I am older now than he was when he had me, but what can I say, when you are little kid and your dad is fifty, he seems old. His body was twisted up with arthritis, which added to my assessment of him as old. Ironically, the same disease has now taken my youthful stride from me. Although I saw him as old and feeble, I would find out later that in fact he was known all his life as a man who could handle himself, which is to say he could physically defend himself and for most of his life was forced to do so. Even without formal education, he was incredibly smart and capable, and he had pulled himself out of a life of alcoholism that began in puberty and lived the final fifty-one years of his life in sobriety.
My dad was on the shorter side, I think about five feet, eight inches before age and arthritis shrunk him down closer to five foot six. He was shorter than my mother but there was no doubt who was dominant between them.
For the first seventeen years of my life, I was the apple of his eye, but the bane of his existence at the same time. I called him out on his language every chance I got. I remember the first time I heard him say, “So-and-so got herself pregnant.” I was scared to even scratch myself never mind masturbate. I thought I could somehow get myself pregnant. Of course, I eventually realized this was just another way of my father putting all responsibility on the woman when something went wrong. After that, every time he used that expression, I would tell him lesbians everywhere wanted to know how so-and-so got herself pregnant!
The first big battle I remember—besides the ones that took place daily at home as I tried to change my father’s thinking—actually happened at church. Our church was built the year I was born. It is a very modern design for a church. It is massive and made entirely of wood with a beautiful marble floor. The wooden ceiling is flat and incredibly high. There is no stained glass and even the stations of the cross are carved out of wood. I watched family members walk up that isle for weddings and funerals and baptisms. I was raised Catholic and that meant I studied my catechism all the time. But every Sunday, I would watch as boys served Mass. The cool outfits and the important spot that altar boys held looked super fun to me. I asked if I could serve Mass. It seemed like a reasonable request. Our priest at the time was ancient, and he quickly dismissed me by saying that girls NEVER serve mass. The logical question presented itself to me without even thinking about it: “Why do I need a penis to wash the priest’s hands and ring the bells?” They called my parents.
After weeks of back and forth, I was finally able to serve Mass. I felt vindicated to take my own walk up that aisle as an altar girl. I washed Father’s hands when the time came and folded the crisp linen napkin expertly when he was done with it. After Mass he told me I had done a good job and that he would see me next week. I declined. It had never been my intention to do it every week. I just wanted to make a point. Girls could do the job every bit as good as boys. Even-stevens.
Daddy didn’t know what to make of my argument, but he was proud of me. Of course, a few years later, when I came to the full realization that a woman could never be Pope, a priest or even a deacon, I decided to leave the church due to the misogyny. Daddy was no longer proud of me and my arguments.
Excerpt from Running Down a Dream: A Memoir by Candy Palmater ©2022. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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