Memoirs and Bios
Return to main Text Memoirs Page

A Celebration of My Life by Betsy (from Womankind October 1972)

(Editors Note: A memoir from a former paid staffperson of the CWLU.)

I guess you'd have to understand where I've been to appreciate fully where I am now, because in many ways the New Me is not remarkable at all. My new head, new skills, my new hair style are all fairly common place, indeed. Certainly not the kind of success story glossy magazine will carry on the cover, not even "MS."

But for me, the growth and discoveries and achievement have been enormous, and I'd like to share some of this joyous new thing of becoming a person. All the more so, in fact, because I'm not an extraordinary person. I'm not rich or gifted or beautiful or blonde. I don't have a college degree, and I'm a lousy cook. What is extraordinary is that there's more of me than there has ever been in my entire life. And that's exciting!

But let's begin at the beginning. "ELBOWS OFF THE TABLE"

I spent my oldest-of-seven white Anglo-Saxon Protestant childhood trying to be to be invisible, to hide my ugliness and unworthiness, and to avoid distressing people with my presence, for I was convinced that I was responsible for every bad thing that happened in my household.

Although my grossest weight at any time was 140 lbs, at 5 '5", I can't recall a time in my life when I did not think of myself as fat. In fact, I thought about little else. I did not think about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I thought about my body. My sole aspiration in life was to be long and lithe, with a flat tummy and beautiful breasts - like the cover girls on "Seventeen" and "Cosmopolitans," and the very real girls that occupied so much of my husband’s attention. But more of that later.

My parents were decent, well-meaning people, but if they ever had any great expectations of me - aside from standing up straight and keeping my elbows off the table - I can't think what they might have been.

My father always had to sign his approval to my high school curriculum choices, a quarterly source of grief for both of us. I elected groovy things like Latin, Greek and Ancient History, but my father urged me to be practical and to prepare myself for a job-before-marriage with typing and shorthand. Although he yielded to me, my own judgment was continually undermined in the process.

Nor was there elsewhere, I was always in awe of "smart" people and I grew up believing in a kind of preordination for book learning. Alas I was not one of the elect! As soon as I was old enough, I began working after school and weekends to avoid failure in competition for dates, social clubs, cheerleading – whatever girls are supposed to compete for. If you don’t try, you can’t lose.

Although my job was supposed to be an escape, it was public and, in many ways, rewarding. I was a ‘nice girl’ with a friendly smile. Over the counter I met young men, who became dates as I “fell in love “with each one, and I met older men, who became benefactors. The latter were members of an alumni association that granted me a year’s scholarship, for 1956-1957, to Boston University.

I also had a Christian commitment. So, in 1957, my little New England church paid my way to Chicago and the Baptist Missionary Training School. I endured two years of convent-type living, then quit and took a clerical job and a girls club room, with no plans whatever for my future.


What came, of course, was marriage, 1959 and children, 1962, 1964, and 1967, If I had “failed” as a daughter and “failed” as a student, my crowning achievement of failure was as a wife and mother. Although I worked faithfully and without complaint while my husband completed his education; although I bent over backwards to keep his socks picked up and his castle neat and clean and welcoming; although I dieted constantly, learned to use make-up and tried desperately to like cooking; although I typed, even wrote, his term papers, shared his interests and enthusiastically supported his ambitions – he strayed continually and ruthlessly.

In typical fashion, I accepted defeat as my lot. I just buried my hurt and more than ever became a non-person. Motherhood, finally, I felt, was something I could do. Giving birth must mean something, doesn’t it? I mean, I couldn’t be a total failure...

And yet, try as I might to be a good mother, my babies cried and fussed, there ears were always dirty and they wouldn’t pick up their toys. My head ached all the time. I yelled and got cross when Dr. Spock said I shouldn't, I couldn’t manage daily baths and walks in the park and peaceful bedtimes. The house got messier, my husband strayed more than ever, and far from feeling fulfilled I felt more than ever my utter inadequacy as a person. I lived doubled over with knots in my guts and knots in my throat. I clenched my teeth and spoke very little, and sometimes I burst into tears when reading aloud to the children. I kept struggling and hoping, but couldn't see any hope. I hurt and I wanted to die.


In the meantime, however, the world changed a little bit, and I suddenly found myself in the midst of the civil rights movement, marching and picketing with babies on my back and a whole new sense of purpose. Something to live for - giving other folks a chance to be as free as me.

Then came the peace movement, and my head began to swim with the realization of the violence perpetuated against mankind. And during the course of these struggles my moral outrage began to be informed by politics, and I soon discovered I'd become a radical.


This was a period of great growth for me. I was doing important work outside the home and I had a social milieu that challenged my world arid everything I stood for. I was forced. For the first time in my life, to deal with the hard fact of being really different - not inferior or inadequate, but of being radically set apart from the familiar mainstream.

My windows boasted posters demanding "Let the People Decide". And I was always in the streets, gathering signatures for independent candidates, marching against the war, and exercising free speech on Morse Avenue, while my friends were fighting it out with cops during the Democratic Convention. I developed a lot of strength living in the midst of neighborhood hostility as my lifestyle and politics became more public.

I began to feel better about myself; I was helping to make a revolution. At first my part was small, mostly organizing the office and maintaining the files. But I moved quickly into organizing people, newspaper writing and making speeches. In 1968, I became a candidate for state representative.

During all this time, however, I was still a follower. Decision-making in our group was democratic. What happened in practice was that the men debated the issues and we women voted.


About that same time the, world shifted again, and "the Woman Question" came into vogue. Some of my women friends - single women; without responsibilities and without husbands to account to - began talking a whole lot about the Woman Question and agitating for respect and equality in our organization. They criticized the men for male chauvinist attitudes at meetings and for relegating to women the least significant work. They criticized the husbands, and urged us wives to overthrow our masters.

That was going too far. I had finally found my place in the world. My husband and I were a team, making the revolution side by side for the sake of the children and our children’s children. But my women friends persisted and in no time at all I found myself in a rap group.


Becoming liberated is like being in labor, long arid arduous, building in intensity till you think you can’t stand it any longer. Even the outcome is uncertain and you panic in fear of a stillbirth or deformity. But there’s no reversing the process once it's begun'; you can only persevere and hope for successful delivery.

The rap group was a mind blower. Though I was dragged in kicking and screaming, and suffered reprisals from my much threatened husband, it quickly became the most important place in my life.

I discovered, first, that every one of us suffered feelings of inadequacy and had spent our lives preoccupied with, the size, and shape of our bodies, comparing ourselves to the glamorous models of the media. Secondly, I learned how all of us had suffered from stunted intellectual growth, how we were taught to be dependent, not independent. I learned too, about. how even the single women in their relationships with men and how mobility and sexual freedom were no guarantee of respect. Nor was education any guarantee for them of meaningful, gainful employment.


From the rest of my sisters, I learned about marriage, that great “team” my husband and I had developed. None of us women had help with the children. If we couldn’t find or afford baby-sitters, we missed our meetings or carried the kids along and spent our meeting times dealing with bottles, diapers, and crankiness. None of us had help with the housework.

We discovered together how we had been molded and shaped according to models of women that bore little relation to the potential each of us had as a person. The men in our lives, far from rejoicing in our newfound freedom, had no intention of relinquishing the power they held in maintaining us in those molds. Most important, though, we realized we could change. I was basically OK. With the loving and sympathetic support of my sisters I could start from scratch and make a new life for myself, in my own image, according to my own needs and abilities.

In 1969, over thirty and mother of three, I continued to work in earnest for the liberation of women I participated in the founding convention, that year, of the CWLU, and have been actively involved ever since.


The first victory in the power struggle for possession of my body, mind, and soul was mine. I had my tubes tied, got my own bed, and said “No” when No was what I was feeling. No more sex because it was expected of me and certainly no more sex as a way of resolving conflicts.

I took to arranging my own schedule of activities and involving myself in the political pursuits of my choice. Not without grief, mind you, for I was constantly being ridiculed for my decisions. Nor was I getting any assistance with the housework and child care, I just did less of each. As the women's movement grew up around me, more and more women rallied to my support, sharing the lessons of our common struggles and the care of the children.


A whole new sense of confidence in myself and my abilities grew. I began to read and get excited about ideas. Though licensed to drive many years before, a nervous driver, I had let my license expire. Now I renewed it, and for the first time felt secure as a good driver at the wheel. I was learning to take control of my life, my decisions, even machines. Formerly intimidated by them, now I tackled them. I dismantled a malfunctioning mimeograph machine, diagnosed its problem, repaired the faulty parts and reassembled them. It worked and I was high for days from sheer joy. Tomorrow I will tackle the typewriter.

Meanwhile I have also become economically independent. I have served the Chicago Women's Liberation Union as paid staff person for the past ten months, sharing administrative responsibility for the entire organization with another woman. The work and decision-making are harder in many ways than anything I've ever done, but all the more rewarding for that very reason.

The struggle for my soul is the hardest part of all, because there is nothing to show me what I'm struggling for. When I free myself from all those things in life that oppress me, what will be left?

Guilt keeps impinging. My mother role keeps trying to keep me at home; my wife role keeps demanding another chance. Anxiety about my children and uncertainty about the future interfere a whole lot with the excitement of forging a new life for myself.

Yet the rewards are too great to ignore. The pains of the past are too fresh in my memory; I can no longer pretend it was better before. It wasn’t. For all its newness, for all its uncertainty, being the decision-maker for my own life is its own best reward and I am like a brand new person discovering the world.

Woman symbol

Memoir Topics