In the United States, we have a saying: “things are better now than they used to be.” This phrase is recycled and reused by every generation, and arguably, reused every year. And rarely is it used in a positive context. In fact, this stock phrase is part of a stock conversation that goes something like this:
Person A: Have you heard about (insert issue or travesty here)?
Person B: What about it?
Person A: (explanation)
Person B: Oh, well, it isn’t that bad. Things are better now than back then! We should celebrate the progress we’ve made!
Right. Because we all know, that if some progress is made, the job is done and we should toast our accomplishment, right?
I had a conversation with my mother recently. We chatted, caught up on the local going-ons, then we got to talking about bigger things. We talked about Elizabeth Miller’s new study on reproductive coercion, about the verdict against Andrew Wakefield, regarding his bogus vaccinations-causes-autism study, and other assorted things. (Sidenote: I love that my mother and I can talk about these things. My little brother complains that she’s turned me into a feminist. The horror!)
I’m a first generation college student. My family has largely been blue collar. Momma Beemer and I were talking about our family, and how much things has changed since she was my age, and even how much things have changed since I was a pubescent lass. When I apologized for my teenage-antics, she told me that while I was a handful, she was glad that I was challenging authority and going after the goals I’d set for myself.
You see, as the only daughter of a blue-collar family in the South in the seventies, she didn’t have many options. At her high school, in addition to the regular curriculum, students could take auto mechanic classes or learn how to style hair. She’d desperately wanted to take the mechanic course–my grandfather worked with cars–but my grandfather refused. It wasn’t her place.
Her older brothers, my uncles, had cars waiting for them when they turned sixteen. When she didn’t, and asked why, she was told: “You don’t need a car. Your boyfriend will drive you around.”
When she wanted to get a job, her parents refused. She could baby-sit, or do nothing.
When Momma Beemer got pregnant her senior year of high school, her father gave her two options: get married or get an abortion. She got married, and divorced, a year later, from a cruel, abusive, and neglectful high school ‘sweetheart’.
In the 80’s, 90’s, and in the first decade of the new millennium, she still didn’t, and doesn’t have many options. With only a high school education, twice divorced, with all the debt of the second divorce (from my father), unemployed, and undereducated, my mother is a prime example of how even “better than they used to be” still isn’t good enough.
It’s very easy to talk about progress when we aren’t talking about real people.
My mother is the reason why feminism is still relevant.
My mother is the reason why community support for single mothers is needed, including friends, familial support, educational assistance, financial assistance, and unemployment.
My mother is the reason I’m a feminist.
My mother is the reason I’m going to succeed. Society has failed her, over and over, and the least I can do is do my best to make sure it doesn’t happen anymore, as well as pay her back for all the things she has given me.
Momma Beemer is who I think about when I’m tempted by complacency–by “things are better now than they used to be.”