As a recent graduate, for the past four years I have had the privilege of learning the ins-and-outs of gender studies and women’s history. Many have asked me, “why would you study that?” “How is that practical?” “What will you do with that?” and, “why would a guy major in women’s studies?” The emphasis is always sarcastically placed on the word women with a snide slither of the tongue, as if the word itself is poison. As if a man daring to take an interest in women other than to objectify and sexualize them was blasphemous.
But the truth is, I did not study women’s and gender studies simply because I wanted to understand the plight of 51% of the world’s population. It was for quite selfish reasons in fact. I started studying it because I wanted to understand how my mother, one of the brightest, most imaginative and creative minds I’ve ever met, could be silenced into a seemingly ordinary suburban life. How can someone like that wind up like this? By no means am I saying that my mother has a bad life; she has a relatively good life. She lives comfortably. Materially, she wants for nothing. She has beautiful children, beautiful grandkids—but I sometimes wonder, what would my mother have been if she hadn’t spent almost all of her adult life caring for my siblings, my father and me? What could she have done? What mark would she have left on the world and not just on the hearts of her children and grandchildren? Could her influence have been so much grander than what it currently is?
I suppose I will never know the answers to these questions. I suppose they shouldn’t even be asked. However, if you take a look at my mother’s life, you would see that she was systematically blocked from reaching her potential. From childhood to adolescence to adulthood, she was stunted.
She emigrated here from Italy with her parents at the age of 12. She was their oldest daughter in a family of seven children. She would tell me that every time her mother announced a new pregnancy she and her closest sister, Rosa, would cry because they knew what that meant: more cooking, more cleaning, more babysitting. At the age of 17, she met my father and she always says she was enthralled by his mind, by his curiosity and by his level of education—15 years her elder, she saw him as a life guide, as someone who could show her the way. She said she didn’t know if she loved him but she loved what he represented, and for her that was an education, an education that was never viable for her. She was forced to stop attending high school because she had to start working full-time to help her parents with the bills. My father “offered her a way out” as she puts it. She recounts these years in her quintessential soft-spoken tone, which I see as a symptom of something more. Soft-spoken maybe because she doesn’t think she deserves to be heard. She recounts these years by always ending with, “I wish I would have just given myself a chance.”
Through the classes I have taken I have learned that this is the story of many strong young women. They have been systematically stifled. Stifled by expectations, by confining roles and by internalized inferiority. My mother’s words echo for me every time I hear someone say, “Isn’t women’s and gender studies so impractical?” And I always say, “No, because I think everyone should be given a chance.” Just imagine if my mother had.