My father did not seem a likely candidate to be a feminist. The only son of a vice president at one of Pittsburgh’s leading companies, he was loved from birth and given access to every advantage his parents could afford: music lessons, summers at Conneaut Lake, a professional-grade camera, riding lessons, a trip to the New York World’s Fair in 1939, tennis lessons, all the books he could read, a ham radio, even the drudgery of ballroom dancing lessons...if it was available, and they could afford it, Dad got it. He was the prince of the family, cherished and secure and clearly destined for better things, and if there was any doubt that he was the prince of the family, just take a gander at this formal portrait from 1935 or 1936. If I didn’t know better I’d think he was a young, somewhat grave, very slightly spoiled Rockefeller or maybe a lesser Vanderbilt.
Dad was a sophomore at Ohio University when his father died in 1943, and I have absolutely no doubt that if my grandfather had lived, and my father not been drafted a few months after his death, that Dad would have followed his father into business after the war. As it was, he went overseas, fought the Nazis at La Rochelle and St. Nazaire, and then used the GI Bill to study at Teachers College, Columbia. He wanted to teach, and then go into administration, and that is exactly what he did.
Along the way he met my mother, who taught English at the same high school where Dad taught geometry. Their classrooms were next to each other, and Dad asked her out after a co-worker said, “That’s a very pretty girl, and if you don’t ask her out I will.” Soon they married, and after five years, they had me.
So far, so cliched. Literally millions of families in the 1950’s and 1960’s have similar tales of war, education, and children, and a surprising number of those families were torn to pieces once The Feminine Mystique sparked Second Wave feminism in the 1960’s. I have a collection of letters written to Ms. in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, and it’s crystal clear that a lot of men were not best pleased when their wives went back to school, got jobs, and asked them to wash their own damn dishes and learn to do the laundry. By birth and upbringing, my father should have been one of them.
Surprise! Maybe it was because he married relatively late, or genuinely admired my mother as well as loved her. Maybe it was because his own mother raised him right. Maybe it was something unique to him. But my father was more than happy to do the laundry, walk the dog, clear the table, and work on home improvement projects alongside Mum. He wasn’t much of a cook — the man could and did ruin cereal with milk — but he tried, and once when Mum was in the hospital he helped me bake her a cake, carefully following the directions and beaming proudly as I frosted it once it was cool.
Even better? Dad never once, not once, suggested that I really should be a housewife and mommy instead of a paleontologist. He brought me stacks of the science fiction books he’d loved as a teenager, introduced me to comics, and taught me the rudiments of woodworking and welding. One of my earliest memories is of watching Star Trek on his knee when I was only seven, and then having him carry me out of bed two years later to watch the moon landing. “You’ll never forget this,” he said as we watched humans walk on another planet for the very first time, and I never have.
He never used the word “feminist” in raising me, or in interacting with my mother. He didn’t need to, not when his every word, thought, and deed as a husband and father made it crystal clear that his wife was his partner, not his slave, and his daughter was his legacy to the world. He even read at least one Second Wave classic, Caroline Bird’s Born Female: the High Cost of Keeping Women Down, and I know for a fact that he urged Mum to return to teaching a good four years before she actually did because he knew how much she resented having to write “housewife” on their income tax forms every year.
But possibly his greatest act of love, his true moment as a feminist, came right after my birth.
My mother had had a rough pregnancy and rougher delivery, and thanks to a bit of placenta that stubbornly refused to pass, she nearly bled to death soon after I was born. Fortunately Dad got her to the doctor in time to save her life, but it took her weeks to recover her strength. The early days of parenthood are rough enough as it is due to lack of sleep and the damage caused by childbirth, and looking back I’m slightly in awe of what she accomplished.
And then I think of what Dad did, and I realize how she was able to come through the ordeal of her life without suffering a complete physical collapse.
For my father, who could (and probably did) burn water, came home every night after work, scooped me into his arms, and told Mum that it was his turn, that he would take care of me until it was time to put me down for the night. He would make my bottle, change my diaper, bathe and play and swaddle me safe and warm. The next hour or two was hers to rest, to bathe, to read a good book or nap or do whatever she pleased. And no, that didn’t mean he tended me while she made dinner or threw a load of laundry into the wash. That hour or two was hers, only hers. Dinner, laundry, tidying up the house — all of that could wait. She’d nearly died giving him his only child, and the least he could do was shoulder part of the burden.
He even gave up his one chance to do what every science fiction lover in those days dreamed of: go to Worldcon. For this was the first (and to date, only) time Worldcon would be in Pittsburgh, at the William Penn Hotel downtown, and all the writers he loved would be there. Isaac Asimov was the toastmaster, James Blish was the Guest of Honor, and no less than Hugo Gernsback, the Luxembourger editor who’d basically invented the genre, would be receiving a special award. Dad had bought his membership long since, and he’d been looking forward to it for months.
No one would have blamed him if he’d asked my aunt to come stay with Mum that weekend, least of all Mum herself. She knew what that Worldcon meant to him, and they both knew it was likely the only chance he’d ever get. It was literally a dream come true for him, a lifelong fan — and he gave it up without a murmur because his wife and his daughter came first.
If that isn’t the act of a feminist, especially in the days when married women were fired for getting pregnant (like Mum), functionalist educators were urging liberal arts colleges to stop teaching chemistry and teach women “the simple sophistication of fresh artichokes with milk,” and a dozen qualified women were tossed from the Mercury program while men with inferior test results went into orbit, I don’t know what is.
One thing I do know:
My father would have been storming the barricades of the Supreme Court if he were still alive.
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