Tag Archives: women’s rights

Happy International Women’s Day, and celebrating my mother on the 100th anniversary of her birth

My mother, Sara Becker Gurvitz, and her granddaughter Zoe Colman, 1992.

My mother, Sara Becker Gurvitz, and her granddaughter Zoe Colman, 1992. Sara is 79 years old in this photo.

Happy International Women’s Day! The celebration of this holiday has varied over time and across geography. In different regions the focus of the celebrations ranges from general celebration of respect, appreciation and love towards women to a celebration for women’s economic, political and social achievements.

I like to think of it as a day to stop and reflect and where we are as women, and I always think about the progress that was made during my mother’s lifetime because this holiday always falls on her birthday, March 8. This year, she would have turned 100 years old.

My mother was born at a time when women definitely took a back seat to men. I don’t think she ever got over the fact that her older brother was able to go to college, while neither my mother nor her younger sister were educated beyond high school. That didn’t stop either one of them from entering the workforce in supporting roles. Perhaps it was good that her brother went to college because while he was in pharmacy school, he became friends with the man who was to become my father.

My parents were married in January 1940, when my mother had reached the advanced (for that time) age of 26 and my father was 30. My brother was born in February 1942 but I didn’t follow for another 12 years. So when I was born, my mother was 40 – and back then, there was no prenatal testing. Today, giving birth later in life is more common, but back then it was unusual, to say the least.

There was one thing about which my mother was fanatic – she never revealed her age. The birth date shown on her driver’s license, marriage license, and the birth certificates of my brother and I were all different. It did make me a bit uneasy that I didn’t know how old my mother was, which was a great contrast to my father who would proudly proclaim to anyone within earshot that he was born on 10-10-10 (that’s 1910 we’re talking about).

In fact, we never knew for sure how old she was until I cleared out my parents’ apartment three years ago when I found her actual birth certificate. She always looked younger than her age, so she saw no reason to destroy anyone’s illusions. Toward the end of her life, when she was dealing with illness (she beat lung cancer, but it came back five years later to her pancreas), she would announce her age to a chorus of disbelief.

I thank my mother for blessing me with many things, not the least of which are good skin and high energy, along with a youthful appearance. My mother was intelligent and strong-minded, and boy, did she know how to hold a grudge. If she had an opinion about something, whether it happened a minute ago or a decade ago, she would let you hear about it. I think I may have been “blessed” with that, too, but I am working on it.

My mother and my father had a love affair that lasted almost 60 years. She always took care of him until, in the end, he took care of her. And among the many blessings she left him with was the motivation to join a daily prayer group at a local temple, in which he was active for the remaining decade of his life and through which he made friends of all ages who were astonished by his energy, memory, and sense of humor.

That sense of humor kept my mother laughing at the same jokes, over and over, for nearly six decades. Not a bad role model for sharing your life with a partner. I am grateful for a husband who makes me laugh every day.

It is impossible to reflect on my mother’s life without thinking of my daughter. Upon hearing that my due date was March 2, I thought, “wouldn’t it be nice for my child to share a birthday with her grandmother.” My mother had other ideas, basically warning me that she wasn’t interested in sharing her birthday with anyone, even a grandchild. As my due date passed and we got closer to March 8, there was a level of stress about when the baby would be born. Fortunately, Zoe cooperated and came out on March 7. I am so glad to Zoe got to know her beloved Bubbe, who lived until Zoe was almost seven years old.

It thrills me to think of the span of progress that will have been achieved from the time my mother was born in the early 20th century to where we will be by the time Zoe is a grandmother. Progress for women may move at a snail’s pace, or so it seems, but as I mentioned in a previous post about the 100th anniversary of the march on Washington for women’s suffrage, we must keep working at it. And I would be willing to bet that my daughter and her generation will make quantum leaps toward equality and making things better not just for women but also for men. We may hold up “Half The Sky”, as the title of the wonderful book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDun says, but if only half the sky is held up, the sky will fall.

Celebrate the women in your life, privately and publicly. And women, let’s celebrate ourselves, for what we have achieved and what we are determined to accomplish. As my mother used to say, “you never know what strange turns life is going to take.” Mother, as usual, was right.

 

Women’s History Month: 100 years since the march for Women’s Suffrage – women’s progress, civil rights, and making a difference by bringing joy to the world

Bella Abzug, speaking the truth, as always

Bella Abzug, speaking the truth, as always

100 years ago today, on March 3, 1913, thousands of women staged a march on Washington, DC to demand the right to vote. According to Wikipedia, the march was organized by Alice Paul, a leading suffragist, Alice Paul. The march took place on the day prior to the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson “in a spirit of protest against the present political organization of society, from which women are excluded”, as the official program stated. The 19th amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, was passed by Congress in 1919 and ratified by the states in 1920.

This is at the front of my mind as the U.S. Supreme Court is in the midst of debating the constitutionality of parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Frankly, the idea that the right to vote for any American might be at risk frightens me.

The fact that both my mother (born in 1913) and my father (1910) were born before women had the right to vote simply blows my mind. It explains a lot about their attitudes as I grew up about what I could accomplish in life. From their perspective, I could be a nurse, a secretary, or a teacher, and all that would be over once I got married – got my M.R.S. degree, as they liked to put it – and had children. Thank goodness for the rise of the feminist movement and my own intellectual drive, which led me to complete my undergraduate degree in economics (University of Michigan, magna cum laude) and a graduate degree in public affairs (Princeton University).

The experience that had the greatest impact on my academic and career path happened in the summer of 1974, when I was lucky enough to serve as an intern to Representative Bella Abzug. Bella’s personality was as outsized as the hats she was known for wearing, and she was open about why she wore them: “I began wearing hats as a young lawyer because it helped me to establish my professional identity. Before that, whenever I was at a meeting, someone would ask me to get coffee.”

It was the summer of the Watergate hearings, and I had an up close and personal view of the extraordinary happenings on Capitol Hill. I saw how Bella, sometimes by sheer force of her personality and sometimes by working in collaboration with other legislators, was able to get things done for her constituents. Because of that experience, I decided that I wanted to make the world a better place, and focused on developing skills that could be put to use in creating public policy. I worked for over 20 years as an economist and consultant in the public and private sectors, working on projects ranging from reforming the court system in Massachusetts to making it safer and more efficient for trucks to travel across the nation.

Time goes by, things change, paths are taken or not taken, and everything we do leads us exactly to the place we are today. According to career consultant Emily Bennington, “This is such an incredible, unprecedented time to be a woman in business.” And that is what I am working on at this stage in my life: being a woman in business, making a difference, doing what I love.

Today, my goal is to make a difference by creating more joy in the world through my work. I create joy when I make a collage that brings joy to me as I make it, joy to the gift giver when they see the finished product and the joy to the lucky gift recipient. I use my writing skills, my analytical skills, and my interviewing skills in new ways to build my business. And I actually am following in the footsteps of my entrepreneur father, a pharmacist who owned a drugstore (where my mother also worked, but that’s another story).

I am breaking new ground in a way that I believe Bella would appreciate. I do carry a lipstick, and speak softly most of the time, but I also am not afraid to speak up with passion as I spread the message about my work (and about social justice and causes to which I am deeply committed, such as reducing gun violence and ensuring equal marriage rights).

100 years since the march for women’s sufferage. Can we rest on what has been achieved?  As Alice Paul said, “when you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.” I don’t think we’re there yet, so we must keep plowing ahead. I know that my mother, who would have turned 100 years old on March 8 this year, would agree.