News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Why I missed the First Amendment

Commentaries dotted The Nugget for weeks. Folks chit-chatted about whether the evening would be tense or free-flowing, whether it might erupt. Then, last Thursday night, people gathered at Sisters Fire Hall for a panel discussion on free speech and the First Amendment.

It’d make sense for me to be there; I seem to yammer on about finding and using one’s voice quite a bit. Acquaintances asked if I’d be attending. Local women texted me when they noticed that all the panelists listed were white men.

I told everyone I had a previous engagement, attending Bend Design, an unusually thoughtful and intimate gathering just down the road apiece. While factual, this wasn’t entirely true. I went to Bend Design during the day, learning about social change and equity, business and creativity, but skipped the evening sessions.

I missed those discussions, and the First Amendment, because I’m a mom.

Evening is the time when old-school moms cook dinner from scratch. It’s when families gather around the table and share stories.

It’s a time when kids need to wind — or melt — down after a long day of socializing and learning. A time of bedtime rituals and shenanigans. A time for good old-fashioned parenting.

My husband and I are not Ward and June Cleaver; I work part-time and have an active creative practice. He’s very involved with our domestic life and raising our son. Still, we occupy fairly traditional gender roles.

I grew up watching women like my mom do a whole lot of work for no money and little glory. They raised us kids and fiercely managed their surprisingly clean households, gardens, farms. They swept the church steps and organized the school carnival. They put on the youth chapel’s Halloween party, with apples to bob for and homemade treats to win in the cakewalk.

These ladies wove fun and community for all of us to enjoy, keeping us warm like big comfy shawls. They were also doing a heck of a lot of “emotional labor,” though I didn’t know how to articulate it then. They provided essential support for the menfolk who brought home the bacon in many households.

I didn’t often hear their voices out in the larger world. My mom’s infamous letters to the editor of the local newspaper were my primary indication that women might influence anything larger than a bake sale.

Mostly, I saw men intoning the news on TV, male scientists and ministers telling people what to believe, men starring in movies and writing the books we read in school. I gazed in wonder at paintings and photographs made by men, many depicting women’s bodies.

I read men’s words in newspapers and magazines that dealt with the big issues: politics, government, culture. Women, when they wrote or spoke in the public sphere, seemed to discuss food, children, and clothing.

My mom taught me how to dust a knickknack, fry an egg, and milk a goat. Watching her, I learned the esoteric art of household choreography, creating intricate dances in which kids made it to soccer practice on time, dogs were brought to vets, groceries were shopped for at the lowest sale prices.

My mom was no “women’s libber,” but she wanted more for me than the scant opportunities that had been open to her. She told me that things were changing. The culture told me this, too: theoretically, I could do anything men could do.

To bring the point home, my Republican dad took me to see Geraldine Ferraro, a shockingly female, Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States. Mom taught me how to write letters to the editor that would get published nearly every time.

My first and most formidable copyeditor, she sharply critiqued my writing and speech for grammar, diction, spelling, persuasiveness. Arguing with her was like trying to tear down an exceptionally clever brick wall armed only with one’s fingernails and a broken teaspoon; my brother and I developed rhetorical skills just trying to get an extra 15 minutes on curfew.

Thus I was set up to succeed in writing college-entrance essays and taking SATs. I was young, educated, and creative; I had no intention of whiling away my life inside a house, worrying about carpet stains.

Art, writing, media and culture fascinated me. I wanted to be part of that world. So I moved to the city and jumped right in.

But people change. Later I became a step-mom, and the experience of deep love for a child blew me away. I saw that those moms with their cakes and carnivals, kids and knickknacks, were every bit as important as the talking heads on TV.

Their job required the same levels of creativity and commitment I admired in poets and musicians, artists and journalists. They weren’t likely to change government policy or win a Nobel Prize, but hands-on moms mattered.

Since then, I am often torn between focusing on family life and getting out there in the big, bad world — or even the small-town community. A person only has so much time and energy.

Last Thursday, when the people of Central Oregon gathered at conferences and fire halls to discuss the Big Issues, where was I?

Home, with my son, cooking dinner.


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