My #WCW this week was easy. Mother’s Day is behind us and we have all moved on from the cards, flowers, and brunches. But I still have a couple of things to say about my mom.
I last saw my mom in March. Before that it had been two years since I had seen that smile. Maybe it’s because I am a bit older, maybe it is because I am a bit wiser, but with every conversation and with every visit, I am becoming more and more aware of the lessons my mom has taught me and is continuing to teach me.
Here are a few things I learned from her on her last visit:
Take Care of Yourself. The very first stop we made after I picked her up from the airport was to Sally Beauty Supply. We got hair “masks” and face masks. She had brought 16 bottles of nail polish. We may have looked a fright with those masks on, but we had one heck of a time sitting around the table, putting each other’s masks on and meandering around YouTube looking for cute designs to put on our nails. We laughed at videos and marveled at some of the designs these ladies were doing. We took our time. We did things that served absolutely no one but ourselves. And that is ok.
Put your phone down. My mom works mostly from home, so being close to her phone and her laptop is a necessity. Nevertheless, there would be times her phone would ring and she would NOT run to answer it. That little device did not control her life. She was engaged with the people in front of her. The phone could wait.
Labels have only the power you give them. We hear that words are not supposed to hurt us. The truth, though, is that they do. If someone puts a label on you that you would not put on yourself, I do think it is healthy to examine it. Am I selfish? Am I rude? But as you examine it you cannot let it consume you. Be aware of your actions. Be conscious of how your actions affect others. But, ultimately, if the label does not describe the person you actually are– the person that people who love you see– let it go. Do not give the label (and the person doing the labeling) power over your life and your actions. Or, in other words:
Feng Shui. The second day she was here, my mom re-did the girls’ room, had them get rid of 20-something items, and sketched out the different areas of our apartment according to Feung Shui. She made a list of what items and elements needed to be in each section of the house. She swept our front stoop and put coins under our doormat. We painted some rocks gold and cleared everything out from in front of the windows. We put the toilet lids down. We went and got a couple of Feung Shui books. We have a lot of work still to do, but it felt good to de-clutter a bit and make a little room for some good chi.
Get a bigger purse. We were getting ready to head out the door, when my oldest daughter asked me to put something of hers in my purse. She was holding her own purse when she asked, so I told her to put it in there. She responded that her purse wasn’t big enough, to which my mom and I both replied, “Get a bigger purse!” Sometimes we look to others to solve our problems, but if we take a step back the solution is actually quite simple. I wonder how many of the world’s problems could be solved if we only carried a slightly bigger purse…
Pause. Think. Then verbalize (The classic, “If you don’t have anything nice to say….”). We have all heard it a million times, and for good reason. This one was directed at my often-quarreling daughters. They bicker about the most ridiculous things. My first inclination is to remind them of the big picture–my own version of “Eat your Brussels sprouts because there are starving children in Africa.” My mom went a different route: Think Before You Speak. Is this worth fighting over? Are my words helping the situation? Can I find a solution, rather than just complain about the problem?
Until you have seen the sun rise over the Great Smokey Mountains, you haven’t lived. My mom describes herself as a gypsy. And, having lived in multiple states and traveled to a ton of countries, she has walked the walk. As my husband and I are getting older, and our girls are getting less high maintenance, our wanderlust is beginning to grow. There are so many places we want to see, but so little time. We have set some goals (with the guidance of my mama) and we are checking off our list. The bottom line here: Get. Out.
Just because you have the right to say something, doesn’t mean you should. This one was directed at the girls as well. I have tried to be open with them, and have made a real effort to not answer their “But WHY..?!?!?!” with an equally annoying “Because I said so!!!” I haven’t demanded they blindly obey me. In fact, I try to encourage them to formulate their arguments and be able to articulate their point of view. I want them to be able to stand up for themselves. I am afraid of them being victimized (now or in the future) because they have learned that they must do what they are told to do by an authority figure, regardless of how they feel about it. The down side of this is that I get A LOT of backtalk. I mean A LOT. Hearing my kids argue with me was almost too much for my southern mama. She wants them to be able to stand up for themselves, too, but she showed me that they really don’t need to be standing up for themselves so often…against ME! Yes they have the right to express themselves in ways children of past generations never did. But when it comes to things like brushing their teeth and making their beds, just because they have the right to argue does not mean they should.
Vision boards. We talked about having goals for the year, and about writing those goals down. We created vision boards to help us stay focused. I love planning, so the act of writing down some very specific things I want to get done this year and then creating a vision board out of those goals was very cathartic for me. The girls got into it, too. Now, when they are bored, I ask them if they have been working towards anything on their vision boards!
My mom has been through a lot in her life. She has lost loves, survived abuse, and has raised me mostly on her own. Though there are countless lessons she has taught me, one of the biggest is to WORK. You want that job? Work. You want that vacation? Work. You want that house on the hill? Work. No one can look out for you all the time, so you have to take that responsibility on yourself. It sounds a little sad at first, to say that there will not always be someone there to take care of you. But if you think about it, it is really empowering. It means you are in control of your life, your future, your happiness. It means you get to decide what you will do today that serves you. It means you get to learn about you– what makes you feel fulfilled and satisfied and whole. It means the world is at your feet. But it also means:
Lauren was bullied growing up, sexually assaulted when she was 16, and fought an eating disorder through her high school and college years. Her road to self-acceptance has been long and hard, but now she is dedicated to helping others pave their own road.
Lauren is the entrepreneur behind the WhatIsPerfection blog, a self-improvement blog for “the imperfect girl everywhere.” Her mission is to help women find happiness, feel beautiful, and be confident in who they are. “We all deserve to be happy, and we all deserve to be the best version of us. And we are truly capable of getting there. Because Perfection is Impossible. Happiness isn’t.”
Let’s start with some background. Where are you from? What was your favorite thing to do as a kid?
Hi! I am Lauren Eliz, of the What is Perfection Blog. I grew up in Long Island with my two sisters and larger than life Italian parents. Growing up was definitely an adventure for me. I lived on a block with a bunch of kids my age. Most of us, including me, went to Catholic School. Our classes were really small and I was basically with the same group of 50 kids from kindergarten through eighth grade. I was bullied a lot and didn’t really have a solid group of close friends. Then in high school I went to an even bigger Catholic school — and had over an hour long bus ride each day! I didn’t really like going to a private school. I hated wearing a uniform and learning about morality in a way that tried to make everyone be the same, act the same, and have little unique opinions about life. There weren’t many outlets for being creative or expressing your individuality. And being a creative person, that was really tough. I loved performing and spent much of my teenage free time performing in small theater shows around Long Island. And writing. I was always always writing: Music, Songs, Poems, Short stories – Anything and Everything. I guess my childhood is really what made creativity so important to me. It was what made me ME and allowed me to stand out in a world where everything was supposed to be plain and simple.
Take me through your typical day.
My Typical Day has changed over the last few months since starting the What is Perfecton blog. The five years before What is Perfection launched, I was a television producer for CBS News, and my typical day was chasing national stories, editing video all over the world and spending late nights getting important stories on television. But as exciting as that sounds, my typical day now is even more exciting! I get started working on blog projects from the minute I wake up till I head off to bed. I fill my days with photography shoots, brainstorming new ideas for stories and connecting with amazing women all over the world. I am still telling stories that matter, but with these stories, I somehow feel like I am making more of a difference in the world. My typical day is now spent being creative, expressive and allowing myself to be vulnerable. And I love that.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I’m pretty sure I always knew I wanted a creative life… and I am almost certain I always dreamed of being a writer. It was just in my soul from the moment I started living. Then when I got older and went to high school, I was set on being Broadway star. I used to take classes in Manhattan every weekend to perfect my singing voice and auditioned for colleges across the country. But then once I got there, it didn’t feel right to me. I grew up, and realized I didn’t want to just recite someone else’s writing… I wanted to tell my own stories.
On your site, you talk about going from feeling like you were never good enough to embracing your imperfections. Tell me a little bit about that journey. Was it a gradual ‘awakening’? Or did you just wake up one day and say “OK, that’s enough of that!” Were/Are there any rituals or mantras or habits you have gotten into to help you get from where you were to where you are?
There was no specific Ah-ha moment for me…. no time in my life where the lightbulb turned on and I was like.. OH NO I AM LIVING WRONG! But looking back at my life I can definitely pinpoint the moments where my journey took serious turns off course to bring me where I am today. For those of you who don’t know my imperfection story, I can sum it up for you: I was lost in insecurity my whole life. I was bullied growing up, and became obsessed with my body image. I suffered an eating disorder, sexual assault, a suicide attempt and a few other traumatizing things that really shaped my low self image. But my life has completely changed since then. I have found an amazing happiness and self confidence I never thought possible. I guess the big turning point for me was when I got divorced and lost my whole “perfect” life that I thought I finally had. That was really what pushed me over the edge and really forced me to do some serious soul searching. The three years after that I adapted some new habits that really turned my life around. I started reading self help books and tried to educate myself about all the emotional qualities I was missing in my life. I realized that no one else can shape my destiny but me. And if I didn’t start loving myself, I would never be confident enough to live a happy life being true to who I was and accepting myself for me. Journaling was really the ritual that allowed me to grow. I got really into it during my moments of self discovery. I’d ask myself things like, “What does the perfect life look like to me?” and “What is Happiness?” Writing all of those things out really forced me to look deeply at what I wanted, who I was, and where I wanted my life to take me. I also found means of meditation — like running, and coloring therapy. Those things really helped too.
Who is your favorite Power Ranger? Or Disney Princess? Or character?
I wasn’t ever really into power rangers.. And Disney princesses were cool and all, don’t get me wrong. But I was definitely a “different” kid. I was Mighty Mouse one year for Halloween.. and Beast from Beauty and the Beast another year. My favorite character though was always Simba. I guess I liked the idea of transforming your identity and finding happiness – even at a young age.
What was the best piece of advice you have received? What was the worst?
The best piece of advice I ever got was to always be true to myself. No matter what. The worst piece of advice? Well… I’ve been told to just trying a fit in, or to just let go of the past, or things like, “stop being so dramatic.” Those are bad things to tell anyone. You should never try to be someone for someone else… or just try to please other people. And that advice can make for some serious pretend living that is just incredibly unhealthy. I am me. No one should ever try and change that.
You get into a packed elevator. Which way do you face?
If I ever got stuck in a elevator with a group of people, I’d probably be the one organizing some fun game to pass the time. So I would make everyone sit in a circle and share their deep dark secrets so we could all become best friends.
What is your ideal state? (In a perfect world, what are you doing? Where are you living? Who is surrounding you?) How will you get there?
This is my perfect ideal state. I am living my dream, I am surrounded by people who love me. Where I am living doesn’t matter. I am happy. And that is the only thing I need.
What is the best song to sing in the shower?
What is your definition of beauty?
Beauty is something internal. It is not how you look or what you wear. To me, beautiful is something that happens when you connect with who you are and live true to yourself every single day. It shines through you. It radiates. You live life treasuring yourself and the people you love.. and that makes beauty.
She holds four degrees, including a Doctorate in Engineering and a Masters in Business.
She has designed rovers for Mars exploration and robots destined to help study climate change in Antarctica.
She has contributed to seven books and published over two hundred academic papers.
She has been the recipient of numerous awards including the 2001 Lew Allen Award for Excellence in Research from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Early Career Award in Robotics and Automation in 2005, the National Society of Black Engineers Janice Lampkin Educator Award in 2009, and the Georgia Tech Residential Life Cornerstone Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Community in 2013.
She is also a wife, a mama, and downright beautiful.
Who you are: Dr. Ayanna Howard
What you do: Robotics Engineer, Professor, Entrepreneur
Where you do it: Georgia Institute of Technology, Zyrobotics
I read that you were inspired to pursue a career in science after watching the TV show The Bionic Woman. What was it about the show/character that clicked with you?Before watching the show, what did you want to be when you grew up?
As a young girl, I was always into sci-fi – anything with robots, space, super heroes – if it included any imaginary futuristic technology or world, I was hooked. The Bionic Woman attracted me, in particular, because it engaged me into thinking about my role in society. Here was this amazingly intelligent, beautiful, super hero that, not only highlighted the strengths of a woman, first and foremost, but had the primary purpose of saving the world. And then I knew that what I wanted to do was pursue a career that allowed me to build the Bionic Woman. Before that, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was always good at math and science, but didn’t really know what kind of career I wanted.
What were some of the biggest challenges you have faced on your professional journey? How were you able to move through them?
When I was younger, the biggest challenge was in learning how to not take things personally and push forward, despite any implicit biases expressed by others. Basically, the biggest challenge was dealing with the Imposter Syndrome, especially as, many times, I was the only female or minority present in a given situation. I once heard someone say “Fake it until you make it.” I realized no one feels confident 100% of the time, so you just press on until you do.
You are a role model for kiddos who are interested in robotics and engineering. Who were some of your role models growing up or as you went through university?
I float through role models – basically, I find individuals who are doing what I’d like to do and figure out how they got there and the lessons they have learned through that process. I also like to surround myself with ‘advisors’ – i.e. individuals whom I can seek out when I need advice. In essence, they function informally, at various instances of time, as my mentors, colleagues, confidants.
Your list of awards and publications is staggering (your CV is 17 pages long!!). You have worked on building rovers for Mars, artificial limbs for kids, and robots that can explore the Arctic to help scientists study climate change– what are you most proud of?
I’m usually the most proud on the things I’m working on now. Right now, I’m most proud of releasing the Zumo Learning System, which is an accessible electronic learning system for STEM. It brings together technology licensed from my lab at Georgia Tech, aspects of machine intelligence, K-12 math education, and addressing the needs of children with differing abilities.
What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
What is the best song to sing to in the shower or when you are alone in the car?
Don’t actually have one. When I’m listening to music – it’s usually Zumba music (since I teach a weekly Zumba class and the rule of thumb is – know your music).
What was the best piece of advice you have received? What was the worst?
The best piece of advice has been when someone asks a question that makes me think (causing me to give myself advice or seek advice to answer the question) – Why haven’t you written a book? Have you ever thought about starting your own company? Have you ever thought about an academic career?
The worst piece of advice – I’m actually not sure since I tend to push negativism out of my life.
You have been interviewed and featured by just about everyone, from TIME magazine to PBS. Is there anything you wish they would ask, but they never do?
I wish they would ask: “You’ve done a lot and seem to be quite busy. How do you balance?”
My answer would be: My family – they keep me sane and grounded. They help me to say NO when it’s time that I should.
What is your definition of beauty? Or, when/where do you feel most beautiful?
Definition of beauty – strong inside, exuding confidence outside. Honestly, I feel the most beautiful when I’m on stage speaking to a general audience. Each time – it challenges me to rise above self – becoming stronger inside and more confident outside.
Daniela Delgado is fighting her own battle. She was born with Von Willebrand Disease, a rare bleeding condition that she will have to deal with her whole life. It keeps her from participating in contact sports and climbing to the tippy top of the jungle gym. But it doesn’t keep her from baking beautiful birthday cakes for kiddos who are fighting life threatening diseases, or dealing with any situation that might make them “feel sad or different.” She bakes and delivers the cakes at no charge to the families. She sings Happy Birthday and watches as they blow out the candles. She could be sitting around, feeling sorry for herself and complaining about her condition. But instead she is spreading love, and bringing smiles to kiddos who deserve a few more smiles in their lives.
I feel the most beautiful when I watch myself in the mirror during physical therapy. I feel so much pride when I see myself mastering things I never thought I would be able to do again after my amputation like standing or walking. I see resilience in the mirror and I think resilience is beautiful.
Being a mom, going to college, spending the better part of a year in the hospital fighting Ewing’s Sarcoma, and losing your leg as a result? Impossible.
But this mama is doing it.
Who you are:Irene Blum
What you do:Mom, college student, childhood cancer and limb loss awareness advocate.
Where you do it:Stamford, CT
Tell us your story.
I was born and raised in Stamford, CT. I used to play softball, volunteer at my local hospital, and was very social. I got pregnant at 16 years old. I had my son Jason during my senior year in high school. He’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I wanted to be a good role model so I became very motivated. I worked in social services helping at-risk youth and went on to study at the University of Connecticut. When I was 20 years old I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of pediatric bone cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma. I had to stop working and going to school because my treatment was a year of high-dose chemotherapy and countless surgeries. I had many complications along the way, the most significant one resulted in an above-the-knee amputation. I have been in remission for 10 months now and am very blessed to be alive.
You have had more than your fair share of challenges and trials. What do you consider your biggest challenge? What got you through it?
My biggest challenge in life was my battle against cancer. The chemotherapy drugs I was given were so toxic that I became debilitatingly sick. I spent nearly 10 out of 12 months inpatient. I was working so hard to just stay alive that I couldn’t be the amazing mom that I wanted to be to Jason. I went from being his primary caregiver to being lucky if I could see him during weekend visits at the hospital.
Treatment became so brutal that the folks at the hospital called me “Murphy’s Law Girl” because everything that could go wrong, did. I wanted to quit so bad and just go home to be with my son. My doctors talked me out of quitting because they would remind me that if I did, the time spent with Jason would be short because Ewing’s Sarcoma is aggressive and would most certainly return with a vengeance if I did not finish my protocol. If I finished treatment, I could return home and live a fulfilling life with my son with little chance of relapse.
If Jason weren’t here, I would have quit treatment because it was torturous. I wouldn’t be here answering this interview if my son wasn’t born… Fun fact: The name Jason means “the healer.” I definitely feel like he popped into my life early and unexpectedly for a reason. Another reason why I am lucky to have him is because my cancer treatment ruined my reproductive system. I am technically infertile. I would love to have children in the future but will probably have to adopt.
If you could have coffee with any woman, historical or living, who would it be and why?
Mayim Bialik because she’s brilliant, progressive, outspoken, and has a great sense of humor.
Who is your favorite Disney Princess?
Mulan because she was one tough chick. Instead of being a damsel in distress, she protected her disabled father from going to war and saved her entire country.
What is the best song to sing to in the shower or when you are alone in the car?
“Fight Song” by Rachel Platten
What was the best piece of advice you have received? What was the worst?
“You can’t take care of anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself first,” was the best piece of advice I have ever received. The worst would probably be, “don’t do chemo, just pray and eat papayas.”
What books or TV shows do you think everyone needs to read/watch, like, right now?
Grey’s Anatomy is my all-time favorite show. Grey’s is the best part of every Thursday. Jodi Picoult is my favorite author and after going through treatment, I re-read “My Sister’s Keeper” with a newfound appreciation for it and was moved to tears multiple times throughout the book.
What is your definition of beauty? Or, when do you feel most beautiful?
Going through treatment taught me to find beauty in absolutely everything. I define beauty as anything or anyone that provokes positive emotions when you look at it/them.Before cancer, I would look at a rainy day and think “jeez, what an ugly day.” It was a rainy day in March when I got discharged from the hospital after being inpatient for nearly 5 months. I cried tears of joy as I felt raindrops on my bald head. A year later, I still look at rain and remind myself how much joy rain brought me. I can look at a rainy day today and think, “what a beautiful day.”
I feel the most beautiful when I watch myself in the mirror during physical therapy. I feel so much pride when I see myself mastering things I never thought I would be able to do again after my amputation like standing or walking. I see resilience in the mirror and I think resilience is beautiful.
Emma Watson’s book club selection for March was All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks. I had been hearing fantastic things about Ms hooks and I was super pumped to jump into this book!
In the first discussion thread, Emma posted an interview she recently had with bell. One of my favorite quotes from bell is:
I look at how to bring that whole self out. I’m interested in fashion, too. I’m particularly interested in fashions that are comfortable and beautiful. I have an overall obsession in my life with beauty. I’m always wanting to surround myself with the kind of beauty that uplifts you, that runs counter to some of the stereotypes of feminist women.
I was drawn to this for obvious reasons– I too am drawn to and interested in this idea of beauty and I loved how she kind of called for a challenge to the stereotypes that might come to mind when we imagine a feminist.
After announcing the book, several discussion threads were quickly started.
The most popular by far was Not Feeling It.
I really wanted to love this book, after hearing such great things about the author. But, alas, something just did not click. Turns out, I was not alone. Here are some laments from the Not Feeling It crowd:
Several members thought the book was too “self-helpy” for them. Though it was largely based on personal experience and filled with opinions like a self-help book, the lack of practical advice makes it a tough fit for the self-help shelf.
Many folks, myself included, were put off by some blanket statements that seemed to be presented as well-known facts. For example, when discussing Nicole Simpson, hooks states that Nicole “kept herself and her children in a dangerous, life-threatening environment in part because she was not willing to sacrifice her attachment to a superficially glamorous lifestyle among the rich and famous…” (p. 112, emphasis added). Now, had bell talked to Nicole? Had Nicole expressed this to hooks? We don’t know for sure, but this is just one example of an opinion that seems to be presented as a truth, but is not supported with any “evidence.”
hooks is an advocate of love as a powerful force, but this idea came across to some readers as a bit extreme. More than one book club member expressed discomfort with the idea that any one solution can be applied to all problems.
My biggest struggle with the book came in theconnection that was made a few times between being abused in youth and therefore being unable to love in adulthood.
Not too long ago I stumbled upon something online (a video? an illustration?) that was very touching. It was done by an adult who had been abused as a child. The individual remembers seeing and hearing this idea that all abused children grow up to be abusers. This only galvanized his feelings of shame and depression. He was horrified at this idea that he would have no choice– he would grow up to be an abuser BECAUSE someone had abused him.
It is tragically un-empathetic and unloving to continue to make such claims. Certainly, folks who were abused as children have a tougher task learning what healthy relationships look like, but to say things like “…the parents who came from unloving homes have never learned how to love and cannot create loving home environments…” (page 27) is truly hurtful. It makes me ache for the folks who have been through hell and work everyday to make sure that their children, or children they know, don’t know what abuse feels like.
I also have to take issue with her ideas that spirituality and religion are the key to being loving. On page 74 hooks writes, “Imagine how different our lives would be if all the individuals who claim to be Christians, or who claim to be religious, were setting an example for everyone by being loving.” As a non-religious person, I feel I am not off the hook when it comes to being an example of love. So let’s re-work this a bit: “Imagine how different our lives would be if all the individuals who claim to be humans were setting an example for everyone by being loving.” Ahhh. That’s better.
Lessons learned from All About Love
Though the criticism were many, I think that the overall message of the book is an important one. And there were some points that really jumped out at me:
I loved her discussion of “cathexis,” a word I had never seen before. Apparently, it refers to the emotional investment we make in another person which is often mistaken for love. Very intriguing!
I loved her definition of love as an action. Borrowing from M. Scott Peck, hooks defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth” and as a combination of care, commitment, trust, knowledge, responsibility, and respect. Her words rang true when she wrote: “Undoubtedly, many of us are more comfortable with the notion that love can mean anything to anybody precisely because when we define it with precision and clarity it brings us face to face with our lacks–with terrible alienation.” (cue mic drop)
“Care and affirmation, the opposite of abuse and humiliation, are the foundation of love.” I can’t help but think of those terrible pictures floating around the internet of crying kids sharing an over-sized t-shirt with the words “This is our Get Along shirt” scrawled across the front. Or videos posted on social media with the sole purpose of humiliating a child who mis-behaved. What if we did this to adults? Have a co-worker you just can’t seem to get along with? You get to share a shirt for an hour and I will post pictures online! We wouldn’t stand for it. So let’s not do it to our kiddos, mmk? Humiliation is not the answer. We can do better than that.
Discussing TV shows geared towards families, hooks laments that they often favorably represent kids who are overindulgent, disrespectful, or acting out. I could not agree more! Though the book was published a decade and a half ago, this is still the norm. Shows like Lab Rats teach us that dads are self-centered and arrogant, and that children should be ridiculed for their appearance (I swear, if I have to hear about how Chase is ‘too short’ or Leo is ‘too skinny’ one more time…!).
“When we hear another person’s thoughts, beliefs, and feelings, it is more difficult to project on to them our perceptions of who they are.” Yes! YES! YES!! Please, for the love of all things good and beautiful, listen to people! Learn about who they are and why they understand things the way they do. And don’t be a jerk.
Quoting Richard Foster, hooks writes “Greed has a way of severing the cords of compassion.” Though an often repeated idea– that greed and money are ultimately hurtful– I liked this reminder that compassion is a necessity that can be overlooked if we find ourselves becoming focused on “getting more.”
“The more genuine our romantic loves the more we do not feel called upon to weaken or sever ties with friends in order to strengthen ties with romantic partners.” I wish I had heard this when I started dating!
I have to admit, this one was a bit of a tough read for me. But I remain hopeful that some of bell’s other works will make this one shrink from my memory and help me better see her as the incredible force she is known to be.
All About Love did make me think, which is the whole point, right?
If you are curious, next month’s book has been announced.
In April, Our Shared Shelf will be reading How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran.
I like to think my sense of the beautiful only grows as I come to recognize more forms of caring and resilience and to appreciate a wider range of shapes and sizes and colors and textures. On my best days, I see it everywhere, and the more I see it, the more space it takes up, which is wonderful.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, I chatted with Dr Penny Weiss, the Director of Women’s Studies at St Louis University.
Can you give me just a little bit of background. Where are you from? Where did you go to school? What brought you to St Louis?
I am a native of Miami, Florida and a graduate of the University of South Florida. I went to grad school in the Midwest and have since spent most of my adult life here. I came to STL in 2008 because I had the chance to move from a position in a political science department to one in a women’s studies program, and from a rural setting outside a small city to the big city. It was a phenomenal switch!
What drew you to Women’s Studies? Was there one turning point or “ah ha!” moment?
I came of age when WS programs were starting and the women’s movement was hitting another peak. What drew me? Everything: the questions, the people, the politics, the passion, the purpose, the activism, the festivals. Women’s Studies, like feminism itself, made (and continues to make) sense of my life.
What is a common misconception you encounter when you are discussing feminism?
I think, unfortunately, that people know more about what anti-feminists say feminism is than what feminists say. Among the most persistent misconceptions: reproductive justice only means a right to abortion; most religions are incompatible with feminism; feminism means whatever any individual chooses to say it means (and feminism means you can’t criticize any choice anyone makes); and then there are the oldies but goodies…feminists hate men, are all lesbians, are selfish, are (too) aggressive and demanding, are unreasonable in their demands, etc.
It’s Women’s History Month; who are some women from history you have loved learning about?
Emma Goldman, Anna Julia Cooper, Christine de Pizan, Mary Astell, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Jane Addams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and many more. Just as important, I loved learning about the work women together did to bring about change, in organizations from anti-slavery associations and women’s labor groups to peace leagues and suffrage associations. And all that work is still being carried on around the world!
I recently came across this image and the idea it reflects online:
What are your thoughts on this? Can we fairly say that general history courses are to men what women’s studies courses are to women?
The cartoon is still all-too-true. We know that we still do not know about women’s lives to the extent we know about men’s. It is the accomplishments of men (especially in politics and economics, narrowly defined) that have been deemed historically important, the deeds of men (especially in war, industry, and government) that have determined the ways we distinguish one historical period from another (such as pre-Civil War or post-industrial), and the arenas in which men acted (military, legal, etc.) that important things worth recording were said to happen. This leaves out three things: the impact of all of these deeds and events on various groups of women, the stories of women’s lives both within these boundaries (at work, in political office) and beyond them (in the community, participating in street riots, as victims of gender-based violence, as caregivers, raising crops and children, as activists, etc.), and how we might reconceive historical eras (and philosophical schools of thought, etc.) once we read women into them. I’d say that “general history courses are to men what women’s history courses are to women,” rather than “what women’s studies courses are to women,” because we teach much more than women’s history (including the study of masculinity).
Who are some women in your life that have inspired you?
My two daughters amaze me. My colleagues and students in Women’s and Gender Studies amaze me. The women in my neighborhood who keep on keeping on amaze me.
What is your definition of beauty?
That it evolves (I’m not attracted to the same things or people I was 20 years ago, nor do I aspire to the same ideals I did then) and mostly involves appreciation. I like to think my sense of the beautiful only grows as I come to recognize more forms of caring and resilience and to appreciate a wider range of shapes and sizes and colors and textures. On my best days, I see it everywhere, and the more I see it, the more space it takes up, which is wonderful.
I recently happened upon this article by Yale grad student Barbara Sostaita. If you were not among the thousands of people who read and shared the article, let me sum up. The picture at the beginning of the post is of a young Latina flipping off the camera– that sets the tone for the entire article. Sostaita writes passionately about her refusal to celebrate “your feminism,” which she (correctly) understands as being overwhelmingly white.
Maybe it was the tone of her writing, or maybe it was the intensity of her passion, but after reading the article I felt deeply ashamed, embarrassed, and left out. I am white. I thought it was a good idea to celebrate the suffragettes. I thought Hillary Clinton was ok to talk about. And Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is on my “to-read” list. I did not recognize a lot of the names that Sostaita brought up. I am not familiar with Toni Morrison’s work; I don’t know who Gloria Anzaldua is; I was unaware that female asylum seekers in a Texas detention centers went on a hunger strike for immediate freedom. I didn’t know who these women were, and that embarrassed me.
I felt deliberately left out of this conversation because of the color of my skin. It wasn’t until the next day that it hit me. Maybe I was feeling just a small bit of what my sisters around the country and the world feel every. frickin. day. I was feeling sorry for myself because I felt left out. But how many women are left out of conversations not only because they were born with the ‘wrong’ anatomy, but the ‘wrong’ amount of melanin in their skin as well.
But Sostaita didn’t stop there. She goes on to say:
This Women’s History Month, I refuse to celebrate a white feminism that keeps women of color on the margins. This Women’s History Month, I refuse to celebrate a white feminism that alienates, subjugates and oppresses women of color. I don’t want to be hear about the first Latina [insert public office title] or the first Asian [insert professional sports title]. I’m sick of women of color only being mentioned and deemed worthy when we are the “first,” when we fit neatly into a box crafted by white women’s version of history. We have been, are, and will always be “exceptional” and “important.”
Ms Sostaita got me thinking– who else am I missing this Women’s History Month? Who should we really be talking about? I asked around, and it seems the majority of the women we generally think of when we think of important women in history are indeed white. There are obviously a few exceptions, as some amazing African American women are consistently lauded (I’m looking at you Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth).But I was disappointed to see not one Asian, Hispanic, Indian, or Native American woman on my list.
Here are some of the ladies I heard mentioned when I asked, “Who are some of your favorite women from history?”
My mom: for real though, big ups to our mommas!
“If you’re not living on the edge, you are taking up too much space!”
Harriet Tubman: abolitionist, activist, nurse, underground railroad conductor, military hero; buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.
“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
Lucy Stone: suffragette, abolitionist; convened the first national Women’s Rights Convention in 1850.
“I think, with never-ending gratitude, that the young women of today do not and can never know at what price their right to free speech and to speak at all in public has been earned.”
Emma Goldman: fiery speaker and advocate for peace, free love, and birth control; she was deported to the Soviet Union in 1919.
“The demand for equal rights in every vocation of life is just and fair; but, after all, the most vital right is the right to love and be loved.”
Anna Julia Cooper: born into slavery, Cooper went on to become an author, speaker, and one of the most prominent African American scholars in US history.
“...not till race, color, sex, and condition are seen as the accidents, and not the substance of life; not till the universal title of humanity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is conceded to be inalienable to all; not till then is woman’s lesson taught and woman’s cause won–not the white woman’s, nor the black woman’s, nor the red woman’s, but the cause of every man and of every woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong…”
Christine de Pizan: born in Italy in 1364, she is considered a pioneering feminist writer and one of the most notable women writers of medieval times.
“[I]f you seek in every way to minimise my firm beliefs by your anti-feminist attacks, please recall that a small dagger or knife point can pierce a great, bulging sack and that a small fly can attack a great lion and speedily put him to flight.”
Sojourner Truth: a leading civil rights and women’s rights activist, Truth was born into slavery, but escaped with her baby girl and went on to successfully win her son’s freedom in court.
“If women want any rights more than they’s got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it.”
Ida B. Wells-Barnett: daughter of slaves, she became a journalist and led an anti-lynching campaign in the 1890s; she formed the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 and is considered a founding member of what would become known as the NAACP.
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton:early leader of woman’s rights movement; wrote the Declaration of Sentiments(a call to arms for equality).
“I would have girls regard themselves not as adjectives but as nouns.”
“Your mother is a hard act to follow. She will always be the love of your life.”
Margaret Chase Smith:politician, U.S. congresswoman, presidential candidate, author; she cosponsored the Equal Rights Amendment with Congresswoman Winifred Stanley in the mid-1940s and worked on improving the status of women in the military.
“When people keep telling you that you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try it.”
Shirley Chisholm:first African-American congresswoman, and first major-party black candidate to make a bid for US presidency
“Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.”
Mary Wollstonecraft:English writer, educator, journalist, and women’s rights advocate who argued for equality and educational reforms.
“Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”
Jane Addams: pioneer for social work, advocate for peace, and social activist; founder of Hull House.
“Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics.”
Mary Astell: English philosopher best known for her theories on the education of women and her critiques of John Norris and John Locke.
“If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?
This list is far from complete and our conversation is far from over. Let’s come together to educate and lift up. Who would you add to the list?
She has been called an icon, a trailblazer, and a hero. I call her beautiful.
A rough childhood
Sister Ebo was born Elizabeth Louise (she was called Betty Lou) on April 10, 1924. Her mother taught her about God and had her baptized in the Baptist church. Elizabeth’s mom passed away when Elizabeth was just 4 years old, and her father lost his job as a library janitor shortly after. Unable to keep their home in Bloomington, Illinois, Elizabeth’s father put her and her two siblings in McLean County Home for Colored Children. In the home, a boy nicknamed “Bishop” was the first to expose Elizabeth to Catholicism. He wasn’t allowed to openly practice his faith in the home, but that didn’t stop him. One day, he and Elizabeth were sent on an errand to pick up some day old bread. On the way, he slipped into a Catholic church, knelt at the Communion rail, and prayed. Sister Ebo recalls:
He was longing for his church. I cased the joint, and it was beautiful. The sun was shining that day through the stained glass windows and I knew all those stories. I was interested in everything in that church…Bish was explaining while he knelt at the Communion rail about this little house (tabernacle) where Jesus was kept, and that the bread became Jesus during the words in Scripture–that was the difference… I had already joined the Baptist Church and only had Communion the first Sunday of te month, and it was cracker crumbs and grape juice…Communion in the Catholic Church becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and nobody else was telling me that.
It was on that day, at the tender age of 9, that Elizabeth knew she would be Catholic one day.
As a child, Elizabeth battled tuberculosis in her thumb and was in and out of the hospital for treatment. While in the hospital, Elizabeth asked nurse Mary Southwick if a visiting priest could come by her room. The priest and nurse would become a pivotal figures in Elizabeth’s life, teaching her about Catholicism, and later helping her get into Holy Trinity Catholic High School in Bloomington.
The children’s home where Elizabeth had been staying did not welcome her back once she decided to join the Catholic Church. As a result, she was sent to live with a couple of older African-American women, where she stayed until she finished high school. She was the first African American to graduate from her high school.
She recalls her experiences with segregation:
Segregation for us was like going to Woolworth’s and ordering a hamburger. At that time, if you went with a white friend, they would bring it to you on a plate. If you went by yourself, the order was packaged in a brown to-go bag. Known as ‘the brown bag treatment,’ that was to let me know that they didn’t serve colored (people) in that store.
Starting her career
After graduating high school, Elizabeth wanted to attend a Catholic nursing school, but was rejected because of her race. She remembers, “They told me they had never admitted a colored girl before.” School officials didn’t talk to her about her previous studies or her academic capabilities, but rather focused on the color of her skin. It was experiences like this that Sister Ebo remembers as “bruises” that she carried with her throughout life.
She entered the United States Cadet Nurse Corps at St Mary’s Infirmary in 1942. It was a three year program designed to train replacements for volunteer nurses who were serving in the war. She remembers these days and nights as “hectic. Maybe you would get a nap in, and the rest of the time you were either on duty or in a classroom.”
In 1946, Elizabeth was one of the first three African American women to enter the Sisters of St. Mary in St Louis (now the Franciscan Sisters of Mary); she became Sister Mary Antona. In 1962 she earned her degree in medical records administration from St Louis University. In the early 60s Sister Antona served as the assistant administrator of St Mary Infirmary, and she was given the position of Director of Medical Records in 1965. At that time, she was the first black supervisor ever to be in charge of any department at St. Mary’s.
Sister heads to Selma
Sister Antona always listened to her employees, and the Monday morning of March 8th, 1965 was no different. She listened as her employees talked about what had happened in Selma the previous day, on what would become known as Bloody Sunday. She listened as they told her about the protesters who were attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to call attention to voting discrimination that was rampant in the area. Marchers were brutally attacked by police, and several were hospitalized. She remembers her first thought as being, “If I wasn’t in this habit, I would be down there with my people.” Little did she know, she would soon have her chance.
Despite her initial gusto, Sister Ebo had her doubts about going to Alabama. Firstly, she was in her 40s and busy running the medical records department at St Mary’s. Besides, she knew how the protesters had been treated on Bloody Sunday, and she had heard about people like Emmet Till, a 14 year old black boy who was murdered in 1955 in Mississippi for reportedly flirting with a white woman. In Selma, a young white minister had been beaten along with the other marchers. She thought if they could do that to him, what would they do to her? She also knew that if she or any of her friends from the St Louis group were arrested, she would be segregated from them in jail. “If they get arrested, they’ll be together. If I get arrested, I’ll be alone.”
What she may not have known was that Selma was the headquarters of the White Citizen’s Council. The council was bent on maintaining white supremacy, but in a more “genteel” fashion than their friends in the Klu Klux Klan. Their unofficial motto was, “Why burn a cross, when you can foreclose a mortgage?”
The tensions in Selma were already high by the time Dr King came on the scene. In fact, marches and demonstrations had been going on since late 1963. So much so, that an injunction was passed in July of 1964 banning mass meetings in churches (generally accepted as the headquarters of the protesters), and public protesting about voting rights. Yep, you read that right. The government in Selma effectively negated their citizens’ right to peaceful assembly. Sheriff Clark and Mayor Smitherman did not budge on enforcing these new laws. When it was publicized that only 300 of the estimated 15,000 adult black population of Selma was registered to vote, a federal court ordered Selma to register 100 voters per day. This did not sit well with many, and black protesters moved their meeting place to nearby Marion. When Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot in Marion, the protests in Slema gained new life. Many thought they should march Jimmy’s body right to the state capital, to show the governor just what was happening in Slema. And so, the idea to march from Selma to Montgomery was born. The first march was led by John Lewis Hosea Williams, and ended at the bottom of Edmund Pettus bridge in what would be remembered as Bloody Sunday.
Sister Ebo had every reason to be scared. She had just voted in St Louis, and part of her felt like what was happening in Selma wasn’t her fight. But Sister Ann Christopher felt differently. She was teaching and living in the black community in St Louis at the time. When she heard about what happened on Bloody Sunday she immediately felt she needed to be there. After Dr King called for clergy to join him in Selma, it was decided that several priests from St Louis would go. Sister Ann asked the father in charge of her parish if she could join them. The priest called Cardinal Ritter, and Ritter answered that not only should Sister Ann accompany the priests, but sisters from each parish in St Louis should be sent as well.
When Sister Ebo’s superior first asked her if she would like to go, she remembers answering, “No, I would not like to go to Selma. I know I do a lot of fussing, but I don’t feel bad enough to want to go down there and be a martyr for somebody’s rights.” But even as she was saying those words, it was “coming into (her) mind that it was bigger than voting rights. It was the right to be self-determining.” In the documentary, Sisters of Selma she says, “It is one thing to have a right on a piece of paper, but if you cannot express that right in the way you live, the way you vote, the way you are self-determining, something has to give.” All the same, Sister Ebo was terrified.
Her fear was soon trumped by her faith. For her, the question of getting involved in social justice is answered in Matthew 25:31-46 when Jesus says, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” She felt that she had to take a position, and that position had to be based on faith. She felt that, as a Catholic, it was her responsibility to meet her brothers and sisters in Christ, and “realize we all come from the same God.” She felt she had a “responsibility to speak up and become part of the response.” Her response was supported by the Second Vatican Council, who had encouraged sisters to get out of their ivory towers and out of their habits and into the communities they were serving.
With over 50 delegates, the St Louis contingent was the largest to respond to Dr King’s call for religious leaders to come to Selma and join the second attempt to march to Montgomery. Sister Ebo was one of only six nuns, and the only African American woman in the group. The sisters and priests were joined by leaders from various denominations and arrived in Selma on March 10th. When Sister Ebo stepped off the plane in Slema, a priest there thought, “Oh my God. This is going to make a difference.” They met the rest of the marchers at Brown Chapel AME, where crowds parted as minister Andrew Young introduced Sister Ebo and she was seated in a place of honor at the pastor’s chair in the sanctuary. The St Louis group was asked to lead the march that day, with the sisters front and center.
The sisters led the way as the group set out on the second attempt to cross over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the way to Montgomery. They had men surrounding them, for their own protection. The men were afraid that the crowd would push the sisters forward, and they had their backs. But the group didn’t get far. Contrary to the re-telling of the second march in the movie Slema, Dr King did not lead the group, and the bridge was not opened to them. In fact, the Mayor stopped them before they reached the line of state troopers just ahead. He reminded them of the law against marching in protest and said that he expected that law to be followed. It was then that someone had the idea that the religious leaders should “bear witness” as to why they were marching. And it was then that Sister Ebo became an icon when a broadcaster recorded an exchange between her and local government agents. She told them:
We are here from St Louis to demonstrate and to witness our love to our fellow citizens in Selma. We are here, secondly, to protest the violation of rights. I am Negro and very proud. I feel it a privilege to be here today. I am Sister Mary Antona from St Louis, Missouri, and I stay at St Louis Infirmary. I might say that yesterday, being a Negro, I voted. And I’d like to come here today and say that every citizen–Negro as well as white–should be given the right to vote. That’s why I’m here today.
The entire group then knelt to say the Our Father, and made their way back to the church. Their march was short, but their impact was immense.
Finally, a federal court order was issued to allow the march, and President LB Johnson pledged his support. National Guard troops as well as U.S. Army troops protected the marchers on their four day journey to Montgomery.
It would be another 40 years before Sister Ebo would fulfill her desire to cross the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge that spanned the Alabama river and led to Montgomery.
The image of Sister Ebo marching in Slema that day would become an icon. She remembers:
It turned out that the habit was what got everyone’s attention very quickly, because nuns had not been seen doing anything like that before. It didn’t ring a bell with me that we were getting involved in something hysterical and historical.
There is no doubt Sister Ebo is glad she went. She has said, “The one thing I didn’t want to do was to become a sweet little old nun that was passing out holy cards and telling people ‘I’ll pray for you’ and not really having mastered or developed an expertise in being a caregiver from a good theological base.” And develop an expertise she did…
Life after Selma
When she returned home to St Louis, Sister Ebo picked up right where she left off, but seemed to do so with even more gusto.
In 1968 she helped found the National Black Sisters’ Conference (she would later serve as President).
She earned her Master’s degree in hospital executive development from St Louis University in 1970.
In 1976 she was appointed as the executive director of the St Clare Hospital in Baraboo, Wisconsin. She was the first African American woman religious to head any Catholic Hospital in the nation.
After some health problems of her own, she decided she wanted to stop paper-pushing, so she got her second Master’s degree, this time in theology of health care in 1978 from Aquinas Institute of Theology and began serving as hospital chaplain. In a 1978 article in the Catholic Herald Citizen, she compared her position as chaplain to that of a clown, “Clowns don’t do a lot of talking. They’re quiet. they bring happiness by smiling in a way that is both happy and sad. It’s a wry smile that says, “I’ve experienced life– both the gladness and the sadness. I’m human just like you.“
In 1989 the National Black Sisters’ Conference presented her with the Harriet Tubman Award, and described her as being “called to be a Moses to the people.”
In 2000, at the 35th anniversary of what came to be known as the “Right to Vote” Bridge Crossing, she was honored with the Living Legend Award by the Voting Rights Institute in Selma.
In 2002 she received the Distinguished Humanitarian Award from the Dr Martin Luther King Jr State Celebration Commission of Missouri.
She was honored as the Lifetime Achiever in Health Care by the St Louis American Foundation at their 12th annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards in 2012.
Additionally, she has been the recipient of six honorary doctorate degrees from the following Universities:
Loyola University-Chicago (1995)
College of New Rochelle of New York (2008)
Aquinas Institute (2009)
St Louis University (2010)
University of Missouri St Louis (2010)
University of Notre Dame
She has continued to speak out for voting rights of not only African Americans, but all Americans
There is a concerted effort to suppress the votes of the poor and blacks. The effort was made during the last election to make sure we didn’t have people standing all the way around the block, just to get the right to vote, but it is still happening in individual states.
She has also been vocal about present-day racism and injustice that is seen in substandard educational opportunities for minorities and recent shootings of unarmed black youth. A friend drove Sister Ebo through Ferguson shortly after the shooting death of Michael Brown, and when he stopped to talk to some law enforcement officials that he knew, word soon spread as to who he was escorting around. The head of security in Ferguson, Capt. Ron Johnson of Missouri Highway Patrol visited Sister Ebo first, and several soon followed suit. A small video crew from Birmingham Alabama had walked past the car, not realizing that the living legend was inside. Capt Johnson stopped them and told them they were going the wrong way– they should be talking to that beautiful black nun. Sister Ebo told the crew to not be satisfied by taking some superficial pictures. “You are going to raise the rug and look at what’s under the rug. The mistake I think many of is made in the 60s is we were taking somebody else’s word for it; you have to look under the rug.”
She was present at a Faith in Ferguson prayer service in March of 2015, where she urged people on both sides of the conflict to meet for dialogue. She noted that dialogue between races and cultures creates understanding and builds bridges. She challenged the congregation: “You want to really, actually learn about peace? Well, get busy doing something for justice…Each of us is called to so something for our neighbors to express our love.” In the words of Pope Paul VI: “If you really want peace, work for justice”
Sister Ebo told the group in Ferguson that “every 20 years or so, we go through a new discontent.” She recognizes that there are many human rights issues to deal with today, and encourages people to ask themselves, “What do I need to be responding to?”
Sister Ebo has done her fair share of responding. Though not a native to St Louis, we will claim her as our very own beautiful black nun. Our very own civil rights hero. And our very own responder.
Frankie Muse Freeman will be celebrating her 100th birthday this November. She could be sitting at home, resting on the laurels of her innumerable accomplishments. But that’s not how she rolls. Instead, she is speaking out about the progress we have made as a nation in the area of civil rights, and what we can continue to do moving forward.
I read her book, A Song of Faith and Hope. I saw her speak at a local library event. And I was honored to speak with her over the phone. Here are just a few lessons I have learned from Mrs. Freeman.
1. Just do it.
Growing up, Frankie always heard people say they were “fixin'” to do this or that. Her parents didn’t love that. Instead, they encouraged Frankie and her siblings to get on with it– don’t “fix” to do it, just do it! (I think Yoda would have approved)
Frankie carried this simple yet powerful message with her throughout her life. I can’t help but think that many of her accomplishments are largely due to this mantra– this drive to just keep DOing.
At the last event at which she spoke (pictured above), Mrs Freeman was introduced as being the first African American woman to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. When it was her turn to speak, she corrected the mistress of ceremonies: “I was not the first African American woman to serve on the Commission. I was the first woman period. Black, white, yellow, blue, or otherwise,” to which she received thunderous applause.
The list of Mrs. Freeman’s accomplishments is staggering. Not only was she a rock star of a civil rights attorney, winning a landmark victory that ended racial segregation in public housing in St Louis, she went on to serve on the very housing commission she had just defeated in court, to help them implement the changes she demanded. As mentioned above, she was the first woman to serve on the Civil Rights Commission, and went on to become Inspector General for the Community Services Administration (these are positions appointed by the President of the United frickin States, y’all). The number of hats she has worn is staggering– from being the national president of her sorority to serving on just about every board known to man, including (but nowhere limited to): the League of Women Voters, the National Council on Aging, the YWCA, the Girl Scout Council of St Louis, the St Louis Urban League, the National Council of Negro Women, the World Affairs Council of St Louis, oh, and the African American Jewish Task Force (no, she’s not Jewish, she just thinks its cool to reach out across cultural and religious boundaries). Now, with a resume like this, you might be thinking, “Oh, she’s had a great life.” You might even call it ‘charmed.’ You would be wrong.
Loss has not been a stranger to Mrs. Freeman. She has buried her mother, her father, and her husband. But she has also buried her son– a grief no human should have to endure. And she has battled cancer–twice– and won.
She has also fought one hell of a battle professionally. In her book she recalls one particular instance in Alabama, where she and the Civil Rights Commission were conducting hearings focusing on economic rights in Montgomery. In her words:
One evening, after the Montgomery hearings, I returned to my motel room after dinner. It was a pretty evening in April and I had the curtains open; I could look out– and anyone who wanted to could look in. I was sitting at a table with a member of the Alabama State Advisory Committee, reviewing the day, when boom, something struck the window and broke it. I thought it was a bullet. It apparently was intended for me, but I was not hit.
She was also fired, at least twice, for speaking up and being a “trouble maker.” But you think a little death, cancer, and possibly a bullet is going to stop Frankie?! She could have given up and not one person would have blamed her or said she hadn’t done enough. But nope. She just. Kept. Moving. As she says in her book, you have to keep your hand on the plow.
Even today, Frankie is a do-er. At the aforementioned speaking event, she was joined by youth activist and motivational speaker Koran Bolden. When asked about entities working to keep people divided, Koran spoke powerfully about how and why today’s youth needs our support. Frankie was so moved she jumped in and said, “What you just said touched everybody here, so there is no reason they can’t start tonight.” She went on to encourage everyone in the room to support Mr Bolden’s mission, saying, “Don’t wait until tomorrow for something that can start tonight. It is an individual’s responsibility to bring about change. Let’s begin it and let’s get on with it.” I have a feeling that Mrs Freeman has rarely waited for tomorrow.
Is there anything more beautiful than a woman who doesn’t say she’s “going to” do this or that, but actually goes out there and does it?
2. You are powerful.
Mrs. Freeman grew up in Danville, Virginia, the last capital of the Confederacy. She and her family lived on the 200 block of Ross Street, where all of her neighbors were black. The 100 block of Ross Street was a white neighborhood, and young Frankie and her siblings would walk through that neighborhood on their way into town. Mrs Freeman remembers that white children playing outside would often smile and say “nigger, nigger, nigger” and she and her siblings would smile back and say “cracker, cracker, cracker.” When the Freemans needed their shoes repaired, they would take them to a shop in the basement of Mr Wrigley, a white man. When the shoes were ready, Mr Wrigley’s children would return them to the Freeman family. These were normal occurrences.
Peaceful though it was, little Frankie grew up knowing that people who looked like her were treated differently, and that was not ok. She also grew up knowing that she had the power to change it. Her parents taught her that if you stand for something, there will be times when you have to say, “Enough”– but that doesn’t always mean you make a scene right then and there. She was always encouraged to do something that would be effective. Public transportation was segregated in Danville, so the Freeman family simply walked everywhere they went. If a friend of the family was mistreated in the local department store, the Freeman’s would no longer shop there. Frankie’s parents, Maude and William, were very active in Danville so Frankie grew up seeing her parents making a positive impact their community, and she knew she could too.
3. Make your own path
When the black community in Danville could not get a loan from the white owned banks, Frankie’s relatives started their own bank.
After graduating from law school, Frankie applied to law firms in St Louis. She was told they could use her in the office, perhaps to do research, but they would not hire her to try cases. Following her relatives’ lead, she started her own practice. She met with judges in St Louis and tried the cases no one wanted. The first few times she showed up to the courthouse and told the clerk which case she was there for, she was told to have a seat and her lawyer would be there shortly. But it wouldn’t be long before they learned who Frankie Freeman was. (By the way, Mrs Freeman practiced law until 2009. That’s 62 years!)
4. You do not acquiesce.
Throughout her book, this mantra “Later for you” pops up again and again. I loved seeing it every time because I knew it was a promise, and I knew whatever the situation was, Frankie was going to make it right. Like at a restaurant in Flat River, Missouri. Or a coffee shop in Louisville. Here is how she explains it:
Sometimes when you beat your head against a brick wall, you have to realize that you are damaging your head, not hurting the wall. Therefore, you do the best you can so long as you do not acquiesce and you do not give up. You say, “later for you,” and promise yourself that when you can do something about it, you will.
There were times when Mrs Freeman chose to give in to the law of the time, in lieu of being arrested. She knew she could do more in the courtroom than she could in the jailhouse, so she promised, “later for you” then got to work changing the world. (More on that below).
When I spoke to Mrs Freeman, I asked her what she sees today that makes her think, “Later for you” — what do we still need to work on? Living in St Louis, I was expecting a comment on the police violence that we have been hearing so much about. But she surprised me when she said that every state in America still has segregated schools. “Not by law, of course, but it is true.” She told me that there is still racial segregation, or isolation, in public schools today. And I don’t have to look farther than my own childrens’ school to see that she is right. We live in a suburb of St Louis, and the majority of the students are white. In fact, the few African American students we do have are those who are bussed in from the city. Frankie laments that diversity is not yet as valued as it should be. She is saddened to think that children don’t have the chance to really play and interact with kids who look different from them until they are adults. She encourages working with teachers and parents alike to figure out a solution. She told me that she called for more diversity and spoke about the value of it in 1969, and can say the exact same thing now. As she said in her book, “To move away from racism, I feel we need to get to know one another.” And getting to know each other should start happening at a young age.
5. Speak. Up.
Frankie didn’t always say “Later for you” to herself. As a matter of fact, she spoke right up when she found herself in a situation she knew was unfair, unethical, and unconstitutional. For instance, in February of 1961, Frankie was making her way via bus to Hayti, Missouri to be the keynote speaker at an event held by her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. On the way, the bus stopped at a restaurant in Flat Creek. She got off the bus with the other passengers and made her way to the restrooms. A waitress loudly informed her that “The colored use another entrance.” When Frakie proceeded towards the ladies room anyway, a white customer blocked her path and repeated what the waitress had just said, “Colored can’t come in here. You have to go to the other side.” Frankie froze. The bus driver got involved and defended the restaurant’s policy. Frankie thought about pushing the lady out of the way– but what would that solve? Frankie would have been arrested and her sisters in Hayti would have no speaker for their event. Instead, Frankie headed back to the bus and re-wrote her speech. (This might sound like Frankie gave up, but stay with me).
At the next stop, Frankie called home and asked her husband to contact a friend of theirs, attorney Charles Oldham. She wanted to file a complaint against Greyhound and against the restaurant, and file a complaint she did. Greyhound soon issued an apology and the restaurant agreed to change its policy. Two weeks later, when some folks visited the restaurant to make sure they had carried out their promise, they found that the separate facility for “colored” had been eliminated.
She had a similar incident at a coffee shop in an airport in Louisville. She was denied service, she spoke up, and changes were made. Mrs Freeman was confident enough to stand up because she knew she had the Constitution on her side.
6. Stay humble.
In her book, Frankie tells the story of when she was nominated as president of her Sorority. Now, let me point out that Frankie did not join while she was in college. She had known about Delta Sigma Theta when she was an undergrad at Hampton Institute, but they did not have sororities on campus then. And while studying law at Howard, she had no time to join. So it wasn’t until after she had received her law degree and was living in St Louis that Frankie became involved in the nationally known public service sorority. She worked hard for the sorority, and in 1967 she was on the ballot for national president. Now, the results of the election were to be announced at a banquet on the third day of a national convention. But word got out that Frankie had won, and she was receiving congratulatory phone calls while she was trying to get ready for the banquet. Consequently, she was late. In her own words:
I was late, honestly late; I am never late, but I truly was that time. However, some people thought I was coming in late on purpose–that I knew I was elected and was trying to make an appearance. Jeanne Nobel teased me later that I had “flaunted in,” but I replied that “I don’t flaunt.”
When you have lived the life Frankie Freeman has lived, you don’t have to flaunt.
While I was talking to Mrs Freeman on the phone I confessed that I had been holding onto her phone number for a couple of weeks, but I hadn’t had the courage to call her. I told her I was a bit intimidated because she is such a big deal. She just laughed and said, “Oh, I am not a big deal. I am a 99 year old woman!”
Well, that didn’t convince me. Frankie is most certainly a big deal, and she has every reason to flaunt. But she stays humble, and that is beautiful.
With President Jimmy Carter
With First Lady Ladybird Johnson
With First Lady Nancy Reagan
With President Bill Clinton
With First Lady Barbara Bush
With President George H W Bush
(See, I told you she was a big deal)
7. Do your homework.
Frankie’s mother was a public school teacher, and though she gave up her career to stay home with her children, she never stopped teaching. The Muses were strong believers in the power of education, and told her children that once they got an education, no one could take it away from them. Maude knew her children would go to college, the only question was where. She and William paid for their own children’s education, but Maude went even further and raised scholarship funds so other children could pursue their education as well.
Frankie remembers that her parents– her mother especially–filled their home with books. When I spoke with her, Frankie recalled: “There were books all over the place– and we had to read them all!” But she didn’t mind. She loved reading anything she could get her hands on.
When I asked her what the best piece of advice she had received was, she paused for a long moment and really thought about it. She finally answered, “My teacher told me to do my homework. That was the best advice.” And I can see that throughout her life, Frankie did just that. She worked hard, both in school and in the courtroom, and brought about real change in her community and her nation. That’s pretty damn beautiful if you ask me.
8. Take care of yourself.
Looking at Frankie’s life, it is easy to get the impression that she was all-business. How else could she have accomplished everything that she did? That is why I love this story of her just throwing caution to the wind and doing something unexpected: After being fired (the first time), Frankie went out and treated herself to something she had always wanted– a full length mink coat (don’t tell PETA). She put it on her husband’s credit card, but told him not to worry, she would pay it off as soon as she got back to work. Which, was like, the next day.
When I talked to her on the phone, I brought up some things she had mentioned in her book that had brought her joy. One of these things was cooking. I could hear her smile through the phone when she explained that, especially in the beginning, she was working so hard to get her career going, that she had to take time to relax, and cooking helped her do that. She told me her favorite thing to cook is her famous corn pudding, or her veggie salad with marinated green peppers, celery, tomatoes, and whatever other vegetables she can find. (My mouth is watering).
There is no arguing that Mrs Freeman worked hard throughout her life, but she knew how to treat herself as well. And that is beautiful.
At the end of my conversation with Mrs Freeman, I asked her what her definition of beauty is:
I was honored and inspired to have to opportunity to not only see this beautiful woman in person, but speak with her personally. She is truly an inspiration, and an example of what one individual can accomplish if they would just get to it.
Unless otherwise noted, all information and images were taken from Mrs Freeman’s book, her speaking engagement at the St Louis County Library Headquarters, or from my personal interview with her.