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Will the mothers’ legacies live on?

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 3/29/23

During March, we’re reminded of the many great women who have carved frontiers and unlocked doors for women and girls. We marvel at their passions pursued, barriers overcome, and outstanding …

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Will the mothers’ legacies live on?


During March, we’re reminded of the many great women who have carved frontiers and unlocked doors for women and girls. We marvel at their passions pursued, barriers overcome, and outstanding achievements. What we sometimes overlook is that many amazing women live among us every day but get little or no recognition for their remarkable accomplishments. From a recent NPR interview with Anna Malaika Tubbs, the author of a book entitled “The Three Mothers: How the mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin shaped a nation, I learned the names of the three great women who mothered these three great men. After years of research, Tubbs reveals the way historians have skimmed over the influential roles that mothers play in the development of their children’s potential. Her biographies raise the remarkable lives of Alberta King, Louise Little, and Berdis Baldwin from obscurity. Not only does she shine a light on their greatness, but she also identifies the impact of their hardships. With her acute attention to the intersections of race, gender and class, Tubbs calls attention to the immeasurable strength and resilience of every black woman living amidst persistent racism. She then expands her analysis to include all women raising children with insufficient resources and support. I identified the parallels in my own mother’s story.
My mother, Margaret, was born on June 8, 1925, in Detroit, Mich., to working-class Greek immigrants, the second of five children, the eldest daughter. Instead of the apple of her father’s eye, she was his “Little Dove”. She would someday whisper Grandpa’s term of endearment into my ears, not knowing that his words would become a beloved part of my scant lexicon of Greek phrases.
Margaret graduated from Redford High in 1943 and began work as a postal clerk, a vacancy made possible for women by World War II. She lived with her parents until she married my father, Eddy McQuillan. They would conceive three children. I was the youngest.
I have few photos of my mother but in one she’s holding me in her arms. She’s smiling, her voluminous dark hair spilling out from a crocheted cap. In another picture it’s summer. She’s wearing plaid shorts and a sleeveless blouse, surrounded by iris and poppies. I’m clinging to her bare leg, no taller than her knee, looking bewildered. She loved to sew. She probably made my cotton sunsuit. My hair, like hers, formed a dark curly halo around my face. She loved to garden. And I do, too! My mother also loved to sing. With the record player blaring, she’d harmonize with her favorites — Lena Horne, Keely Smith, and Ella. I wish I’d inherited her voice!
My father was a serious man who struggled with his health long before my parents married. His condition worsened as the years went by. Family life was a rollercoaster. His frequent “flare-ups” made it hard for him to stay employed. He was frequently in and out of the hospital. Our family had no medical insurance and paid medical leave was unheard of. In the 1950s there were few medical treatments for ulcerative colitis. Eventually, it evolved into colon cancer. He received the diagnosis at the same time he underwent a colostomy. He was devastated by both and died six months later. I was six years old.
Women at that time had few employment choices and what was available often paid low wages. When my father lost his ability to support his family my mother had no choice but to take whatever employment she could find. She felt fortunate to be hired as a teller in our parish credit union. But when the pay proved insufficient, Mom found a job selling toys and housewares as a “home demonstrator.” Her gregarious personality resulted in “party bookings” nearly every evening and soon she became her company’s highest selling agent.
My mother worked two jobs throughout my early childhood. My older sister took on the household responsibilities at 12, in many ways more “the mother” than our Mom. We were expected to fulfill our daily instructions without complaint. Karen, a strict taskmaster, clued me in early that it’s easier to just conform to the system than resist. That worked for me until I reached the age of 18.
Mom was clear that our conditions were not of her choosing. She may have been short on “nurture” but was good at keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table. She made it a point to inform her daughters that we must never think someone else would take care of us. We must do well in school and always be prepared to support ourselves — “and our kids” — no matter what! For us, she was best described as a mix of anxiety, disappointment, and resentment. Her young life was not what she’d dreamed of. Her only security came by her own hard work. In 1965, she thought her ship had finally come in. She’d landed a job at General Motors filing reports in their documents library. She took pride in finally obtaining a livable wage from a job that ended at 5 p.m.
In 1967, she remarried. Life seemed wonderful but the thrill wouldn’t last long. Reliable contraception was not yet available and while in her forties, my mother discovered she was pregnant. Abortion wasn’t legal. And women at GM were fired at the first sign of pregnancy. My mother worked as long as she could conceal her condition and then was “forced to resign.” There were no protections, no family leave, no personal time off. Her expectations for a better future were dashed.
Her pregnancy was difficult and her delivery high-risk. Postpartum depression gripped her for weeks following my brother’s arrival. Eventually, she would celebrate his birth as one of the best things that ever happened. Luckily, my mother survived.
Margaret was also passionate in her convictions. She taught her children to respect others and to stand up for the “underdog”. That meant people of lesser advantage, of varied backgrounds, and anyone being bullied. When she saw a need, she took action. She organized the neighborhood to pick up trash on the first Earth Day in 1970. She lobbied for bike paths before they were popular. On many a Saturday morning, we loaded the car with boxes of discarded office paper that she’d retrieved from the GM trash bin. She delivered it to a school in downtown Detroit where she’d heard of students who lacked paper, writing their lessons on newsprint with crayons. She engaged us in these efforts and made sure we understood why they mattered.
Despite her challenges, she considered herself a fortunate person. Her stable loving upbringing, her passion and resourcefulness allowed her to weather and rise above the hardships. Her children were the beneficiaries of her values and many learned lessons. Her example left its mark!
My mother’s story parallels those of Tubbs’ biographies — tales of high stress and extraordinary challenge. They are tales of survival. They struggled with insufficient resources, little empathy or support. And they all wanted more for their daughters and granddaughters.
Sadly, whether it’s recent efforts to deny women access to birth control and safe, legal abortion, or reductions in funding for emergency housing and food assistance, the conditions for many American families have only worsened.
Information on what will improve the status of women and children is readily available to lawmakers, but too many refuse to accept the reality or just don’t care. That leaves it up to us to apply pressure wherever we can. If we don’t succeed in changing our nation’s priorities, Women’s History Month, and our mothers’ legacies, will be rendered meaningless as America continues to fall behind the rest of the world in how we care for families that stuggle.