My mom and I have a lot in common. We’re both loyal patrons of the public library system. Dogs love us. Our fingers swell when we get hot. We are melodramatic about things that bear no real significance on anyone’s lives. Despite all this, there’s an even longer list of our differences.
She loves Jimmy Buffet while I love David Bowie. I love tattoos; she thinks they’re a pox upon the human body. She carries Wet Wipes, and I barely wash my hands. Somewhere in the middle of this Mother-Daughter Venn Diagram lies Feminism with a capital F. As I stretch past 30, feminism is one of the most important things in my life; it’s what I read and talk and think about. While my mom believes in the equality of all people, she decidedly doesn’t identify with the label or other women who label themselves as such.
"My matriarchal family tree is full of women who turned t-shirts into quilts, killed snakes by snapping them in the air like a whip, and became successful in traditionally male-dominated fields."
I come from a long line of emotional, bargain shopping, accidental feminists. My matriarchal family tree is full of women who turned t-shirts into quilts, killed snakes by snapping them in the air like a whip, and became successful in traditionally male-dominated fields. My mom and grandma are no exceptions. My grandma would never have called herself a feminist. She was #11 in a line of 12 kids growing up on a farm during the Great Depression. Life didn’t sound easy, but most of them survived, and Grandma gave up a job in DC (which she always talked about with bitterness) to care for her ailing father.
Sarah as a little girl, on the right in the floral dress with her grandmother.
She moved into the closest town, got a job at the TNT plant during WWII, and at the electric company after. The millennial feminist in me is sad she couldn’t rise past the ranks of secretary to the company president, but for the 1950s, the fact that she worked full time while her husband stayed home with their daughter is pretty badass. It makes sense that she eschewed the 1950s and 60’s beauty standards as much as she could. She was a woman in a man’s world. She’d survived the Great Depression. She had no room for frivolities.
Meanwhile, my young mom was at home with her already elderly father. She spent her days in barbershops, the local jail, and other bastions of depraved masculinity. Those places were held up to her as ideal, cool - not the beauty parlor or boutique shopping. Raised in the country like a boy, with boys, she somehow escaped a lot of constrictive trappings of mid-century femininity. She majored in chemistry at college. She was a liberated woman already; she didn’t need feminism.
Despite their small town Southern upbringings, the women in my life are progressive. They’ve never considered themselves feminists, but I would argue that they are. My mom never let anyone tell her she had to look or be different than the person she already was. In my youth, I resented her for this. I was a child who loved Barbies, Clueless, and shopping at the mall. While my tastes have always skewed left of center, I still admired pretty dresses and exotic shoes and wild makeup styles. With the impending doom of middle school, I was ready to learn a modern female’s beauty regime. I recall spending about ten minutes with her in the bathroom, her teaching me how not to burn myself with a curling iron as I applied it to my bangs.
When I wanted to wear makeup to my first dance, I realized her makeup kit consisted of exclusively rose nail polish and brown eye shadow. I’m not even sure she owned mascara. I didn’t think I could be anything other than the bare face and plain hair that grew on my head. I convinced myself I couldn’t be a girl in skirts or dresses, even though I loved fashion. It’s clearly teenage logic, but I thought that to avoid disappointing my mother, I had to look like her; it felt like she was making the choice about my appearance for me, and I resented her for that.
It was at my hippie college that I learned about feminism. Like many Americans, I learned more about myself than my major, and more from my peers than my professors. Over the next four years, as I discovered I was free – both from my former peers and watchful eyes of my well-meaning parents – I realized I could dress however I wanted. I threw out everything in my closet I didn’t love, and put together bizarre sartorial pairings. My friends and I hosted elaborate theme parties that challenged us to create unique characters. My fellow film students began noticing my sense of style and asked me to design their films. While I’d always planned to be a writer, I found costuming very satisfying and creatively fulfilling. What we wear as people says a lot about us, and it’s an important part of making a character come to life on screen.
After college, I moved to LA to pursue working in the television costume business. While I felt confident in my personal style clothing-wise, I wanted to learn about makeup. I had the sales clerk at Sephora show me how to put on liquid eyeliner, and I practiced walking in heels. But the lessons of my mother and college stuck with me – I still wear makeup only when I feel like it.
Despite those formative years of her rolling her eyes and telling me my outfit looked like a rainbow threw up, my mom loves my career choice. Being in a union and employed by major TV shows gives me the street cred she needs me to have in order to accept my taste. During weekly calls to my parents, my mom puts me on speakerphone. She and my dad are usually cooking or eating, and all three of us talk about their poorly behaved dogs, movies, and TV shows. But inevitably, the conversation evolves into discussions of politics. We rage about police brutality, the environment, and our anger at Donald Trump and his supporters. My mom and I agree on basically everything, and I can picture my dad falling asleep on the couch. But even though we are talking about decidedly feminist issues, if I use the dreaded F word, she shuts down. She doesn’t say anything against it, but she reacts as if I’m summarizing the plot of a movie she doesn’t want to see.
As an adult, I silently thank her daily that I don’t feel like I have to spend copious amounts of time or money on my appearance unless I want to. It’s part of the reason I’ve gravitated towards a job that will allow me freedom of expression in my style as well. But I also know that if I wore more makeup or different sorts of outfits, it’s possible I would get more and better attention from bosses and co-workers, and fare better in interviews. Studies have shown time and time again that in our patriarchal society, women do have a lot to gain from following societal beauty norms. In America, a country with an enormous beauty industry and a media system that practically demands woman look a certain way, I consider my mother’s quiet, accidental feminism her greatest gift to me.
by Sarah Ruttinger
Bio Sarah Ruttinger is a feminist writer living and working in Los Angeles. When not putting pen to paper, she works as a costumer for television and movies. Her two favorite things in life are road trips and dogs, and she is sometimes fortunate enough to combine the two. She can be found on Instagram at @ruttingers.