Helen Reddy has died, and I only just discovered her. I came across ‘I am woman’ a few weeks ago. The feminist anthem from 1971 found me, in 2020. That first day, I played it again and again, and now I listen to it every morning. I am woman. It’s such a simple, powerful, beautiful declaration. Woman is not to be whispered. Helen Reddy roared, and in my little red Skoda, on the way to wherever I have to get to each morning, I roar along with her.
If I am on fire, my mother lit the match. She taught me, by example and by design, not to subscribe to groupthink. To wear what I feel comfortable in. To speak up and speak out. To read, write, and publish what I write. If I picture myself as a small girl, this is the mother that I see. I see her teaching, working, and advocating stubbornly for what she believes in.
It was my mother who taught me that ideas are worth exploring, and worth sharing. She would read, research, and then lead groups of women in discussion. I would help her hang up the adverts that she typed out herself, printing them on coloured paper, to save on coloured ink, without missing out on impact. I would help lay out the snacks, and I loved taking the leftovers to school the next day.
This is my mother, who says she is not a feminist. Who loves me, but disagrees with much of what I believe in. My mother, who I worry will never be proud of me, because while she showed me how to speak up, I speak louder than what I think she finds acceptable. I challenge ideas that she does not, but it was she who taught me to challenge them. I know too much to go back and pretend.
My mother bakes her own bread. She says it is because once, back when she lived in Amsterdam, the baker left the salt out of the bread she bought. When she went back to complain, he offered her the loose grams of salt he had left out. She left his shop, went home, baked her own, and has done ever since. My mother taught me not to accept half measures and meaningless gestures. I am woman, watch me grow.
I started off advocating for myself. I started small. Back then, I worked in the small office of a heimishe run business, and I decided to ask for a contract. No one else had one. No one could understand why I wanted the rights that a contract would afford me. The rights that my mother’s, and Helen Reddy’s generation fought for. I pushed even further and asked for a maternity clause. I was met with confusion. Why did I need that, I was asked. Was I planning to have a baby?
These days, I also advocate for others. For people who don’t know that the law already protects them, and that help is available. I’ll carry on doing that.
Until I make my brother understand.