Friday, February 5, 2010

In Search of Our Mothers' Adding Machines

Mary Geong is a natural-born leader. For most of my childhood, I was ashamed of my mother for that reason, and some other reasons too. She was too outspoken, too loud, too cheap, too Chinese, too fat, too short.

In short, she was unfeminine. Patriarchy gets us early. When I was younger, I wanted to be color-blind and ignore race, so her effusive endorsements of women and/or minority candidates for office embarrassed me.

Photo: At the racetrack w/Oakland Rotary Club

I'm not sure if mi madre identifies as feminist, but I came to see she's pretty solidly feministy. She is progressive and wore power suits with big shoulder pads during the 80s and 90s. She wore a feminist sticker I gave her when she visited our office. She believes in serving her community and giving back, through civic organizations, through donating to politicians, through advocating for Mandarin classes in the public schools.

She did not choose leadership. It chose her (this is also a common refrain amongst female US senators). But as I think is the case for many women, the household forged her first experiences in exercising power and responsibility. As a teenager and the eldest of five children, my mom became the primary caretaker for her siblings after her mother died.

Her parents were poor, illegal immigrants, so she worked at a drycleaner to pay for college. She was not an activist, and walked past the tear gas and anti-war protesters on her way to class (Mum has no recollection of tear gas, but my dad says it's true). As a child, I was disappointed she didn't participate in the mass civic disobedience of the era. I couldn't afford to get arrested - there were bills to pay, she said.

She says her career options during the 1960s were limited to be a secretary, a teacher, or a nurse. She failed her physical science courses, which ruled out being a nurse or doctor, so she became a teacher. After a few years, she decided she wanted more job security and got an MBA instead. She became a Certified Public Accountant, a field that was heavily populated by white males during that period.

Several grad degrees and professional licenses and professional organizations and a nuclear family later, my mom is your standard community politico. Raising money for candidates, telling friends and strangers how to vote, the whole shebang. But I keep asking her to run for local office, and she says no no no. That's your job, she tells me. I like to work behind the scenes, plus I don't want the pay cut, she says. The good news is my mom had been approached by several people to run for City Council for the City of Piedmont. She says she may consider running for local public office after she retires.

So here we are with few women in the political pipeline and gross under-representation in the top tiers of politics, business, academia, arts, etc. You know accomplished women like my mom. They're probably women like your mom too. They're young and old, smart and passionate, and they care deeply about the people in their communities. They would be terrific public servants - they already are public servants, really. But they are reticent to enter public life, and don't feel inclined to embark on a political career. So we just get more of the same tired moneyed privileged men coasting into office, with more of the same tired moneyed discriminatory politics.

How to we create a generation of female public servants? Do we ask ourselves and our peers to swear to an Unbreakable Vow to run for office? This is the question I was meaning to ask a panel of seasoned political journalists tonight, but it got muddled in my head. Now it's no longer muddled, and I guess I'll ask all of you for advice, my fellow young feminists-in-arms. How do we prod millions of young women and old women to rush to their election boards to declare their candidacies for public office?

1 comment:

Caroline said...

Love your mom, Danielle. Mary Geong 2012!

Organizations like Emily's List, and Annie's List here in Texas, are crucial for getting more women in office. When groups like these are active, the people inside the political parties will recruit more women because they have a better chance to win with that extra financial support.