Sunday is Women’s Equality Day, the day the 19th Amendment was ratified and women got the vote. Women’s Equality Day is a day I celebrate every year by inviting friends to share a meal and the story of a woman who shaped their lives. It’s a way of recognizing our foremothers and a way of seeing the work of their hands and hearts and heads. Last year, the story I shared was the story of Rev. Florence Li Tim Oi, the first woman priest in the Anglican communion. This year I’m sharing the story of story of my friend Mary:
“Sue, won’t you come with us to hear Gloria Steinem?” my friend Mary asked.
I replied, “Okay, but you know I’m not a feminist.”
I don’t really remember much about the day we saw Gloria Steinem. I remember standing with Mary and our colleague and friend Mary Ellen. (Both Mary and Mary Ellen taught sections of one of the first high school women’s studies courses offered in the United States and, as I now think about it, probably the world.) I remember the grass in Loring Park was unusually green that day. And I think I remember to my enduring chagrin commenting to Gloria Steinem, “I’m not a feminist but….”
My colleague Mary taught me to learn my own history and she taught me how to listen for the voices historians overlook or under-record. But she taught me so much more. We taught together for eight years. From Mary I learned how one was supposed to be compassionate but firm with students (I got the compassionate part but never really mastered the firm part). From Mary I learned the West—its history, its culture, its debt to women pioneers. From Mary I learned how to approach a subject from the perspective of a teacher wise enough to think about how kids learn, what steps to take when, and what stories engage a student’s interest. (I will never forget Mary teaching me woijaweja—the Lakota notion that people have both a right to something and the obligation to share.)
Sharing—that’s one of the things I value most about my friend Mary. She still teaches me how a person shares a life with someone else. She shared with me stories of her childhood (she from a family of 10, me from a family of 4); stories of her grandmother; books she read and loved; her takes on politics; and she shared with me her own children’s childhood even inviting me into their lives in ways I would never have imagined possible.
Most of all, Mary has taught me how to be there by how she has been there for me time and again throughout my adult life. When I left my first husband, Mary was there helping me clear my things out of the house. The year my Airedale and I lived in a hovel as I was trying to restart my life, Mary had us both over for dinner often. She gave us a family when I needed it most. And when my future husband Tim and I were courting long distance, Mary listened to my plaintive calls usually replying to my tearful questions, “Sue, that’s a part of Tim. You’ll have to get used to that.” Mary was the maid of honor at our wedding. She was there during the times when barrier breaking hurt the most. And she was there when I was ordained. Mary has taught me that you don’t just share part of you. And she has taught me how to be there when it matters most—sometimes in big ways but often in small ways like an after-dinner snack or a walk around a lake or opening your house to family of friends.
Mary taught me to say with confidence and pride , “I’m a feminist.” That’s why every year I celebrate Women’s Equality Day.
An interesting postscript to this story–Gloria Steinem later preached at Joan of Arc Catholic Church, but that was a different era and a very different Catholic church!