I grew up on Manet Road, the street named after Édouard Manet, whose portrait of a candidly nude, desiring woman, Olympia , incited a near-riot at the Paris Salon in 1865. Nestled in one of America’s safest neighborhoods, Manet Road was the cozy haven of Boston suburbanites with chrysanthemums on the front porch and composts in the backyard. It was a place where self-invention seemed possible. It was a place where, on a friend’s dare, I rode my purple Huffy bike two lengths of the street, my T-shirt flagging from the handlebars. “ Vive la France! Vive Manet! ”
No one got my joke. No one looked at the 10-year-old, streaking the street, and thought of Manet’s nude painting. It was my first lesson in the limits of metaphor and the often subtle limitations of gender. Mr. and Mrs. Tudor, pushing a baby carriage, clucked as I sped by. Mrs. Linnehan scowled from her porch, and Mr. Gladchuck looked as though he might call the police or turn his garden hose in my direction. So I put my shirt back on. I calmly parked my tasseled bike in the garage.
My parents had purchased the street’s fixer-upper. Our neighbors included a Jesuit priest who blessed our candy at Halloween and a corporate consultant who critiqued the price point of our lemonade stand. I learned about kosher rules at my best friend’s house. Across the street, a biologist and a bipolar musician let us play with their Dalmatians and their four kids, who founded a punk rock band we nicknamed “Spots Banging on Pots.”
Turn-of-the-century Victorians and postwar brick homes were shaded by tall maples and tasteful fences. No one made fun of our dilapidated house. When my mother got sick, folks began a casserole brigade that saved us from the peril of too many grilled cheese sandwiches until she was well. Life was surprising but explicable. People were varied and kind.
As a teenager, I played hoops until bedtime and, with my father’s help, learned to throw and catch pigskin. I was a tomboy, and in that identity, in the cocoon of my surrounds, I had provisional protection from the ordinary strife of girlhood. So it was a mild shock when, playing in an otherwise all-boys’ basketball league, I got guerilla-kissed in the gym parking lot. On his subsequent intrusion, I hurled that skinny 13-year-old Casanova into my neighbor’s hedge.
Suburban revenge was genteel. It involved shrubbery and, on occasion, transplanted skunks.
Eventually, I left that homespun world for the Ivy League and a doctorate at Notre Dame. I never imagined that, a decade after I left, I’d land a professorship near Boston. But I’ve returned to my hometown where yoga, arugula and electric cars are commonplace; locking the door is safely optional. My parents maintain the same gently listing Victorian. The next generation, raised on revised Disney archetypes and nut-free cupcakes, is already navigating in training wheels.
I am now a 35-year-old white woman three semesters away from a tenure decision. While travel in the world has entailed adventure and misadventure, by almost any measure I have been lucky: privileged from the crib. Yet my crib, in 1979, cost my mother her research job at Harvard University, where she was fired — after a stellar review — when it became known that she was pregnant (with me). I was stunned when my mother first told me the story of her dismissal, 25 years after it happened, as I began graduate school and my own academic career.
Women, as Virginia Woolf penned, “think back through our mothers.” In the past decade, in the voyage from tomboy to tenure-track academic, I have often thought about my mother’s pink slip, my grandmothers’ 14 children (one had 9; the other 5), and my maternal great-grandmother’s unchaperoned trek from Dublin to Boston when she was in her late teens. We think back through our mothers, our familial models. We inherit the legacy of their choices, and we make our own, grateful for the obstacles their generations removed from our present tense.
Practically speaking, however, my father was my first feminist. He believed that women deserved equal pay and opportunity. An Olympic running coach, he put no restrictions on my pursuits, with two exceptions: I was not allowed to be anyone’s cheerleader or secretary. (Also, I had to quit the nudism.)
Feeling clumsy around girls my age who were adept at constructing outfits, hairstyles and playground hierarchies, I gravitated toward the clear rules and bonhomie of sports and street games. My father encouraged my inclinations and independence. When I wanted to play football in middle school, he spent hours teaching me how to be a running back. When I needed a driver’s license, he taught me to drive stick and to change my own tires. When I ran track, he taught grit: I learned to compete, fiercely, without looking back.
Yet no one, for any considerable length of time, can look ahead without peering behind. The stories of Orpheus, Lot’s wife and The Great Gatsby aren’t wholly mythological. They attest to the fact that none of us is shorn of history, absolved of context, freed from the historical and familial frames of our identities. Eventually, pocketed secrets find speech. Dodged bullets locate secondary targets. The past rears up — incrementally or seemingly all at once — to implicate the present, to catalyze slow emergencies.
On my first day as an assistant professor at a state university in Massachusetts, an elderly colleague appeared in my office doorway. “Welcome aboard, Helen!” he said, knocking belatedly on my door. “Have you made copies yet? I’m trying to get my syllabus printed, and the copier’s jammed. D’you think you could fix it?”
In the quick calculus that professional women make every day, I wondered whether correcting my colleague about my first name or demurring from his request would be self-assassination. Later that week, another older male colleague praised my nearest contemporary for her “stunning combination” of intelligence and physical attractiveness.
“Beauty and brains! Beauty and brains!” he sang in the department hallway as if he were in a Broadway musical.
As I finished my first year of university teaching, I gave a lecture in my Modern Poetry course, drawing a parallel between the poets Emily Dickinson and Stevie Smith. I was nearing my central point, the one I wanted students to remember. At that moment, a middle-aged colleague took four or five steps inside my classroom and tilted his head like a small bird.
“Stevie Smith, huh?”
He threw what looked like an apple core into the trash can. “Well, carry on!” he added, turning heel and walking back out the classroom door.
Two years into my job, I was asked to serve in the dean’s office after an unexpected resignation. I fielded students’ requests and policy questions with care, learning as I went along. One day, a department chair demanded to meet with me and a senior administrator.
“I’m here to complain about your behavior,” he said, at the outset. The senior administrator gently inquired, and we discovered that the supposed offense was the manner in which I had answered the telephone.
“You didn’t even say hello! You didn’t address me as Professor! Who do you think you are?”
I apologized. My doctorate in literature did not include photocopy machine repair, singing lessons or training in a dual-line phone system. I wasn’t supposed to be anyone’s cheerleader or secretary.
In an unofficial meeting, the kind that happens around the coffeemaker, colleagues discussed candidates for a leadership position at the university.
“What about ‘Y’?” I asked. “She’s done a fabulous job with the president’s initiative.”
“Well,” a senior female colleague said. “‘Y’ is busy with her two little ones. She’s a soccer mom these days.”
I suppressed the urge to kick something. “Y” was teaching three courses, chairing two committees, running a university-wide program and completing her second book. Motherhood did not, in any way, detract from her commitment or her stellar credentials. In that moment, I realized that some of my female colleagues, scrambling for footholds in the hierarchy, would undercut each other with sangfroid.
In an official department meeting in 2014, I proposed changing a course title from “Women in American Literature” to “American Women Writers.”
After lengthy conversation, a senior colleague asked, “What, exactly, are you intending to teach in this course? Good Housekeeping? Wouldn’t it be better to title the course ‘ The Figure of Women in American Literature’ or ‘ The Voice of Women in American Literature’?”
Because, I wanted to say, women aren’t merely figures or voices. They’re authors.
How do women know what they want, what they can desire? Since I can remember, I have been told that women could be anything they wanted to be, presidents or astronauts. Though women in the United States still lag behind men in equitable wages, earning about 78 cents to the dollar, my generation stands on the shoulders of 1960s and ’70s “Second Wave” feminism that championed careerism, reproductive choice, Title IX protection from discrimination and freedom from harassment in the workplace. The women of my mother’s generation were told they could “have it all,” a catch-phrase like the current “leaning in” that obscures the complexity aligned with the campaign for equality — then and now.
Around the time of my Lady Godiva tour of my neighborhood, I overheard my mother being asked, on two separate occasions, what she did for a living. When her answer of “I’m a full-time mother” was met with “Well, isn’t that nice,” I wanted to stomp on her questioners’ feet. I wanted to spring to my mother’s defense; I wanted to storm the invisible Bastille and say, “It’s her choice, stupid!”; I wanted to line up my three siblings and say, “She has four jobs!”
I wanted to be her resume.
After she was fired from Harvard for being pregnant, my mother did not return to full-time employment until my youngest brother went to kindergarten. In that interval, she worked part time; managed household finances on a shoestring; tutored the four of us in math, reading and breakdancing; and looked after a dozen neighborhood kids with Popsicles and front-porch parenting. These were the skills of two or three professions, delivered as one. When she returned to work for two decades of corporate success, motherhood remained her secondary métier.
There never should have been anything demeaning about my mother’s choices at any stage.
Similarly, for my generation of women, there should be no social — or professional — penalty for the decision to be “child-free” or to choose a path without the “3-M” (marriage, mortgage, maternity) narrative turn. If feminism is to endure as a movement centered on human rights, on inclusively broad gender roles, as a movement fiercely advanced by Eve Ensler as well as the prime minister of India, then it must defend the legitimacy of women’s individual desires as well as their physical, economic and legal well-being.
Astronauts and presidents. Playwrights and politicians. Mothers and moguls.
In January of 1986, my first grade class at Mt. Alvernia Academy gathered to watch the launch of the space shuttle ¬_Challenger_. For weeks, we had been reading about Christa McAuliffe, a high school history teacher chosen from 11,000 applicants to be the “first teacher in space.” McAuliffe was scheduled to give two live lessons to schoolchildren from the low-gravity darkness beyond the Earth’s stratosphere. To a 5-year-old girl, there was nothing more thrilling. Outer space, in my mind’s eye, was the cuticle of heaven.
On the day of the launch, Sister Philomena wheeled a television into our classroom and led our class in a prayer to Saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers. We were allowed to drum our hands politely against our desktops as we counted down in unison with the voice from Cape Canaveral: 5, 4 3, 2, 1, lift-off.
Seventy-three seconds later, Challenger exploded in a fiery holocaust, a blooming flower of pastel smoke. Sister Philomena gasped, and we realized something had gone wrong. Quickly, “Sister Phil,” as we secretly called her, muted the television and led us in the Memorare. As we prayed for the astronauts, seemingly atomized over the Atlantic, I thought of Christa McAuliffe’s daughter, who was my age. Had she been holding someone’s hand when her mother disappeared?
If my mother was criticized for staying at home with her four children, I have been told that my work — as a poet, as a critic, as a teacher — will necessarily suffer if I do not reproduce.
Because of flaws in the shuttle’s Solid Rocket Booster, the U.S. space program had suffered a humiliating tragedy. McAuliffe’s two children, now motherless, would go to bed that night with a hole permanently rent in their sky. The lesson I took from that plume of fire was that pioneering women were in danger of blowing up, a casualty of their own trust or others’ hapless error.
While I prayed with my class of frightened 5- and 6-year-olds, I also promised myself that, whatever my ambition, I would obey gravity. I would stay firmly on the ground and watch where I put my feet.
Last October, I jackknifed out of a hotel bed in Dublin. The alarm clock blared like a demonized ambulance. It was 2 a.m. in Boston, my native time zone, from which I’d taken the red-eye. Groggily, I navigated a tepid bath, my conference suit and a quick cup of tea in the hotel coffeemaker. I raced down Lower Abbey Street with its eddies of Friday night debris and across the River Liffey, shining in the October sun. I was due to give a paper at Trinity College in 20 minutes.
The campus green was quiet: no rugby or protests. No panhandlers or pamphleteers. No one was trying to save my soul or bum a cigarette. I raced across the cobblestones as quickly as sensible heels allowed, thinking distractedly about my great-grandmother, Margaret Splaine, who had left Dublin and a dozen siblings to seek her fortune in Boston, a place she had seen only on maps. There were no relatives in Massachusetts waiting to greet her; many factories and storefronts had “NINA” (“No Irish Need Apply”) signs in their windows. She cobbled together jobs as a seamstress, a boarding house manager and the housekeeper of a parish rectory. Eventually, Margaret made a judicious marriage to an Irish engineer employed by the railroad. They had three daughters; each, in turn, attended high school and married well. The eldest, Mary, was my grandmother. A small legacy from her careful investments allowed me to keep a car in graduate school, a measure of independence that was important to me: Mary Ford maintained a practical, automotive version of upward mobility.
My jet lag made the ground look wobbly. I had taught a full week of classes before venturing abroad on a hairpin three-day itinerary. This was, I rationalized, the price of ambition. I gained energy as I found my way to the auditorium, met my cross-pond colleagues and gave a paper about an American poet that was, to my great relief, well-received. Afterward, the audience asked pointed questions I was able to answer cogently, even in my befogged state.
Though I’d had less than six hours’ sleep in two days, I stayed upright. The conference itself was invigorating: poetry critics from across Europe and America had assembled to discuss one legendary poet’s oeuvre and influence. By the day’s end, I was adrenalized. I didn’t hesitate to accept an invitation to join my mostly male colleagues at a pub across town.
A pub in Dublin is like a sausage house in Berlin or a sushi bar in Tokyo: One should not order a Coca-Cola there. While my colleagues ordered rounds of Guinness, however, I stuck to the sugary buzz of soda. After pleasantries, an established poet-critic from Oxford University turned the conversation in my direction.
“I have to say, you do give me hope — you give all of us hope — for the future of academia. It’s an attractive prospect.”
I didn’t have the courage to say what I was thinking. So I said, “Thank you,” warily, and tried to bring the conversation back to poetry and football.
But the Oxford poet persisted, and suddenly he had the whole group’s attention. “If you don’t mind me asking, what year were you born?”
“I’m 35. I’m four years into a tenure-track job and,” I added jokingly, “26 years away from retirement.”
“Do you have a husband?”
“I have a boyfriend,” I said slowly.
“Well,” the elder poet said, “if you’re 35 and publishing nicely, you should think about having a child. You don’t want to miss that part. It’ll add so much to your poetry, to your life as a woman.”
Where was the suburban hedge when I needed one? Where was my Huffy bicycle now, when I needed a quick getaway?
As I walked across Dublin that night, unable to sleep, I thought about Margaret Splaine’s traversal of this same city and cobblestones. I wondered how my great grandmother, a petite woman with a smelt iron handshake, had walked as a young girl: Did she have a confident stride or a sidling lope? Did she wear worn heels or farm boots? Were they borrowed or her own pair? And what, if anything, did Margaret fear on the day she left behind all that she knew for a country in which she knew no one?
I thought about why feminism and feminists must continue to assert what she asserted in choosing exile over a known landscape: the private legitimacy of making one’s own choices, wherever they might lead; the authorship of an autonomous narrative; the imaginative risk of making “self” up as one goes along. I thought about contemporary women’s resistance to daily sexist flak — and how, as a child, as a young woman, I was not told that in becoming anything you want to be, an astronaut or president, there might be collateral damage. I did not know that every woman must weather something like gravitational resistance if she is to make what she wishes out of her one life.
Desire often involves going somewhere, being someone you haven’t been before.
In the past century, the feminist movement has brought women closer to equality than ever before in human history. But securing legal rights is half the battle. There are too many ideas and lived experiences still absent from the conversation, obscured by the sloganeering and the battle cries. There is not yet enough unflinching consideration of the toll that living out so-called equality takes in a world in which being born female anywhere does not come without its tax, its cloaked liabilities and its enduringly painful scenarios in professional and personal life.
I grew up with measurable protections of class, race and neighborhood. Because I was white and privileged, I could be a topless 10-year old shouting French from a bicycle without endangering life or limb. I could go to a high school where smart kids weren’t bullied into corners. As an adult, I could fight in my workplace for equality of rights and representation. I could crisscross the globe without giving personal safety more than a passing thought.
A century after Margaret Splaine landed on these shores, my Irish heritage does not bar me from employment; my gender, on most days, is a manageable liability. It costs something, though not nearly the expense daily paid by women working in wage-an-hour jobs, in nonunionized environments, in the growing ranks of contingent labor.
Contemporary feminism seeks to respond to the lived realities of women of every class, race and orientation by pushing for measures such as universal childcare, parental leave and consent laws that would benefit the majority of women — and men. While advocating for these structural changes, feminism must also remain committed to the legitimacy and broader accessibility of professional and personal choices for all women. If my mother was criticized for staying at home with her four children, I have been told that my work — as a poet, as a critic, as a teacher — will necessarily suffer if I do not reproduce. Both my mother and I, though born 25 years apart, have tried to pursue lives of meaning and worth and, in doing so, have encountered public censure.
Women think through their mothers. If I were to have a daughter, I would want her to dream of being an astronaut or president without fear that the journey of getting there might blow her up. I would want her to speed her bicycle down the street, down her version of Manet Road, without instinctively glancing behind her.
But I cannot assure her of that basic freedom, not yet.
Heather Treseler is a poet and essayist whose work appears in Harvard Review, Boston Review, The Weekly Standard, Iowa Review, Boulevard and other journals. She is an assistant professor of literature and creative writing.