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A Mother's Work ...

... Deserves a decent wage

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Sojourner Truth was not an invited speaker when she made her now famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech. And you know what's deeper? She never actually said "Ain't I a woman?" either. "Sojourner" spoke near-perfect Dutch English -- her birth name was Isabella Van Wagenen -- and she was not attuned to ebonics. But Frances Gage, a white woman and president of the 1851 Women's Rights Convention, was awe-struck by Sojourner's speech (and, perhaps, intent on Sojourner "representing the race"). So she partially refashioned her dialect, and chose to insert "Ain't I a woman?" where there was no such phrase.

There was, however, one such spirit. And that is the spirit I'd like to highlight today. Because in these times the daughter of an English teacher, a scholar in her own right and a poet, prefers to use "ain't" as often as possible.

I thought about making a Sojourner-esque speech at the Women's Equal Pay Rally held in Market Square on April 24. We had just finished hearing from a woman who openly proclaimed "full frontal feminism," and I was excited by the advice to "not be ladylike" -- because it doesn't work. ("Your silence will not protect you," Audre Lorde once said, knowing she was speaking to women who often grow into their silence like a sunflower blossoms yellow in the middle.)

But I found myself needing to make a public apology. I called the poem, "I Apologize: Will Work for Equality, an Open Poem to My Mother and All Hardworking Women Who Are Misunderstood."

I apologized to my mother because women need to be more forgiving of, and empowering for, one another. Men definitely attempt to hold us back. (Yes, I know it's not all men, but there are too many who do ... and the ones that don't are far too silent.) But I felt the need to issue a public apology to my mother, and to all of the hardworking women who are misunderstood. Because I remember when I misunderstood her.

Now, my mother and I are so close that we fuss and fight. We pal around as sisterfriends quite often, and there are times when I stand in her doorway and watch her sleep ... just as I imagine she did with me when I was a child. But I remember when I accused her of not living up to her potential. I remember wondering if there was some inherent inferiority that doomed her to work much harder than anyone else I had ever known. I didn't understand the second and third jobs she worked all my life. I resented her absence at some of my basketball games.

Then one day, I realized the flaw wasn't in my mother. It was in the city of Pittsburgh.

Seriously: It was this city that forced my mother to work so hard. For all of the jobs she worked, all the time she put in, the students she mentored and the extra work she brought home -- for all of that, she was still counted as "lesser-than."

Somewhere in her circle, there was a man who was able to attend his daughter's basketball games, because he was making enough money to pay his bills and have a bit extra. Somewhere in her circle, there was a man who, in one year, received a salary my mother had to work 18 months to get.

As an adult, I don't appreciate it. I resent the system that produced this inequality, and still perpetuates it nearly 200 years after Sojourner Truth declared her right to be free as an African (with Dutch inclinations), a former slave and a woman.

Even now, in 2007, women in Southwestern Pennsylvania earn 69 cents for every dollar a man makes doing the same job. Even now, women barely appear on the boards of the companies running this city. We're all over nonprofit boards, sure ... but only to a point. As soon as the salaries increase beyond $250,000, women become invisible there as well.

That is the system. And with the stellar lineup of speakers at the rally, I thought I would remind everyone to be a bit more caring and understanding and gentle with the women in their lives. Especially the mothers who share what they have until they have nothing but love to give.

My mother couldn't attend the rally, by the way. She was at work.

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