The Horizon of Feminism: In Conversation With My Mother

By Alison Ferrante

Alison is a senior at Sarah Lawrence College studying Literature and Philosophy.

My mother, Donna Greco, grew up during the peak of second wave feminism; born in the mid 1950s, she came of age in Long Island, New York. However, despite living through such a productive and turbulent time for women, she was not at all involved in the feminist movement. I’ve thought much about my mother’s life in the context of women’s studies, particularly concerning the untold stories of  feminism: the women on the sidelines, just beyond the reaches of progressing towards their own full-fledged independence, and how their distance from the feminist movement has come to impact their lives today, in their later years. My mother’s story is one that I consider to be just as important as those of the icons that we’ve seen and continue to see on the front lines of the movement.

After struggling academically through high school, Donna began to study social work in her late twenties, graduating magna cum laude from Hunter College with her Bachelors degree in Psychology. She then went on to apply to graduate school; after receiving offers from Columbia and New York University, she went on to earn her Master’s degree in Social Work at NYU. Donna then went on to work in hospitals throughout New York City at the height of the AIDS crisis, later met my father, and had my sister and I in quick succession. She left her job, making the decision to become a stay at home mother in her late forties. After twenty years of marriage, Donna went back to work, and, shortly thereafter, divorced my father. Even though she didn’t practice Social Work throughout her marriage, she continued to hold her license to practice by taking continuing education classes, and remains qualified to the present day. Donna currently works at a residential memory care facility in Westchester, New York, and lives a comfortable life with her dog, Maslow.

Alison Ferrante: How did you feel about feminism growing up?

Donna Greco: Probably indifferent. I wasn’t very aware of the concept, or what it really meant… my mother didn’t talk about it. I remember comments like “oh, well, I don’t mind having a man hold the door for me…” that type of thing. And because that’s the environment I grew up in, that’s how I began to feel as well. It wasn’t a big piece of conversation.

AF: As you were growing up, did your parents expect you to get married?

DG: Oh absolutely, that was always the plan. They said my sister would be a teacher because she excelled in school, that my brother would be an accountant, and that I would get married. In all fairness, I wasn’t a good student; high school was more like a social event for me. But instead of pushing me to do better in school, to buckle down and work harder, they said, “Oh well, Donna will get married and that’s how she’ll be provided for.”

AF: How did you feel about your parents’ plans for your future? Did you resent it, or did you agree with them?

DG: I just went along with it, and I really believed that’s what I wanted as well. I couldn’t wait to be a wife and a mother, to raise children and stay at home; it was all I wanted. I was very much focused on boyfriends and considering them for marriage. I didn’t even look at what kind of boys they were, whether or not I felt like I could spend the rest of my life with him…Man, I was fucked up.

AF: What made you decide to go to college?

DG: I went to community college right after high school, because what else was I going to do? I felt so lost, and I was miserable. After a few semesters, I dropped out and went to business school.

AF: And by business school, do you mean secretarial school?

DG: Yes; learning shorthand, taking notes for your boss, how to type faster. I wasn’t very good at it, but I ended up getting a job as a secretary. I hated it, my boss made me so nervous. I remember the men, how they would look at me… like I was new prey. But then I met this older guy, a social worker, and we kind of dated. He was the one who inspired me and saw my potential; nobody else did. He took me under his wing and got me into the field, taking me through the process. I took classes to catch up, got into Hunter, and eventually studied at NYU.

AF: So a man stepped in.

DG: Yes, finally! He was compassionate, and he understood—he was a social worker.

AF: So how did you feel about motherhood at this point? Was that still the goal, even though you had started your career and gotten an education?

DG: This was all temporary for me; it was just something to do. I still wanted to be a mother and a wife. I even went to a sperm bank at one point, but decided not to go through with it, which was probably for the best. How was I supposed to support this baby, living on my own and working full time? I couldn’t hire an au pair, that was for the rich. But that’s how badly I wanted children.

AF:= But you eventually had kids—how did you feel about raising two daughters?

DG: After being raised by strict parents who I didn’t feel comfortable sharing things with, I knew I wanted you and your sister to feel free to come to me about anything. I didn’t have that freedom growing up. I only had fear.

AF: How do you feel about feminism at this point in your life, in your later years? When did you realize how important the movement was for you and for women in general?

DG: I came to the realization when I was in an unhappy marriage, and feeling the consequences of being a stay at home mom after the divorce and being on my own. It had a huge negative impact on my career; there was a long gap of how things had changed, especially with technology. And depending on a man financially… I didn’t understand how bills worked, which really screwed me in the end. I wasn’t attentive enough, and I kind of knew it. I suppose I was more like a 1950’s housewife in that regard. I never once went into our joint account, I didn’t even know how to access it. After the divorce, I’ve had to learn how to do everything on my own, and it’s been very overwhelming. But after a new task is done, I feel great. As hard as it’s been, I’ve never felt better about myself and being able to do everything on my own. I love my life. It’s uncomplicated now.

AF: What advice would you give to young women coming of age today?

DG: Believe in yourself. With dedication, you can accomplish your goals and be successful. Surround yourself with positive influences, a good support system, and strong role models.

AF: On that last note: who was your role model growing up?

DG: For better or for worse, it was probably my mother. She wasn’t educated past high school. She would have done very well in college, but that wasn’t an option—it wasn’t even a thought.

I’ve processed my mother’s story as an emblem of the women who were overlooked, whether it be within their own upbringings, or by their lack of representation in history. In many ways, I consider her a late bloomer of sorts. This is not to say that Donna didn’t cultivate her own accomplishments, or that she didn’t flourish in earlier parts of her life; I’ve always seen immense strength in her character, whether it be from my own childhood experience, or through the stories she’s told me, particularly about her college years. But while listening to Donna’s account of her life leading up to her marriage, I can’t help but focus on these struggling seeds that she was planting along the way, the ones which would eventually flourish into the confident and fulfilled woman that she is today, living on her own accord. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that she’s made such a strong social worker, or felt a calling to the profession. I see Donna’s work as advocating for the silenced, giving voice to those overlooked while the wider population was focusing on the big picture. My mother is the woman on the horizon—she has always moved towards the light.

Murderous Nanny to Feminism

By Charlotte Manyasli

Charlotte is an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College. 

“This is the first generation of women who were told by the society they are living in that they can achieve everything. That they could even be selfish,” stated Leila Slimani during a book talk at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris, for her novel The Perfect Nanny. Slimani not only illuminates the complex responsibilities of motherhood, but also what it looks like to be an independent woman. She is a journalist on women’s and human rights issues in the Maghreb, as well as a non-fiction writer focusing predominantly on the issues of sex and misogyny in Morocco. Slimani draws on her personal experiences growing up in Morocco, her own life as a mother, and other significant life events in order to understand gender roles in the different kinds of places that have been home to her.

In Leila Slimani’s novels, she takes a distinct narrative stance in her books. She draws on morbid cases like sexual assaults and murders in order to criticize contemporary gender inequality. In her novel Adele, which she wrote before the Perfect Nanny she writes from the perspective of a mother and closeted sex addict. In her short story “Confessions,” the reader is enticed by an unknown narrator living in an unknown village. He reflects on his experience raping one of the local girls with his father. Slimani tells the stories that are untold: for other authors would not dare tell the story of a rapist or in the case of the Perfect Nanny, a murderous protagonist. Slimani proves that the unspeakable perspective is her comfort zone.

The Perfect Nanny, originally published in French in 2016, tracks the story of Myriam, who returns to work as a lawyer when her children are two and five. The story features various perspectives and a non-linear chronology. The plot begins with the brutal murder of Myriam’s and Paul’s two children, Mila and Adam, by Louise the caregiver. The story then backtracks revealing the frazzled sentiments of a stay-at-home mom who desires to return to work and an adored white nanny. Louise feels the need to serve the rich families but can never truly belong due to her low economic status. Yet, she tries to emanate the white French bourgeois class. The flashbacks also include smaller chapters of Louise’s past employers, Myriam’s mother in law, Louise’s daughter Stephanie, and Paul.

Slimani shows the intricate relationship between a mother and her children as well as mother and nanny. The question of intimacy is central to the book. Myriam, Louise, and the children experience an emotional and physical intimacy with a thin line between violence and love. Slimani explains how a nanny is the only occupation in which there is an expectation to love and nurture a child that is not one’s own.

Guilt is crucial to the novel. Who is guilty for the murder of the children? Is it the mother who returned to work or the nanny who was in charge of the children, but snapped? This question inspired the book and is central in today’s society. Slimani shows how what can seem to be an outdated gender role manifests itself in a contemporary metropolitan setting. In the novel, Myriam struggles to find a balance between her career as a lawyer and her desire to be a “perfect” mother.

Myriam begins motherhood by feeling that “She alone [is] capable of meeting her daughter’s needs.” Her attitude shifts as she is swamped by the responsibility of being a stay-at-home mom. She reflects, “For months she pretended she was okay. Even to Paul, she didn’t dare admit her secret shame. How she felt as if she were dying because she had nothing to talk about but the antics of her children and the conversation of strangers overheard in the supermarket.” Myriam embodies the typical anxieties of a mother. She feels that she can provide for her children yet feels a kind of guilt for not being the ideal mother who would love nothing more than to spend all her time with her children. She instead longs to return to work.

The plot of the novel is morbid reality. It is based on two real-life murders: the Eappon murder in 1997, and the Krims murder in 2012. Louis Woodward was a nineteen-year-old British au pair at the time and was convicted in 1997 for involuntary manslaughter of eight-month-old Matthew Eappon in Newton, Massachusetts. Woodward was charged of killing the baby by shaking him while she was in a state of frustration. Eappon’s mother and father were full-time doctors at the time. In the “New York Time’s” Retro Report documentary of the trail, the viewer can see how guilt was not only placed on the nanny, the murderer, but also on the mother. Woodward’s defense even goes so far as to argue that if Debbie Eappon, the baby’s mother, did not want her child dead she should have stayed home to care for him herself.

This acute statement of guilt is exactly what Slimani attempts to highlight in the Perfect Nanny. Louise Woodward even inspired the character of Louise, the perfect “Marry Poppins-esque” character in the novel. The Woodward case shows us that even though women are told that they can achieve whatever they want – be a mother and have a career- the old cultural gender norms of responsibility for the wellbeing of the child still falls in the hands of the mother, not the father.

The Krims children murder was the second inspiration for the Perfect Nanny. Yoselyn Ortega was a Dominican nanny for the Krims, a Manhattan family. Ms. Ortega worked part-time helping the mother, Marina Krim, to pick up and care for her three children. On October 25, 2012, Yoselyn Ortega was watching Leo Krim, age two, and Lucia Krim, age six, while Marina was taking care of her eldest daughter. When Marina returned home, she found her two children murdered in the bathtub and a knife against Ms. Ortega’s throat. The case raised the issue of mental illness. Can the nanny be responsible for a murder if she was suffering from mental illness? The jury rejected the defense that Ms. Ortega cannot be held responsible and she was charged with life in prison.

In the Perfect Nanny, the reader never learns the result of the case. The book ends abruptly with Louise plotting to coerce Myriam and Paul into having a third child so that she could stay permanently with the family. The last chapter of the novel features the investigator, Captain Nina Dorval, trying to recreate the murder to collect more evidence for the trial. Even as she retraces the murder, she relays the sentiments of the nanny falling into insanity.

There, she will let herself be engulfed by a wave of disgust, by a hatred of everything: this apartment, this washing machine, this still-filthy sink, these toys that have escaped their boxes and crawled under the tables to die, the sword pointed at the sky, the dangling ear. She will be Louise, Louise pushing her fingers in her ears to stop the shouting and the crying. Louise who goes back and forth from the bathroom and the kitchen, from the trash to the tumble dryer, from the bed to the cupboard in the entrance hall, from the balcony to the bathroom. Louise who comes back and then starts again, Louise who bends down and stands on tiptoe. Louise who takes a knife from a cupboard. Louise who drinks a glass of wine, the window open, one foot resting on the little balcony.

Slimani shows directly how the desire to be the perfect housewife and performing these duties unhinges Louise. The murder is not important, but rather where the guilt falls and the exposed of the inherent flawed character the sentiment of guilt and the expose of the flawed character, the perfect mother. Leila Slimani has done something genius. She reveals Louise’s sentiments of trying to achieve perfection and her inevitable fall into insanity.

Perfection is not reality and ultimately we cannot truly know what is underneath it. Louise and Myriam are used as examples to the various shapes of motherhood. The perfect mother does not exist even if you are a stay-at-home mother. Slimani unfolds the relationships that society resists to hear and gives them agency, but not because they deserve it. She tells the story to highlight how feminism has not lessened the burden of motherhood. The takeaway is that gender equality has not reached parenthood.

How Big Pharma Failed Women’s Health

By Nicole A. Swartwood

Nicole currently works as a Research Analyst at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She received her Master of Science in Public Health from Emory University. Nicole also holds Bachelors in Science in Mathematics and Microbiology as well as Bachelors of Arts in German Studies, Religious Studies, and History, all earned at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. 

The development of the oral, hormonal contraceptive was groundbreaking, revolutionary, liberating. The first advertisement for these oral contraceptives depicted Andromeda, who in Greek mythology is chained to a rock in the sea, breaking free; this advertisement championed that once women were released from the modern chains of a tempestuous menstruation cycle they would be free to live a life of fuller potential.

How could such a tremendous development lead to such a tremendous failure on the part of big pharma? Somewhere, along the way, pharmaceutical companies realized something about Sanger’s brainchild – it not only prevented unwanted pregnancies, but it also treated a slew of other conditions, from blood disorders, migraines, asthma, among many others.

With these realizations, however, we have rebound women on the rock of personal health surrounded by the sea of family planning. The use of hormonal contraceptives to treat chronic conditions creates a dilemma: do I treat my medical condition or do I attempt to conceive a child?

At this point, the author wishes to assert that she is not equating child-bearing with femininity and acknowledges that there exists a subset of the population that is content using hormonal contraceptives for their medical conditions. This critique is exclusive of that group (which may have their own concerns regarding access to birth control); it is for the women who have to choose between preserving their health and conceiving a child.

So why point the blame here at big pharma for expanding the use of a pre-existing drug? With the lengthy, involved drug development process, it has become common procedure to explore alternative uses of pre-existing, FDA-approved drugs; once a drug has been approved for use for one condition it does not have to be “re-approved” for treatment of a different condition. One-time approval is approval for universal applicability. The problem, however, lies in the focal shift of pharmaceutical companies from research and development to marketing of their products.

Since the development of hormonal contraceptives in the 1960s, efforts to develop new birth control drugs have stalled. The medical field has diversified the delivery method, leaving patients with a suite of choices from oral, IUDs, and inter-dermal transplants, but these methods have relied on co-opting existing technologies instead of new drug development. While this is a problem separate from the one being discussed above, it does reveal the new priority of big pharma – create and use drugs to maximize profits.

Despite this priority and the widespread applicability of birth control, big pharma should re-dedicate themselves to the development of new treatments – treatments that do not require an unnecessary, gendered decision from women to choose between her own health and bearing children. Why is it that women are faced with this choice? Several of the diseases that are currently controlled by birth control also face men – they receive treatment, so there must be alternative mechanisms of control. Would we ask men to face sterilization in order to manage their conditions?

The author issues a call for renewed drug development on two fronts – for new, treatments for these diseases being treated by hormonal contraceptives and for novel birth control treatments. It is time for a new pharmaceutical revolution for women’s health concerns – a revolution that truly allows women to break free of their gender chains and no longer be limited by gendered health choices.

A Period Memory

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College.

Sitting in Mrs. Carter’s seventh grade Language Arts class during the fall of 2007, I slid down in my chair, legs spread out, relaxed – no care in the world. I always sat like that, not thinking about how much space I took up and loving how comfortable I felt. We learned about prepositions that day. Brandon Wilson, quite a bully throughout my time knowing him, sat directly across from me. I sometimes wonder if he ever saw it. I convinced myself he didn’t a few years ago when he reached out on Facebook to ask me on a date (I still got it). So he must not have noticed it, or maybe he blocked out the memory. Either way, it’s still pretty haunting.

Unlike the rest of my classes, Language Arts took two periods out of the seven I had. I didn’t mind. I loved the subject and Mrs. Carter was a real spunky teacher, so the two class periods didn’t bother me much. Her wit was quick, her accent thick – her class felt like the safest place to be. Though I can only imagine the 6 minutes in between periods would have been a great time to socialize with classmates, I never knew for sure. Thanks to a near disaster on a long bus ride years before, I always used the six minute break to run to the bathroom, whether I had to go or not (just in case).

Down the hall, past my peers, I walked into my usual stall (the middle one) and my favorite bathroom (the one on the second floor of the old wing of the school), ready to sit and be alone on the toilet for a moment before heading back to class. I pulled down my khaki bermuda shorts to find a large, red stain. It looked like a murder scene. It took me a brief moment before I realized what had happened and I was quickly filled with terror wondering what to do next. I didn’t get a phone until I was in the eighth grade, so calling for help was out of the question. No one came into the bathroom during the entire 6 minute break, so there was no one I could ask for help. I didn’t carry a purse then because I felt like I had thwarted the patriarchy by being unfeminine in my clothing choices, so I had no tampon on hand. I didn’t know what to do.

School was important to me. I didn’t want to miss class. I wadded a bunch of toilet paper together, shoved it down my pants, and hoped I would make it through class. I spent the next 52 minutes of my life sitting with my back straight as a pole and my legs pressed so hard together that I could feel a heartbeat in my knees. I even crossed my ankles to the side. I took up as little space as possible. Never had I sat like such a lady during this class, or any class for that matter. I’m sure my grandmother would have been proud of my posture. I felt so small. I sat like that until the bell rang, at which point I quickly, but precisely, collected my things and went to the front office. They gave me a ratty, old pair of sweatpants to wear. Now everyone would know.

This piece is the written form of a memory I had while listening to a speaker at a women’s history conference. The speakers were talking about the social justice issues surrounding periods: access to menstrual products in prisons, sex education and learned period shaming in schools, and access to medical services to address issues surrounding menstruation. Periods are complicated. A lot of people experience them, yet most memories and encounters with the bodily function are negative. The issues of menstruation are vast and in order to address the medical and emotional needs of the masses. It is necessary that a great many steps are taken in restructuring our educational values, how we treat the incarcerated, and the funding systems which support reproductive medical needs. The number of policy changes, and the of social and cultural overhaul which would subsequently need to occur, could very well be the topic of multiple books (and likely already are). But a simple first step is a bit more visceral.

On top of policy changes, the action of speaking an experience into the ether can change lives. Despite the fact that billions of people menstruate, many feel isolated. The stigma of menstruation can be crushing and heavy. After years of understanding my body – how it functions and all the great things about being me – I still could not get out from under the weight of how small and dirty I felt in that classroom. That was ten years ago. I was socialized to take up less space, to be unseen, to be unnoticed and small. I thought that by dressing unfeminine, by taking up space, I could get out from under the pressure of that stigma. I didn’t. The memory rushed back without permission, and consumed my thoughts for a significant portion of the day. I wonder what might be different if we socialized kids differently: how might the human experience change?

Like I said, policy changes are necessary. But I argue that those changes are useless without changing the way we socialize kids. These discussions must start extremely young – well before the already heavy stigmas of puberty sets in. I know that many of my peers have similar memories consuming their thoughts, uninvited, on a regular basis. So I hope we can find ways to lift the stigma by fully supporting the bodies of children as we work toward lifting this harmful weight. Period.