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.