Every year at this time, I always got my mother an FTD flower arrangement or, when I had money, a blue blouse (she had blue eyes) for Mother’s Day. I’m thinking she didn’t mind the endless blue blouses and almost ritual aspect of their gifting or the banal cards with rhymed greetings. Once she answered my greeting with a saying of her own Irish mother: Bless you and your dear ones with love, health and happiness.
Our own daughters are more imaginative than I was and this Mother’s Day I will likely be remembered with lavender or organic chocolate or James Perse cottons. I will be touched by their thoughtful planning, so superior to mine, but also by the very act of remembering, wherein we recognize and value our connection by a cultural celebration of acknowledgement.
It’s good, as we teach our kids, to say thank you and to honor those who mother us.
And what about the nonbiological mothers? The architects of a more just society? The compassionate ministers of the common good founding hospitals, libraries, charities? Are they not parents of a more compassionate world and shouldn’t we be thanking them?
Sometimes the creatrix of a new and improved world are also biological mothers, their children and grandchildren witness to their work, perhaps the most recent example in public memory being Nancy Pelosi’s convening of the House of Representatives earlier this year with scores of children sharing the Speaker’s dais with her.
What kind of person is it who does the social mothering that creates, for example, an institution? My particular interest, as a co-founder of the Archer School for Girls in L.A., is who is it that starts schools?
They’re probably not as bold nor as brave as those pioneers who were our foremothers, bringing compassion and light to a much darker world than exists today… the women who nurtured a fragile community in the raw wilderness, in the early efforts to create a country, in the battles to end slavery and lynching and child labor. Still, as an Archer girl might say, it is something.
It might be interesting to know who these founders are and - if they had as much opposition as we did – how they persevered. Visiting six of the thirty-something single sex schools which followed ours allowed me to see some piece of the pattern and consider who it is who does this.
Firstly we were all outsiders. Vicky Shorr, Megan Callaway and I of the Archer School were non-pros, amateurs in the school business. We are three mothers, three writers, non-natives to the Southland. As writers none of us had schools as a subject of our resumes.
Our outsider perspective was a characteristic shared with other recent founders from Atlanta to Seattle, six of whom I researched: all nine, counting us, have an average 2.1 children, a notable entry against the argument that life is all either-or. We are women of a certain age, avowed feminists, with highly helpful husbands and families and a camaraderie that sustains us when we want to do something dangerous. Like quit.
All the founders I interviewed mentioned the experience of being outside the main event: personally none were rooted in the tradition, custom and heritage of the school’s community but had originated somewhere else and moved to that town or neighborhood; professionally, none had started a school before or as one said, “I wasn’t a PTA mom. I’m not an education specialist. I had never written a business plan.” They were naïve and not native, just like us.
They talked about a sense of being outsiders in adolescence, of being excluded from the popular group, being on the fringe, yet wanting to create an adolescent society that would accept oddballs and outsiders. Moreover they expected to succeed.
They were optimistic. “I’m optimistic by nature,” one said. Despite the evident lack of expertise in education, fundraising and finding a site, they boldly announced they were opening a school and asked people for money. Sometimes their optimism was rewarded, literally, as was the case when the three future founders of Atlanta Girls’ School pitched their case before the Livingston Foundation’s board and got $20,000 in seed money.
They were visionary, promoting a future that seemed unlikely at best and to some others, strongly objectionable. Their obstacles were NIMBY organizations, political and legal opponents, financial instability. But they were animated by what one called “a strong sense of social justice.” And they were – all of them – feminists.
They came of age in the bloom of the Second Stage of American feminism and they identified as feminists and community activists. They weren’t starting schools, in this case, girls’ schools, because they were trying to duplicate some fond memory of their own schooling; of the nine, only four had personal experience of single sex schools. They were doing something new, as they saw it, for the girls of their community.
All were rooted in the tradition of women (and men, too, of course) who are idealists trying to make the world somehow safer, saner, sweeter. For that we owe them recognition. Happy Mother’s Day to the nurturers of an improved world: Bless you and your dear ones with love and health and happiness.
My mother died in 1999. In her last note to me, she encouraged me in writing a book about founding the Archer School. I did so, Mom. The pretext for researching founding women and some material mentioned above is found in Learning Like a Girl, (Public Affairs, May 2007). To return to Role Mommy, Click Here.