My great, great-grandmother is 90 years old but still she holds the baby.
Selina is nursing her great-grandson. Both the proud father and grandfather stand and keep watch over her and the babe.
The old woman gave birth to sixteen children; her tired eyes are bespectacled, her pure white hair remains dutifully tied back in a bun, and the woman does not smile.
Gazing at the photo, I realize with horror that this woman was pregnant or breastfeeding for 26 years of her life. But this was not unusual for those times. I can’t imagine it would have been easy for a woman to refuse her husband’s advances – his right of sexual penetration. The 17 year-old dairy maid from Port Guernsey who arrived in Adelaide in the 1840s, would not have had the imagination for this, let alone the right.
My mother was not pleased when I told her I was pregnant. I was only twenty and I still do not know if her displeasure was due to her reluctance to take on the grandmother role or if her concern was for me. I believe it may have been the former. And I totally understand this.
Even so she taught me how to mother. In this photo my mother Marion and Maria my mother-in law bond with my baby daughter. Both women had difficult marriages. When my mother died I understood she was not only free from the intractable cancer pain but was at last liberated from the patriarchal chains that bound her. In her final years what was left of the real Marion, quickly became gobbled up by the demands of my father’s ill health. And as time went on, she could no longer contain her anger towards my father. “I don’t know what’s come over your mother,” my father would say, shaking his head in despair, seeking consolation but not about to understand.
My son Carl once asked me why I had no sympathy for his father – this was after our inevitable divorce. My ex was not coping with being on his own. “Nothing I did was ever good enough for him, I was too fat, couldn’t cook, didn’t want enough sex. Finally you get sick of the constant put-downs, the womanizing – and move on,” I said.
It’s the 21st century and my daughter Louise is the victim of domestic violence. “I slept on the floor of my office last night. He won’t leave the house.” I shudder and fear for the safety of her and the two children. Though tertiary educated and ‘empowered’ in the sense that she has a career and has chosen to bear her two children, she is still not liberated from male rage and violence.
According to author and feminist Gail Dines ; The buzz word in popular feminism today is empowerment. When I became a feminist many years ago, the word we used was liberation.
I too sought liberation especially from the role of wife and the prescribed roles of older women within patriarchal society. My mother, mother-in law, and my great, great grandmother were denied this. We owe it to them and the future generations of women to continue this struggle for liberation.