Some Words from Dad

Today would have been my Dad’s 88th birthday. He was born in 1925 in rural Illinois, served in the infantry during the final World War II battles in Western Europe, returned to complete college at the University of Illinois, and had a successful career as a newspaperman, mostly spent as news editor at the Detroit Free Press. When I think about him today, I remember a complicated man, but one who had basic bedrock values. He believed in responsibility, he believed in the need for society to support those who could not help themselves, he believed in the power of the press to reveal the truth about hallowed institutions, and he believed in the fundamental equality of men and women. This final belief was demonstrated in his support for his daughters’ choices – granted, those choices were often interrogated, but in the end he was there for us.

This is the way I think of him today. But I know that those “bedrock values” were shaped over a lifetime. My book, War Makes Men of Boys: A Soldier’s World War II, draws on the letters he wrote home from basic training and Europe to understand how his life was shaped by wartime experiences. And the man who returned home on the S.S. Ernie Pyle in 1946 still had a lot of fundamental change ahead of him.

Which brings me (at last) to the topic that drives posts in this blog – those women who edited and wrote for women’s pages during the tumultuous years of the women’s movement. Dad, of course, was married to one of these women.

As part of her role as women’s editor of at the Observer newspaper chain in suburban Detroit, Mom wrote several regular columns. One of these was “m.m. memos” – personal reflections on home, children, and life that I’ve referred to as one of the “original mommy blogs.” The other was headlined “Women on the Go.” These weekly columns were portraits of suburban women doing interesting things. A month’s worth of stories might include a mother of 10 going back to college for a history degree, a city council president, the organizer of a clean air conference, and a woman who went from “clerk to boss in five years.” On May 13, 1970, the column had a different by-line than usual – Joe Miller – and opened with these words:

Speaking of Women on the Go, one of the going-est women in Observerland – as Observer editors prefer to call it – is M.M. herself.

Margaret Miller, the women’s editor of Observer Newspapers, is known for her weekly memos, her interviews with interesting and busy women in the area, and for her constant efforts to squeeze as many pictures of brides into the paper as possible.

She is known around her Farmington home for chauffeuring the girls to camps, meetings, and games; for working in the yard; for singing in the church choir; for cooking delicious meals; for letting her husband sleep late; and for shouting at the kids to “get off the phone” and “go pick up your room.” In other words, for doing what nearly every wife and mother in suburbia does.

The article continues with laudatory descriptions of my mother’s education and career in journalism. He discusses her years working at the Associated Press, including her handling of the worldwide coverage that ensued when Henry Ford died. Near the end of the piece, though, my father turns to home life:

With all of this running around, she still has time for the house and the husband and the children. Of course, Margaret lets her husband handle the major decisions (Should we recognize Red China? What about the Cambodian situation? Who should be appointed to the Supreme Court?) while she takes care of the small ones (What shall we have for dinner? Should the kids go to camp? Should we buy a new washer?).

Was Dad being facetious in recounting this pattern of decision-making? Well, yes, probably to some extent. But I think these comments also provide a window into the ambivalence that was widespread during this time period. There was no doubt that Dad supported Mom and her career. He met her in the shared context of downtown Detroit newspaper offices. He encouraged her return to journalism when my younger sister started elementary school. He clearly thought that she was a talented newspaperwoman.

But ….

He also knew how much all of us valued everything she did at home – the cooking, the sewing, the gardening, the shopping, the chauffeuring. He still believed in his own responsibility as the primary breadwinner of the family – so much so that he often took on a second job and he moved to distant cities to support his family when there was a strike at the Free Press. He always remembered, I think, his distress when his own mother needed to join the workforce after his father died in 1945.

The 1960s and 1970s have been called the time when the world was “split open” by the women’s movement, and I have described the women’s editors of that time period as straddling that world split open. But these women were not alone in trying to span the disparate realities of life in the midst of women’s lib. They were joined in their often confused and mixed feelings by the vast majority of the American public.

When Dad died in 2006, I think he would have described himself as a feminist. But, like most Americans – including, perhaps, my Mom—he  wasn’t willing to go that far in 1970.

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