Southern Legitimacy Statement: Born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, I moved to Washington, DC, right out of college to try to change the world. When I left New Orleans, I rejected the party culture: full of festivals, jazz music, parades, and lots of drinking. After 30 years in DC, the polarization of politics became too stressful, and I returned home to where the living is easy. It turns out that gumbo, brass bands, and celebrations take the sting out of the difficulties in life.
Brains vs. Beauty
I laid my head on Madeleine’s lap and stretched out my legs on the orange velour sofa. Slowly, meticulously, she plucked the hair from my eyebrows — pinching each tiny sprout, one by one. I winced each time the tweezers came near, but I didn’t dare complain. Madeleine was pruning me to look more like her. And now that I’d come to live with her and her daughters, I needed to fit in.
When I was twelve, my mother died of breast cancer. My Mama was a fierce defender of civil rights. A social worker by training, she taught me to be kind and compassionate. After she died, I moved in with my father and stepmother, Madeleine. To me, Madeleine represented everything Mama was not. Where Mama was liberal and independent, Madeleine was rule-oriented and conservative. Where Mama was well-educated and sophisticated, Madeleine had only a high-school education, with few options. Where Mama was dowdy and overweight, Madeleine was beautiful and thin. Two role models for the emerging woman I would become, both reflective of the same sexist, repressive society of New Orleans present during the 1970s.
Madeleine was my Dad’s fourth wife. Seventeen years younger than him, she dazzled with glamour. I was eight when Dad married her, and I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever met. Beautiful, that is, as marketed to us from magazine covers of the 1970s – blonde hair, blue eyes, big breasts, small waist. I still thought she was beautiful when Dad left her five years later; she was just 35 years old.
My mother, on the other hand, was old. Or at least I thought she was, compared with my friends’ mothers. In New Orleans, where I grew up, most folks were Catholic and had their babies early and often.
Raised in Oklahoma, Mama got caught in the shower at 17 with her high-school boyfriend, and my shocked and staid grandfather insisted they marry. She followed her new husband to med school, whereupon graduation, he left her and my two older sisters for a younger woman.
During her first marriage, Mama had become friends with another doctor – a dreamy-eyed gay man. They shared a fervent desire to get out of Oklahoma City. Gay doctors were not welcomed by many patients in those days, so he convinced Mama to become his beard and move to New Orleans, where people were more open-minded. The gay doctor got down on his knee and promised Mama he would take care of her and her daughters if she married him. Happily, ever after? Not so much. After a few years, Mama’s heterosexual desires got the best of her, and she met yet another doctor — my Dad —at the hospital where they both worked. She thought she’d found her soulmate. They moved into her dream house – just off St. Charles Avenue in uptown New Orleans. Dad left her for a younger woman three months after I was born; Mama was nearly 40.
After that, Mama pretty much gave up on men. She warned me that they couldn’t be trusted.
Mama would say, “You must get an education. Do not count on a man to support you. He may leave you, and then you’ll be left to raise your children with nothing but a lousy child support check, if you’re lucky.”
Mama let herself go. She wore ugly polyester polka-dot pantsuits and loaded on extra pounds. She didn’t dye her hair. Silver since her early forties, she kept it cropped short.
“I have more important things to do than worry about my hair,” she mused.
Important things like burning her bra, hosting consciousness-raising parties, and planning marches on Washington for peace, civil rights, and women’s liberation. Most of the time, I was embarrassed to be seen with her. Our old white Ford hosted a bumper sticker that read, “Uppity Women Unite.”
Mama liked to challenge the norms of polite society. In the 1972 presidential election, she planted a McGovern sign proudly in front of our small white rambler, right next to our enormous magenta azalea bushes. Everyone in our neighborhood supported Nixon.
“My Daddy says your Mama is a communist,” declared my best friend, Leslie, while walking home from school.
I wasn’t sure what a communist was, but Leslie’s disapproving tone told me it was not good. I went to Mama, fretting that no one would like me because she was so different than everyone else.
“Don’t worry, honey, you don’t want to be like everyone else,” she counseled. “It’s more important to stand for what you believe in than to fit in.”
But as a young girl, all I wanted to do was fit in. Dad, Madeleine, and her three daughters had everything I wanted. They lived in a two-story brick mansion in a lily-white suburb outside the Crescent City. In the summer, we played Marco Polo in the swimming pool and kick-the-can with the neighborhood kids. The houses all had trimmed yards, garages for well-kept cars, and perfect two-parent families. Or so I thought.
In her cookie-cutter house, Madeleine had finally achieved her fairy-tale life. In high school, Madeleine vowed not to work. Her mother was a secretary, so Madeleine cooked supper for the family every evening. She was embarrassed that her Daddy didn’t earn enough to support them on his own. She swore she would marry a rich man so she could have a big house, a fur coat, and a garden full of flowers – pretty much in that order. But first, her plan had taken a detour.
At 19, Madeleine married her high-school sweetheart and had three daughters by the time she was 23. But her husband was a dreamer with a thirst for travel. He left her when the oldest was not quite four.
Determined to have a better life, she set upon improving her looks to catch a rich man. She poured through Cosmopolitan magazines for tips. She dyed her hair blonde, scrapped her Coke-bottle glasses for contact lenses, and wore short skirts to show off her shapely legs. Eventually, she got a nose job and a boob job.
Knock-out gorgeous now, Madeleine had her pick of suitors. She ranked each by the size of his paycheck. My father checked all the boxes. A successful psychiatrist, charismatic, and charming, he loved having a sexy woman like Madeleine on his arm. Of course, he was already married, but that didn’t stop Madeleine. After a whirlwind affair with clandestine excursions to the Dominican Republic, Madeleine convinced him to leave his third wife and marry her.
Madeleine ignored the warning signs about Dad, the philanderer with five kids from his collection of ex-wives. He was a DOCTOR after all, and she loved the idea of being married to one. Hob-knobbing with other doctors’ wives instantly moved her up the social ladder. Dad bought her a big house and that fur coat. They joined a country club, played doubles tennis, and went to cocktail parties. Madeleine spent hours tending her bountiful garden.
After Mama died, I moved in with Dad, Madeleine, and her daughters. After years of worrying about Mama’s health, I thought my life might have some stability finally. But almost immediately, Dad fell into his old patterns. He tired of the banality of coming home to the same woman night after night. After working late seeing patients, he expected his wife to have a gin and tonic waiting for him.
“Madeleine,” he’d growl if she wasn’t waiting for him when he arrived, “where’s my goddamn drink?”
Madeleine would come running in her short shorts and low-cut blouse, her flip flops clicking on the floor beneath her. “Here you go, Bill. A G&T, with Beefeater’s and a twist. Just like you like it, love.”
Dad would turn on whatever sports game was on TV. He’d yell at the sportscasters, the players, and the coaches. “What’s for dinner?” he’d bark, “I’m hungry.”
Madeleine wasn’t much of cook, so the response was often, “I thought we’d go out tonight.”
Dad would grumble, “I don’t want to go out. I’ve been working all day. For once, I’d like to come home to a hot, cooked meal waiting for me.”
Within three months after I moved in, Dad left Madeleine for a younger woman, his unbroken pattern. I didn’t like my dad much and didn’t want to go live with him. I remember poignantly when I asked Madeleine if I could stay. “Of course, my darling. I would be too worried about you if you lived with your irresponsible father,” she said. She stroked my hair and let me lay in her lap even though I was much too big for that at twelve. I felt tremendous relief that I still had a home.
After months of nasty divorce negotiations, Madeleine decided she had to fetch another man to maintain her lifestyle. She enlisted all of her daughters, me now included, in her quest to find a new husband.
Carefully we listened as Madeleine schooled us on how to attract men.
“When out with a guy for a date, just let him talk about himself. I’ve never met a man who didn’t love to talk about himself.”
“Don’t order a salad on your first date. He’ll think you’re worried about your weight. And besides, you don’t want to risk getting lettuce stuck in your teeth.”
Unlike my mother, who instructed me to support myself with my brains, Madeleine taught me how to lure a man with my beauty and charm. Mama stressed that I should have a career and demand to be treated equally by men. Madeleine had never gone to college, and she had no interest in getting a job. Finding a rich man was her quickest ticket to financial stability.
“It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man,” she reasoned.
Madeleine taught us how to get a man’s attention and keep it. “Men love it when women like sports, so learn the rules of the game.” she’d counsel us. “Always make the man think it was his idea. It doesn’t matter who gets the credit; it just matters that you get what you want.”
Madeleine instructed us always to put on makeup before we left the house. “You never know where you might meet your future husband. It might happen at the drug store or even when you’re taking out the trash.”
I followed Madeleine’s advice through college. I dated southern frat boys from “good” families who expected women to be subordinate. I laughed at their jokes, hid my opinions, and certainly never called myself a feminist. Before I left New Orleans, I thought most feminists were lesbians, or at least, not interested in dating men.
When I moved to Washington, DC, in 1987, a whole new world opened up. I became actively involved in a pro-choice women’s group and met, for the first time, young women who were pretty, smart, liked men, and believed in reproductive rights and equal pay. I also found men who liked opinionated, well-educated women who challenged them intellectually. I finally found a place where I fit in.
Over time, I’ve realized that Mama and Madeleine had more similarities than I recognized. Both were intelligent and beautiful in their own ways.
Both taught me to stand up for myself. Mama in her demand for equal rights and Madeleine in her demand to be treated with respect. Both were left with young children to raise, without the support of a husband. They each carved a path to find financial security.
While I learned a great deal about physical beauty from Madeleine, I learned about innate beauty from Mama. Mama found good in everyone and treated every human being with respect and kindness. And Madeleine, while not book-smart, had learned to navigate a world where the decks were not stacked in her favor, exhibiting the same confidence and resiliency I had previously only applied to my mother.
Both taught me not to trust men – a lesson that still lingers in my consciousness to this day. Although I’m happily married to a successful, Southern man, who loves me enormously and would easily support me economically, I will never forego my own income. My inner child is constantly reminding me that he may leave me one day, and God help me, no one will take away what I’ve rightfully earned.
Both showered me with the unique intimacy shared between mothers and daughters. I remember vividly slow dancing with my mother in our yellow-tiled kitchen, after she came home from having her breast removed. She pulled me close to her sunken chest with its missing bosom, dressed in her red, Afghan robe, and we circled together round and round for what seemed like hours, mourning what she had lost. Madeleine would tenderly brush my hair and tell me I was beautiful, building up a confidence I sorely needed in adolescence. I share this type of intimacy with my strong-willed, intelligent daughters.
As I grew into adulthood, I adapted the advice I received from my two mothers. I forged ahead to have a successful career in Washington, DC, where competition is fierce, and rewards are high. I advocated for women’s rights and always voted for the Democrat. I even got a job in the White House, working for the first Black President. And as Mama instructed, I never depended on a man to support my livelihood. But I knew looks and charm also mattered to my success. I still dye my hair blonde and wear fashionable, form-fitting clothes. I have found particularly in the highest chambers of power, men do like to talk about themselves and think your ideas came from them. Sometimes I even leave the house without makeup – but not often.