My Mother, the Stealth Feminist

How my Haitian immigrant Manman became a liberated woman.

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Yes, your bike, she said, laughing between breaths, as she recounted how the bike came into her possession.

I stood there speechless and incredulous that my very decorous mother had not only retrieved the bike but that she had done it so brazenly.

Well, don’t just stand there, she said, a self-satisfied melody in her voice. Come get it and take it inside.

When Manman came to New York in 1968, a year after my father, she went to work as a live-in nanny and housekeeper for a kindly couple, themselves émigrés from France, and their 10 children. When we joined our parents and our new baby sister in the U.S. the following year, Manman switched to working days for the French family so she could be at home with us in the mornings and evenings. She cooked us hot breakfasts and dinners, kept an immaculate house and pressed our school clothes every night.

Though her labor inside and outside our home contributed to our family’s well-being, Papa was considered the real breadwinner, and thus the boss. Then, at age 49—six years after she liberated my bike—she got a job on the maintenance staff of the local community college and our family dynamics shifted.

She wore a uniform to her first “real job” and was compensated with a paycheck instead of cash. That made her very proud and moved her closer to equal footing with Papa, who also received a regular paycheck and wore a uniform to his factory job. Manman suddenly felt relevant in our household and the world.

Papa was in many ways an unapologetic male chauvinist, but after Manman got her job, he began letting her have more say and even insisted on teaching her how to drive. His impatient shouting, “Stop! Hit the brakes! Not the gas, the brakes!” prompted her to get professional lessons. And when Papa complained that it was a waste of money, she ignored him and used her money to hire a driving instructor who didn’t yell at her.

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