Thanks, Mom!


By Deborah O’Rell Women’s History Month prompts me to share a profound moment in my own history and to celebrate Maureen Trefry O’Rell Turner, my mom.

At the time of this memory, I was about 8 years old and my mother was 28. I was always very aware my mother was different from most of the other moms. She worked. She loved to work. Intuitively, I could feel how much she loved getting dressed in the morning, getting in her car, (it became a convertible after the divorce), and running the show in her office. Working gave her a sense of freedom and independence, something she never had having been pregnant and married by 19. Mostly, I think, she loved the feeling of making and having money.

It was the 1960’s and we were in a department store. We’re at the register and she handed over her credit card to pay. Uh oh. There was a problem. Not understanding exactly what was happening, I only knew she was feeling humiliated, frustrated, and beginning to get really annoyed. The cashier called over the manager. There are a lot of talking and phone calls. She turned to me and said something like ‘I keep telling your father this isn’t right’. Meanwhile, this was taking up time, people behind us were harrumphing and sighing deeply. Clearly, it was a stressful situation. As soon as we got home, an argument between my parents ensued. (Argument seems so much more civilized a description rather than ‘fight’, which is more accurate.)

March of the women-Deborah

What I came to learn was the credit card was in my father’s name; my mother was only a co-signer. The stores, because this would happen often, would question if my mother really had ‘permission’ to use the card. They would have to call my father and ask him for approval. My mother was unable to get a credit card of her own. This full-time working woman had to ask permission to spend her own money.

This was not an uncommon occurrence at the time. Women were, in many ways, very much second-class citizens, to be protected and shielded and controlled. In 1966, I wrote to a local newspaper for a job delivering papers. I told them I took a lot of dance classes and wanted to help pay for them. They published my letter in the editorial section with a comment. They told me the bags would be too heavy for me to carry and that I should stick to babysitting for money. Can you believe it? They actually wrote that. I still have the original article. My mother told me not to worry and that she was confident we’d figure something else out.

This memory brings me around to an article in the NY Times today explaining how crucial raising the minimum wage is for women. Though women make up about half of all workers, they account for 75% of workers in the lowest-paid jobs and 60% of all minimum-wage workers.

Three-quarters of female minimum wage workers are over the age of 20 and 75% of them are on their own… probably raising kids.

We are already aware that the majority of families headed by women are low-income families. Did you know 48% of all children living in single-parent households LIVES IN POVERTY? How, as a country, do we allow this?

Raising the minimum wage takes the burden off the government to supplement these families. It is clear when workers at the lower end of the pay scale make more money, they spend more money. This may cause the loss of a few jobs, but the upside of a higher minimum wage far outweighs these slight losses.

And something else that needs to be brought up is the people voting on this bill, or any other brought before The House or Senate. There are 485 seats in the House and Senate and only 20% are women. I can’t help but believe that if there were more women voting for these types of issues, we’d have a very different outcome. (The holds for race; white men prefer to hire others who look like them).

Until women, ALL WOMEN, are allowed equal pay, and equal access to financing, they will always be unnecessarily struggling and treated as ‘less than’. So today, we recognize all the women who are working hard to make it work! Thanks, Mom.

Patricia Roberts Harris: The Woman of Firsts

Patricia Roberts Harris: Lawyer, political adviser, activist, and wife.