“We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come.”
-Barbie movie, 2023
“Well, it just wouldn’t be authentic,” she says, as if that settles things. It makes my porcupine quills bristle and they threaten to stand on end. But we are having a Nice Time, and I am not going to ruin it with my Feminist Rage. We’ve just walked out of Oppenheimer, and among other complaints about what I’m certain the manosphere will laud as a masterpiece is the fact that in the year of our Lord 2023 I am expected to pay full price for a movie ticket that has only two women with names. One of whom gets killed off as soon as she fucks the titular character, because she only exists to amp up his inner turmoil. I don’t need every movie to be the Barbie movie, but the Bechdel test was supposed to be an easy bar to clear, you know?
Mom disagrees, and thinks that historical accuracy means that there were no women at Los Alamos — ”or if there were, they were secretaries”. I feel the rage bubble up again, and I want to scream, You! You were there! You, personally, the one who regales people at parties with all the stories of the decade you spent testing weapons in the Nevada desert! You wore a pink construction helmet! You survived a mine collapse! You took me on a day-long detour during what was supposed to be a college graduation celebration in Vegas to go visit the National Nuclear Testing Museum! I was supposed to be double-fisting tequila and pawing Chippendales, and I was instead learning about the effects of long-term radiation exposure! How in the world could you believe that you were the only one?!
But this is a Respect Your Elders moment, and I do, even if I have the eyebrow-furrowing suspicion that she’s wrong on this one. By 1938, Marie Curie had won the Nobel, and Rosalind Franklin had discovered DNA. Women across the pond were working as literal computers in a secret lab at Bletchley Park — was it so inconceivable that they might also be at Los Alamos, at Berkeley, at the University of Chicago? And even if we were absolute shit at science, as the menfolk seem to suspect, we were still half the population in 1943. So why in the world was this movie such a sausage-fest?
“I would know. I was in those rooms.” And she was, if not in New Mexico, then in many just like them. Inevitably full of men, although the Hollywood treatment means the ones onscreen are less sweaty and their shirts fit. Her work in the male-dominated nuclear industry is what made my life possible, because it made raising two kids on a single income a feasible task. But that’s the thing: when people say “male-dominated”, they only mean there are more men than women in the room. They forget that it also demands a certain silence, a certain kind of submission to authority. There’s more than one way to define “domination”, after all.
Mom made no secret of the fact that this was the secret to her success. In the rooms she was in, her invisibility was a given. No one was going to give her the time of day, much less ask her opinion or respect what she had to say when she gave it. If they asked her much at all in those early years, it was to ask why she thought she belonged there instead of in a kitchen somewhere. But what those men forgot, in their ill-fitting shirts and their airs of bravado, is that invisibility is a superpower, too.
I would’ve forgiven my mother if all those years of listening to men be loudly and stupidly wrong had fomented into a rage she couldn’t cure, some part of her that never quit burning, radiating out some small part of what it had endured. But this wasn’t my mother’s way. She has always been a “stay humble”, “let them think it was their idea,” type. She was allowed in every room, and since she never took credit or brokered for power, she was never a threat. After forty years, it means she is now the most experienced person in every room. Her authority is (finally, mostly) unquestioned. People seek her out as an authority on all sorts of things. She is a master of the long game, along with just about every system required to operate a nuclear power plant. I wonder what she did with all that rage, but then, I already know.
She gave it all to me. I never shared her knack for playing it small. I could never understand why she implored me to stay humble. I thought it was a lack of faith in what I was capable of. I assumed she had been entranced by the box that so many people had squeezed her into over the years. It made me angry every time she said it — wasn’t I good enough? How long would I have to prove myself before it was worth believing my big dreams were possible? I was wrong. It was none of those things. Instead, all the begging that I “stay humble” was a keen awareness of what the world would do to a woman with bald ambition. How it would cut down a woman who dared to dream out loud, out in the open. She was trying, as always, to protect me.
Our difference of opinion on this still chafes sometimes. It makes me angry that she thinks women didn’t belong in the movie, as if there is any time or place on Earth where we do not belong. It makes me angry to think that she thought, even if only for a moment, that we weren’t there at all. I’m not angry at her, of course, but I am angry at every movie she watched growing up, where none of the important stuff ever happened to the girls. I’m angry no one ever taught her about women scientists. I’m angry that after forty years in the nuclear industry, and a decade or two in the Women in Nuclear program and a decade in the Nevada desert, she and I both learned today that Maria Goeppert-Mayer won the Nobel Prize in Physics for work she began on the Manhattan Project. Since she won in 1963, only two other women have won, making four since they started handing out the Physics prize in 1895. I’m angry and infuriated at whoever taught her that dimming her light was the best strategy available to her. I hate even more that they were right.
I feel the acrid, bitter taste of that hatred rise up like bile in the back of my throat every time I meet one of her colleagues and am forced to say, “Oh, don’t I know,” when they say, “Well, your mom knows about enough to run this joint, don’t you think?” Yes. Yes, she does. I usually try to sip whatever cocktail I’m holding so they don’t see me swallow my tongue. Or snarl. Or foam at the mouth. It’s unladylike.
I am never angry at her, but I have so much pent-up rage for the machine that made her, because it made me, too. So much has changed since she started her career in the 80s, and so little has. I think about how many times a valid criticism has been met with, “you probably just don’t understand it”. The number of times I walked into a conference room for a presentation I was paid to give, only to be told how the attendees liked their coffee. How often my female bosses told me not to make a fuss about things if I wanted to move up. How often I buy a movie ticket, only to be told for three solid hours that the zeitgeist believes I’m meant to be seen and not heard.
Despite all of that, my anger is a privilege. My mother swallowed decades of shit sandwiches so she could afford to buy me the education that gave me access to Gloria Steinem and Mikki Kendall and Audre Lorde. She spent years letting men run their mouths and walk all over her so that I could learn enough to put those feelings into words for both of us. She stayed humble, and never once did I see her get mad when they passed her over for promotions. She worked for every variety of tinpot tyrant and lazy fool, and never once complained that they’d gotten what she’d deserved. I see now that she did so for a future — just not her own. One that involved opportunities for me beyond simply making someone else look good, or handing over my ambitions along with my name. All this anger in me is a reminder of what she couldn’t have. Not just a seat at the table, but the unshakable belief that she belonged there. In the story. That nothing was being expanded to accommodate her, or that she should take her place quietly and make as little noise as possible. Grateful to be nominated.