Reviewed by Elana Sztokman
A poignant and powerful memoir of a courageous working mother and leader who challenged the patriarchy decades ahead of her time
Fran Abrams was a feminist before feminism existed. Born in the 1940s on the east coast, she grew up at a time in America when girls wore skirts to school and studied home economics instead of math and were trained to become homemakers, when only non-married women worked—and even then, only in “women’s” professions—and when women’s dependence and servitude were taken as God-given expectations.
But she defied these norms. She worked in urban planning, obtained a master’s degree in the subject, and rose in the ranks by working twice as hard as her male colleagues did. When she got married and became a mother, she did not quit, but continued pursuing her path. Eventually, the rest of the world caught up with her, although not completely.
This beautiful memoir in poetry traces the challenges and triumphs of a woman ahead of her time. Abrams chronicles the litanies of patriarchy that she faced throughout her life. When, in middle school, she was groped by a posse of boys, she writes, “Had I somehow encouraged him/ to touch me? Had I flaunted/ my chest like a silent signal?/ No. It was not me./ It was a lesson/ only a girl/ has to learn.”
When, in eighth grade, she was assaulted by her teacher—who she had a crush on at the time— she had the forthright to push him away. “Part of me knew/it could have been a disaster./ Why didn’t the adult know?/ I worried I would be blamed/ for what didn’t happen.”
In college, Abrams wanted to be an architect. Voted “most likely to succeed,” and unexpectedly received the highest grade in a class, she refrained from a “victory yell.” Instead, she celebrated by herself, in private, “On a campus renowned/ for educating future elementary school teachers/ I walked an uncharted path.” But when a sexist professor stymied her ambitions to become an architect, she did not have the energy to protest, and her dream fell away.
Abrams completed graduate school in urban planning, studied early computers, and worked in her field often as the only woman in the room. She worked hard and got promoted until she rose to the top of her field.
Along the way, she also married a man who supported her, cared for her needs, and treated her as an equal—the man who she has been with for fifty years and with whom she built a family.
When she was confirmed as the head of Environmental Protection in her county while pregnant with her first child, a council member asked, “What does a nice girl like you want with a job like this?” She writes, there was a “collective gasp/ I was the only one not surprised by the question.” This was one of many challenges of being a working mother. Later on, when she became a freelancer, she often struggled to get paid, as men assumed she was being supported by her husband.
Abrams tackles many important issues in this book. She explores women’s sexuality and double standards, living by her credo that women can do anything men can do. She also revisits issues of race and white privilege in her life: the uncomfortable discovery of her family’s participation in ‘“White flight,” a disturbing encounter with Jim Crow laws, a love affair with a Black man. And she was involved in many of the key struggles for gender equality—equal pay, equal rights, and fair practices.
Abrams has lived the transformation of women’s experiences on her body, opening doors that were closed to women in order to make it easier for those who came after her. We all owe her and the courageous women of her generation who walked those uncharted paths a huge debt of gratitude.
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