Choices

Writing Grace and Grit, I grappled with one question I knew would puzzle the reader—why Lilly stayed at Goodyear when the working conditions were so harsh and the harassment so unrelenting. The main reason was simple: a steady paycheck. Of course, there was more to the story, so I tried to illustrate what I knew was true: how determined Lilly was not to be run off when she’d done nothing wrong, her inherent stubbornness, the pride she took in her job, her sincere belief that things would eventually improve.

As I wrote Lilly’s life story, I was reminded of the situation I faced teaching high school literature. When I taught Madame Bovary or The Awakening, it was almost impossible to paint a picture of a 19th century sensibility for 20th century suburban teenagers whose entire lives had been defined by choices—which restaurant to go to, where to go on vacation, what to do this weekend. I struggled to explain to individuals steeped in  sense of entitlement why these conflicted heroines did what they did. Very few had the capacity to understand what it’s like to be “hemmed into a corner” as Lilly would say. But feminism has always been about choices, so women who now choose to stay home in the 21st century do so within the context of an array of choices, unlike Lilly.

Only fifty years ago, Lilly had few viable options to earn a decent living. As a child, she picked cotton; there wasn’t a local MacDonald’s around the corner where she could flip burgers. Later, as a wife and mother, when she was trying to help her family make ends meet, Goodyear was the gold standard, opening its door to female managers for the first time during the 1970s. Penniless but ambitious and hardworking, she applied for a good job.

What strikes me the most about the question of why Lilly endured such harsh treatment is how it is framed. Shouldn’t the question, “Why did Lilly stay when she was harassed so terribly?” be reframed to ask, “Why didn’t the Goodyear culture ever change?” Just as the question we should pose about domestic violence is not why didn’t the woman leave the abuser, but why hasn’t the abuser been held accountable for his abuse?

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