Here is day two of a long Weekender post of the Interview with poet, activist, and feminist Merimee Moffitt. I know Merimee from the poetry and slam poetry scene in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She has been a friend, fellow artist, and an inspiration. In this interview, she is very generous sharing about her life and gives a fascinating peek into a time in our nation’s history when women were fighting for equality and change in a different way and with different challenges than they face today.
Read yesterday’s post for the beginning of the interview with Merimee Moffitt and tomorrow’s for the finale. Enjoy!
Liza Wolff-Francis: Wow, so, what do you think of feminism now versus when you were younger?
Merimee Moffitt: Well, I know when I went back to school, when I decided I’d had it with being a hard working single parent in Taos, working women’s jobs, which is what I knew how to do. I mean literally, I cooked and I had a sewing business that I did out of my house, I designed clothes. That was all very womanly and I worked my butt off to support my son and so, I went back to school.
That was 1980 and I went to Las Cruces State branch school in Alamagordo (NM). I had dropped out of Reed in Portland and I had gone one term to the University of Oregon in the middle 60’s, but in the early 80’s, Alamagordo was where I went. I had friends who ran a little spiritual college that I was interested in. People came from all over to go there. It’s called Quimby College of Life Sciences, I think, and I wanted to be close to that while I put my foot back into the real world by going to Las Cruces State and joining mainstream society. I very consciously rejoined mainstream society by going back to school.
My government teacher would make jokes about women, misogynists jokes that were really offensive to me because I had been independent and supporting myself for several years. He was just hideous about women, about them not being bright, about them getting the vote- was most unfortunate and women wanting rights was ridiculous and women wanting education was kind of sleazy and they should all be home barefoot in the kitchen having a dozen babies.
He was so offensive, that I finally interviewed the people out in the hallway one day and said, “isn’t this bothering you with the way this guy talks?” This was 1980. I had been reading Ms. magazine for nine years, my head was full of all kinds of free ideas (laughs). But they were like, “Oh no, it’s just the way it is. Oh no, we’re not going to say anything.”
I said, “well I am.” So I went to his office and told him I really didn’t like his negative comments about women. What did he think he was doing? What was the deal? It was very offensive. After that, he’d be in the classroom and when I got there, he’d say, “Shh, here she comes.” And all the guys would leer and grin at me.
I was in my early 30’s and I didn’t care. One year later, I transferred. So this is feminism in New Mexico in the early 90’s, meaning it didn’t really exist as far as I knew. I was often the only person who noticed things.
I was in 200 level English classes at UNM, I transferred up to Albuquerque after a year and a half and by that time, I was living with Randy, who would be a real marriage and a real husband, who I’m still married to. I had a survey of lit. class with a Norton Anthology, that has about 2000 really thin pages, you know the whole 20th Century samples of literature and we were getting into the syllabus and I became really aware there were no women authors. We were reading no women. There were no women on the syllabus. There were very few women in the book, a nod to Ann Bradstreet, the 1600’s governor’s wife and her little poem about her book or something.
I asked the professor, “Why aren’t we reading any women’s authors? There’s lots of women authors in the twentieth century.” And he said, “Well, we hardly have time for all the important males, we certainly are not going to spend our time reading women.”
Everybody was just quiet looking at me like, “what kind of a ball buster are you? Reading women in college? Har har har.” This was ’81. I can’t remember the professor’s name, but I know what he looks like. He’s long since retired. When I got my Masters degree, he walked over to me at the event and said “Congratulations.” Professor Thirston or something like that.
Well, I went to the dean and said, “You know, I think it’s like a little old hat, maybe there’s none in the book and he can’t find any, but he shouldn’t be saying that it’s not important that we read women writers.” When I dropped out of college in 1963, I didn’t read for a while and it took a couple of years before I seriously started reading again. I decided to read all the women authors I could find because it was in the 60’s, it was bad too. Wherever I was, there was nothing but old dead white men or contemporary white guys, maybe. Whatever. I was bored.
So I decided to find women myself and I got very excited about literature and I took a poetry class in 1981 at UNM. I liked this teacher, Lee Bartlett, he’s probably retired, but there was young student who got up and read a poem about her mother stuck washing the dishes on a beautiful Sunday afternoon because she was a woman and he kind of cut her off and he says, “I think we’ve had it with these women’s issues, I mean really, that’s not going to fly. Women’s issues like washing dishes are not important.” Who washes the dishes does not matter. He may have changed his tune later in life, but it was hurtful to her as a student and as a person and as a woman and it was hurtful to me. I knew better. I knew that it was important, but I still was hesitant.
I’m still coming into full belief that if there are things specifically female, then every single one of them is well worth writing about. Men just endlessly write about their penis issues, (laughs) everything to do with them in every way, from wars to masturbation. It’s in all the novels and all the books, and it’s like women can’t say anything about that. What? We’re supposed to be polite and nice and sweet? No. It’s very very important what it’s like to hold a baby. And a lot of men are coming around to that now, but it’s been a long time coming.
A couple of the male poets who are in the spoken-word community here, had babies and were up on stage just going on about their sweet little children and their darling little cheeks and cute little hands. I got a kick out of it, because, they would have been really put down if they had been a woman doing that a couple of decades ago. And very unlikely anybody was conscious of that. And it was a happy thing because these men were ecstatic about being fathers.
That’s sort of the flip side of it, that men are more empowered to be fathers when true feminism is practiced because all the womanly arts become honorable and loving the heck out of your children, which used to be just the woman’s domain- men didn’t raise kids when I was a kid. Men didn’t even touch their children sometimes, ever or talk to them.
Merimee: Yeah. And then the generations of men just disappearing because there was no place for them in the family and whatever, they didn’t have to stay. I’m building up some steam here. There are certain aspects of feminism that say, you don’t have to stay, but you do have to pay. And you helped make this family, so you don’t get to just walk away and leave us destitute.
When my son was little, I didn’t get any help most of the time. There was a very short period where he gave me ten dollars a month child support. Less than a year. The state wouldn’t do anything towards helping get money out of him. He quite willingly signed paternity papers, but there was no mechanism to force fathers to be fathers.
A woman was left with the kids and the guy was scott free. That’s what June Brady’s essay is about. Scott free to start over all over again with either a newer or younger model, with somebody that wasn’t a burden to him or whatever, but it was always the woman who got the kids.
Before the women’s movement of the 70’s, the laws favored women having full custody. Men weren’t expected to be able to take care of kids, or expected to pay for them. There were good guys who did, but there were plenty of guys who did not and who abandoned their kids.
Feminism is not separate from childrearing, and family making, and the world surviving. It’s a way to have it be better for everybody. I think men are still getting the short end of the stick a lot of the time in custody battles with women. It’s gone from one extreme to the other.
I always talk about feminism in my classes. Not every day all day, but it comes up. It comes up in the literature a lot. Last term I had a class with four or five men who had had custody battles with their wives or the wives abandoned the kids and them. They couldn’t get child support from her and it was very hard for them to get the custody they needed- when the woman turns out to be the irresponsible one, who doesn’t want to be a parent, who wants to drift away like men of the 60’s used to do and men of the 50’s. It’s really a battle still for men to get full custody and to get help.
Liza: Can you say something about what the classes are?
Merimee: These are English classes I teach at CNM (Central New Mexico Community College), so they are required English 102 classes. It’s like second semester comprehension classes, where we read literature and write about it and it’s in the literature. Dealing with family issues, it’s always in there.
Liza: So it comes up.
Merimee: It comes up in discussion. And we talk about how it used to be and how it is now and how it is different for men and for women and of course it’s all individual stuff but, it’s not that women are the only ones getting the short end of the stick as far as families.
The ideal family, things are shared. Parenting is shared. Responsibilities are shared. Like I frequently tell my students, it was maybe ten- twelve years- maybe a little longer now, that I actually saw a pediatrician’s office that had more fathers in it, that was actually full of fathers with babies and little kids.
I had been raising kids since 1971, so it was the early 90’s before I saw basically like even one man in a pediatrician’s office. It just didn’t happen. It started off that there’d be one guy and then a couple and the nurses would come out and help them and they’d get a great deal of attention. Now it’s like full of men. You go to the playground in the middle of the day and there may be a few grandparents there and all kinds of guys with their kids. This is an indicaton of sharing and it’ll have a really good effect on the kids.
I taught teenagers for twelve years in APS (Albuquerque Public Schools) and the missing father was one of the biggest problems that was most common among children. If that’s not so true now, because fathers can get some custody and before the divorce, if they actually do spend time with their kids, like it seems they are doing, and it’s not unmanly anymore, they are probably competitive about it. (We laugh) Who’s the coolest guy that does the most chores and changes the most diapers and what kind of baby powder do you use? What’s your favorite baby toy? (We’re both laughing).
Liza- We see a lot of women say they aren’t feminists and a lot of people who go running when they hear the word feminism. Do you think it’s still important to use the word feminism?
Merimee– Well, until there’s a better word- and I think you have to define it. I’m not quite sure why people shy from the word, but I think they are maybe thinking about radical lesbianism. I don’t know that that’s true anymore because most of the people I know could care less about that. You can be a lesbian, you could be a radical lesbian. You could be a person who doesn’t have a label, who likes people that they like, it doesn’t matter what gender they are.
Thank you for reading Matrifocal Point. Please ‘follow’ and come back tomorrow for part 2 of the Interview with Merimee Moffitt.