Doris Jean Ridley was a seamstress.
Year after year, she hunched over a Singer sewing machine, making “after-five” dresses in a factory on Washington Avenue in St. Louis. Thousands of women like Doris Jean, crammed onto a factory floor inside the Italianate redbrick factories adorned with majestic terra-cotta lions, earning “piece-pay” wages for dresses that would sell for a princely sum in the finest department stores around the country. The make-do paycheck was just enough to pay the rent on a small, shotgun-style, cold-water flat on north side.
For 20-odd years, she stitched together the tapestry of somebody else’s dream.
In the mid-1970s, the last of the aging factories shuttered. The fashion industry moved on without Doris Jean. With no formal education beyond grade school, living in the shadows of those abandoned, and decaying palaces of commerce, she had no meaningful job prospects.
“If ain’t nobody got a job for you, you gotta make one for yourself,” I remember her telling me. At the time, I had no idea what that meant for her or what it might come to mean for a small, brown girl like me.
Every Friday, she sold foil-covered, paper plates of fried fish with spaghetti and mustard potato salad for two bucks a piece off the back porch. There was a slice of sweet potato pie, if you had another 25 cents on you. She filled two old red coolers with Budweiser beer and Vess soda; she chain-smoked KOOL menthol shorts as she waited on a rickety foldout, lawn chair for the noontime crowd to arrive. If the weather was good, so was business. As my Uncle Willie-Byrd collected and crushed the empty aluminum cans to sell at a recycling counter in the grocery store up the street, after the last customer had come and gone, she turned her attention to a small, spiral-bound notebook secreted away in a bottom dresser drawer.
My Aunt Doris Jean, known affectionately as “Killer,” was a back-alley bookmaker. Baseball, horses or dogs — if it was running, Killer had the action. She called it “nigger pool.” The word, forbidden in my own house, rolled off her tongue—smooth and constant– like the morning glass of good Bourbon my sloop-footed uncle adored.
I remember her muddy brown pot-marked skin, the maze of salt and pepper plaits, the fullness of her girth and the never-cut toe nails that spilled over her dime-store, plastic sandals. I remember the gang of stray dogs she took in, the way she loved up on their babies. Then, there was the mean-as-hell, feral black cat named “Samantha” she had tied up to a running chain on the clothesline. I cannot recall anyone ever calling my uncle’s wife “beautiful.” As her name infers, Auntie Killer—like the cat in the yard– was nothing to mess with.
Deep in her big, black pocketbook, among the assorted pills bottles, cracked coin purse, and half sticks of Double Mint gum, she carried a switchblade. She didn’t play when it came to her money or her man. If you had a problem of any variety, something in her purse could fix it for you.
Never prone to dreams, Doris Jean never wanted for fame; just her piece of the small pie available to her. That fabled house-on-a-hill was for other people. She was, it seems, a woman of her condition. She would be the first to tell you that she had not chosen this life; rather it had chosen her.
“I ain’t had no fancy education,” she told me, sucking the last drag. “If I did, maybe I wouldn’t be out here pushing plates every Friday and tossing the scraps to my dogs. Or maybe I would. But that would be my choice.”
She flicked the butt out into the grassless back yard, beyond the vines of failed Cherokee purple tomatoes. “You want choices, baby? Get your education.”
By popular standards, Doris Jean was no feminist. After all, a real feminist wouldn’t be caught dead “running numbers” or pressing out spray-starched creases in her husband’s polyester slacks. My Aunt Gerry, a housewife who devoted her life to my three-job-holding Uncle Ross, raising her children, and stewing the perfect pot of cabbage, would never make the cut. My Mama, a single mother and retired corporate executive, was too busy trying to keep things moving in her house to join any movement. To tell you the truth, my bible-thumping Grandmother Alice probably wouldn’t qualify either. After all, you cannot be a good Christian and a good feminist, right?
But, if a recent Politico magazine cover story written by Michelle Cottle can be believed, a real feminist also would not be an “Ivy-educated, blue-chip law firm trained First Lady” like Michelle Obama. She would not waste her time gardening, tending to wounded soldiers or reading to schoolchildren. Cottle, who appears to have a bone to pick with stay-at-home moms and previously pointed to Sarah Palin as a bastion of feminism, gets it wrong from start to finish. She isn’t alone.
According to Kelli Goff, a correspondent for The Root and frequent cable news guest, the first lady is a “national shame” who should shake the dust off of her power suits and get in the game. In that same column, entitled “Preach Michelle: 5 Things We Want to Hear From the First Lady,” Goff had some advice for Obama. As if…
After all, there are real battles to be waged and the Mom-in-Chief, with her toned arms and countless glamorous magazine covers, is not quite the soldier they envisioned. I guess feminists don’t wear sequins.
The real shame here is that Cottle, Goff and others have decided that women like those who raised me, women like me, must subscribe to the well-crafted agenda of their design. The fact of the matter is, true feminism is and has always been about two things: access and choices. And for women of color, as Goff should well know, that fight is and has always been specifically and further complicated by race.