Sometimes feminism is accused of being all about middle class women. It really surprised me when I heard that (I was in my 30s at the time) because I had not been brought up a middle class woman, and it had always felt like it was about me…me, and other women like me, women struggling to survive in a world that was hostile toward us because we were women and because we were poor. I was one of the more fortunate ones. I was able to move out of the world of need into the comfortable middle class, but I don’t think I would have done it if it wasn’t for the women’s movement, and the strong women I encountered who encouraged me and showed me role models I can emulate. So today, I decided to look at the world from the eyes of a working woman, and celebrate the women who make it out, the ones who help them…and to remember those who do not make it out. This month is for all of us. We are all women.
Charlie was already home. Bonnie pushed the door open with her hip and dropped the bags on the counter. Eddie and Meg rushed in, nearly tripping her in their eagerness to get to their playroom. It was later than usual, and she shoved a pot under the sink and put it on for pasta. Dinner would be late, and Charlie hated it when dinner was late.
“We’re out of beer!” Charlie bellowed from the living room. She could hear the television turned to that news show, the one where the men spent most of their time trash talking women.
Bonnie popped a can of beer open and took it to him. He reached for it without even looking at her. “I got some more at the store.”
“It’ll be hot.”
“I bought it from the refrigerator. I thought you might finish the last two tonight.”
Charlie grunted and went back to his television. Bonnie finished dinner and got the groceries put away. No meat in the pasta tonight. It was too late in the month for that. She dumped a can of tomatoes into the macaroni and dished it out on plates before she called everyone for dinner. Eddie was first at the table, as usual. Meg slouched in; she was in a phase where she preferred not to eat dinner, but Bonnie insisted. “Anorexia is for rich girls”, she informed her difficult daughter.
Dinner was rowdy, with Eddie and Meg bickering and pushing each other. Charlie screamed at them, adding to the din. Bonnie slouched in her chair, not feeling in the mood to even tell the kids to behave. She didn’t feel good, and she wanted to be left alone, but it was impossible to be left alone in this house. After dinner, Meg escaped upstairs, unwilling to stay and help with the dishes. Eddie went to work on the model car he was building. Charlie fell asleep in the easy chair, the TV still blaring hatred about women. Bonnie flipped it off, careful not to wake Charlie.
She slipped into the bathroom and turned on the shower. She slipped the cup under her as she sat on the toilet, and held the stick as instructed on the box. She got in the shower while she waited, enjoying the warm water running over her back. She scrubbed her hair, hoping to get the smell out of it, but no matter what shampoo she used, the smell never went away.
The test was ready when she got out of the shower. Her heart dropped as she glared at the faint pink line. This was a disaster. If she couldn’t afford birth control pills, how were they ever going to afford another child? She bundled the test up in the trash, pulled the bag out of the can, and deposited it in the can by the curb. No one would see it…no one would know. That wouldn’t help, she thought. It would be hard enough to hide soon. Besides, who was she hiding it from? It wasn’t like she had anything to be ashamed of…and it wasn’t like she could do anything about it. She hollered to Charlie that she was going to bed early, to not let the kids stay up past nine, and that she would be up early to go to work, so she was sleeping in Meg’s room tonight. She would rather sleep with Meg right now than Charlie.
The family was still asleep when she came down in the morning, except Charlie, who was waiting for her. He grabbed her by the arm and prevented her from leaving.
“Where are you going?”
“I have to go to work. I told you.”
“I don’t wanta be here alone with the kids. It’s Saturday. I need my rest. I work hard to support you, the least you could do is watch the damn brats.”
Bonnie decided it was a bad time to point out that she worked as many hours as he did, more sometimes, and it would be nice if he looked after the kids now and then. Instead, she told him to take them to her mother’s when they woke, and she’d pick them up when she got off. Charlie scowled. She told him she’d left lunch for him in the refrigerator, and he brightened up. All he had to do was put it in the microwave. He could spend the whole day in front of the TV, or puttering in the garage.
Sam was the manager on shift that morning, which meant Bonnie would be in the drive through. She hated drive through, especially when Sam was on. She overheard him one day advising a new young manager trainee to put the pretty girls in drive through, then you could watch their butts as they leaned out the window. She supposed he thought it was a compliment that he always put her in drive through, but she was disgusted. She’d rather work the front; the customers were nicer, and you didn’t have the constant weather to deal with. It was raining today, so of course she was stuck in drive through.
It was a hectic day. As soon as she clocked out for her lunch break, someone yelled “Bus on the lot!” and she clocked back in. As Sam said, it was all hands on deck when there was a bus on the lot. By the time they cleared that bus, three more had arrived. Apparently there was a basketball tournament in town. She would get no lunch today.
Charlie was fuming when she got home. “You’re late!”
Bonnie shoved a pan on the stove and started frying bacon. Mom had given her a package that she managed to wheedle from someone, Bonnie didn’t ask who or how, and tonight they could have meat. Maybe that would settle Charlie’s temper. She decided to stay quiet until he could smell the bacon. It didn’t work tonight.
“Why are you so goddamned late? Who is he?” Charlie shoved his face in hers and screamed.
“I had to work late. Three people called in sick, and they needed me to stay until they could find someone to cover. I’m sorry, there wasn’t time to telephone. Lots of extra work today, with that basketball tournament and everything.” Bonnie assumed Charlie would know about the tournament. She was often caught off guard by things like that but he followed sports avidly.
“Sure. Worked late. That’s the story, right?”
Bonnie heard the warning tone in Charlie’s voice. She turned to try to placate him, just in time to catch his fist on her jaw. She stumbled and tried to catch herself, putting her hand on the hot burner right by the pan. She screamed and snatched her hand away, but before she could put it under the faucet, he caught her again, this time in the stomach.
“Don’t lie to me, woman. I know. You couldn’t possibly work so many hours no more’n you make.”
“It’s minimum wage”, she gasped, hoping to prevent another attack. He hadn’t hit her in over a year. She thought that might have ended, that he had learned how to control his temper.
“This place is a mess. You never keep it clean enough. You’re too busy getting’ yourself pretty for whoever your boyfriend is.” Charlie landed one more punch in her stomach that knocked the wind out of her.
Bonnie fell to the floor, which gave Charlie the idea that it would be a good idea to kick her. She could see Meg cowering in the corner; her rebellious young daughter had disappeared, replaced by a frightened child who didn’t know how to help her mother. She couldn’t see Eddie; he had disappeared, or perhaps he was behind his father. She had just time to see Charlie lift the pan of hot bacon before she blacked out.
She woke in a white room, obviously a hospital. The light was so bright it hurt her eyes, and she blinked twice before she closed them again. A nurse saw her wake, and came toward her. “Are you awake?”
Bonnie always wondered why someone would ask that. If you were awake, you would say yes, but if you weren’t, they might wake you up, and right now she needed sleep. She was tired, she hurt all over, and she was in some sort of strange contraption. The nurse fiddled with a couple of dials on her IV and waited for her to speak.
“Am I…all right?”
The nurse nodded. “Don’t worry, honey, we’ll take good care of you. You just relax and let me bring you whatever you need.”
“I could use…some water.”
The nurse bustled out and Bonnie tried to go back to sleep. Her thoughts haunted her. She saw the faint line on the test stick, and realized that if Charlie had known about that, he’d have probably been even more brutal. He hadn’t even wanted Meg when she was born; he said Eddie was all they could afford, and why’d they have to have another baby? She had pointed out that her job didn’t have insurance, so they couldn’t afford birth control, so maybe if he didn’t insist on sex, they wouldn’t have any more babies. This time, if he was convinced she was having an affair, he’d be sure it wasn’t his. Of course it was. Bonnie didn’t have time for an affair, even if there were any men she was interested in. She couldn’t even bring herself to be interested in Charlie anymore. She had to force herself to participate whenever he reached for her.
The nurse returned with a pitcher of water and the doctor. Bonnie managed to open her eyes and adjust to the light. The doctor settled on the chair near the bed and began to explain her condition. They were treating the first degree burns from the hot bacon grease on her legs, but she would be scarred forever. They could do some cosmetic surgery, but it would be very expensive. Bonnie nodded; there would be no cosmetic surgery for her. As for the internal injuries, they weren’t severe, but…well, she had lost the baby. The doctor looked sympathetic, but Bonnie couldn’t resist being glad. She could not have faced bringing a baby into her life right now. It wouldn’t be fair to either of them.
“Doctor, is it possible…while I’m here…to…have my…tubes tied?” Bonnie stumbled over the request. She was sure Charlie would beat her nearly to death if he found out, even though he didn’t want more babies. He didn’t want her being only a partial woman, he said when she mentioned it before.
The doctor shook his head. “I don’t think you’ll find any doctor who will tie your tubes at your age. You’re…26, right?”
“Yes, but…I have two children…the oldest one is ten. I know I don’t want any more children.”
The doctor suggested she use birth control for now; that was reversible, he said, when she decided later on that she wanted more children. It was too soon for a young woman to decide to terminate her reproductive abilities permanently. The tone in his voice made her feel like she’d been patted on the head. He left, and the nurse looked at her with sympathy.
“They always say that, you know. They don’t think young women know what they want. Naturally they’d want more kids, right? I saw him agree to give a vasectomy to a twenty-four year old man the other day…no hesitation, just okay, that’s fine. Doesn’t he know the pill isn’t infallible?”
“Especially when you can’t afford it.” Bonnie let it slip out. This nurse was friendly, and seemed easy to talk to. “Ever since the women’s clinic closed, I haven’t been able to take it.”
“You didn’t want that baby, did you?”
Bonnie shook her head. “There’s no way. We can’t afford the two we’ve got, and with Charlie’s temper…well, I think…it’s no life for a baby.”
“It’s no life for a full grown woman, if you don’t mind my saying so.” The nurse pursed her lips and shook her head. “You should get out of there.”
“How?” It was a question Bonnie had asked herself for years. “I didn’t finish school. I got pregnant at fifteen…Charlie and I got married. My parents insisted. I thought…yeah, I thought it would be better anyway. I didn’t like school. I liked Charlie…I thought…I loved him.”
“Not so sure now?”
“I’ve tried…I want to remember…what it felt like to love him. But…I can’t even remember. All I can feel now is tired.”
The nurse settled on the bed and took Bonnie’s hand. “It’s a common story. I see it a lot, too much. A lot of women show up here after being beaten. A lot of them can’t remember why they loved their husbands. But they still go back. It’s all they know. I get it. I understand more than you know.”
“How could you understand? I mean, I don’t want to be…rude…but…you’ve got it made. You’ve got college…a good job…what would you know about being poor and scared?”
The nurse told Bonnie her name was Ramona. Then she talked. She told Bonnie a story that could rival her own for horrors…and in some places, even worse. Her home life was similar…oh, yes, she said, she knew the things a woman would do for a piece of meat to feed her family. Your mother isn’t unique, or even that unusual. Women will do a lot to survive. She was molested by a favorite uncle when she was twelve, and started having nightmares. She dropped out of school and married a much older man when she was fourteen, having three children by the time she was twenty. The man dropped her and ran off with a woman who was older but had her own money, and Ramona was stuck with the three children and no way to take care of them.
“What…how did you manage?”
“I didn’t. I lived on the streets, me and my kids, picking through garbage hoping to find something worth eating. Until one day, Child Welfare showed up and my kids were gone. Just like that. The only way I could get them back was to straighten up. I had been getting a little money by…prostitution…but it was awful, and I hated it. The men treated me like dirt. So I mostly begged, but that didn’t feed us very regular. The social worker, she sat down with me and showed me some options. If I wanted my children back, she could help me. She helped me apply for assistance. I hadn’t even known there was such a thing. I guess my mama got food stamps sometimes, because I saw her use them, but I didn’t know what they were. So I was on food stamps soon, and she helped me find a place to stay. It wasn’t much, but I didn’t have to pay much for it. I could make enough at a minimum wage job. I couldn’t take my kids there, though, because it was only one room.”
“So how’d you get to be a nurse?”
“I took night classes, got my GED. The community college helped me get financial assistance, and walked me through the strange forms and registration. They were really good to me. I never imagined I could go to college. No one in my family ever did. That was for elites, not for the likes of us.”
“I couldn’t go to college. I’m stupid.”
“Everyone. Charlie. My mama. My pop. Sam.”
“My boss. He likes to look at my ass leaning out the drive through, but he thinks I’m stupid.”
“How do you know until you try?”
Bonnie had no answer to that, but she didn’t think she could do what Ramona had done. Ramona was one of the most intelligent people she’d ever met. She had something Bonnie didn’t.
“You know, I didn’t have anything you don’t have”, Ramona said, as though reading Bonnie’s thoughts.
Bonnie jumped. “How do you know what I’m thinking?”
“Because I thought the same thing. When my social worker told me a story much like mine…her story…I thought, no, I don’t have that. You are different. I’m not like you. But I was…and you are.”
Bonnie wasn’t sure, but she allowed Ramona to set up an appointment with the social worker. Before the nurse left, she asked how she had gotten here. Ramona told her it was Eddie. When Charlie started hitting her, Eddie ran out the front door screaming that his daddy was killing his mommy. He stood in the street yelling his head off until one of the neighbors came out and asked what was going on. The neighbor called the police; the police came and they called an ambulance. “You owe your life to that brave boy.”
Bonnie was shaken. She realized that Charlie could have turned on Eddie. Her one comfort had been that he rarely hit the children, preferring to leave them to her to discipline. She knew she had to do something, because Charlie was probably very mad at Eddie now, since he had been arrested. When he got out…and he would get out, Bonnie thought, he always gets out…Eddie could be in a lot of trouble.
When the social worker showed, Bonnie was ready to talk. She still didn’t think she could do it, live on her own and make enough to raise her kids, but the social worker walked her through the steps she’d need to get assistance. Then they talked about school. Bonnie told her she was stupid; the social worker ran some tests on her and told her she was actually quite smart, she just didn’t have a very good vocabulary. That can be fixed, the woman assured her.
“I think I’m just too tired.” Bonnie still fought against it, for some reason she couldn’t explain even to herself needing to hold on to her pain and her sense of worthlessness. “I don’t think I have the strength to do it.”
“No, you probably don’t right now, but you’ll get stronger. Just…take a rest. Let them get you better. I’ve already filed papers to have your bill taken care of as a person who can’t pay, and that is almost certain to go through. Now we just need to get you well, and then, who knows? Maybe…maybe you’ll be president someday.” The woman’s eyes twinkled, and she held out her hand.
Bonnie took the other woman’s hand in hers but didn’t shake. She held on to it as though to a vine on the side of a cliff. “President? Not me. I’m not good enough for all that.”
“Who knows? You might be able to accomplish anything, once you no longer have to work that second shift…”
“Second shift?” Bonnie thought about the double shifts that always enraged Charlie and convinced him she was having an affair. “Yes, I’d like that. Going home on time…that would be so…good.”
“Not that second shift…oh, well, yes, that one, too, but the other one.”
“The other one?” Bonnie scrunched up her forehead, trying to sort out what other second shift there could be.
“You know, the one you worked every day, taking care of a husband who didn’t lift a finger to help? Even though you were working as hard as he was, and bringing money into the house?”
“Second shift. I never thought of it that way. I just thought of it as…well, as something women do. It was just…being a woman.”
The social worker snapped her briefcase closed. “There are a lot of ways to be a woman” was all she said as she left.
Bonnie thought over the conversation for a long time, alone in her room. Her mother called twice, but she told her she was too tired to talk. She wanted to think. Second shift? Yes, she had done a lot of those, she realized…sometimes third, when Sam had required one second shift before she even went home. She was scared to leave, scared not to go back to Charlie, but she decided she was going to take a chance. ‘Maybe I can be president someday’, she thought. ‘Why not?’