This election has many American women thinking about their mothers. Here’s what commentator and author Martha Ackmann has been thinking about hers:
My mother loved elections. She collected campaign buttons, saved old newspapers announcing presidential results and worked the polls, setting up voting booths in our school gym. One time, a line of wobbly booths collapsed on her. She was fine, but the image of American politics crashing down on her was not lost on any of us.
She especially prided herself in being among the first to vote. “Number 16,” she would proclaim to my brothers and me as she came in the door. I always detected the slightest hint of disappointment in her voice. For a woman whom everyone called reticent, she wanted to be number one when it came to voting.
As much as Mom loved elections, she was not political. I never saw her wear the campaign buttons — she only seemed to collect them and keep them in a cardboard jewelry box. She was part of that hinge generation: born just after women won the vote, but before many had won political office. Her interest was more civic than it was political. When it came to politics, she believed women kept things to themselves.
That’s why a long-ago phone call sticks in my mind so vividly. It was October 1964. She was shopping in downtown St. Louis and realized Lyndon Johnson would be speaking later at a rally. She already told us she’d be home in time to cook dinner, but she called to say she’d be late. Dad rustled up scrambled eggs.
Such a seemingly inconsequential phone call should have drifted from my memory years ago. But there’s a reason it hasn’t.
The other day, I went on-line looking for photos of the rally. I found old pictures of LBJ sprawled across the podium, Lady Bird sitting next to him with hands folded, St. Louis streets filled with men in hats and women in head scarves knotted tightly under their chins.
I couldn’t find Mom in the photos, of course, but now I know why I had to try.
I never told her how proud I was of her that night. Proud that she was there. Proud that she stood up for a candidate. Proud that she put herself and citizenship above us, if only for one meal.
After she died, I found the cardboard jewelry box with all her campaign buttons. “LBJ For The USA,” read one. I hope on that October night in 1964, she pinned it on herself.”
Martha Ackmann is a journalist and the author of the award-winning “The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight.” She teaches at Mount Holyoke College and lives in Leverett, Massachusetts.