Striding out

MY grandmother used to throw stones at my father. Small stones, but definitely stones. This was before his marriage to my mother, a marriage the stones were meant to prevent. They didn't. In fact, my father found them a reassuring change. He had grown accustomed to overeager mothers welcoming him with tea and cake, refreshment that smacked, in my father's eyes, of bait in a matrimonial trap.

There was nothing personal in Grannie's attack. In fact, once he and my mother were married, she grew quite fond of him. It was just that she was anti-marriage.

It's hard to understand why. It can't have been on account of my grandfather, a gentle man who loved Dickens and used to walk six miles to the nearest park so that he could go for a walk when he got there. And then walk back. Hardly a dominating male.

Nor could it have been the burden of household cares. Grannie didn't seem to have any. She managed her children by simply ignoring them all day and counting them (five) every evening. (In fact, my father had been fortunate to find her at home.)

What really filled her days was her business, an elegant shoe shop in England's second-largest city, visible proof that she, Alice Moseley Ashmore, the only woman to own her own business in Birmingham, could do anything a man could do -- and do it better. She wasn't so sure about other women. But she was ready to fight a man on his own ground with his own weapons.

If she had ever heard of the expression, Grannie would certainly have laid claim to being a liberated woman, in fact the only liberated woman. She had firm notions about equality, including the conviction that a woman could be chained to the home by her own vanity. In those days small was so beautiful and the Cinderella myth so persuasive that hundreds of women suffered the pain of too-small shoes rather than admit to an unfashionably large size. They couldn't stand firm. They couldn't stride out. They couldn't be equal.

So when Grannie opened her shop in 1877, she made an unbreakable rule for her customers: Buy the size I tell you to or I won't sell you any.

With Grannie eight miles away preoccupied all day with her business and the liberating of women's feet, her daughters were given another kind of freedom. They grew up without any knowledge of the Victorian-type constrictions of the day. I believe at least two of them didn't know there were any constrictions, or that they needed to be liberated.

Certainly when Mother inherited the shoe shop she never seemed to encounter any discrimination. (My uncles did, for Grannie left them no part in the business -- she wasn't having any men taking over A. M. Ashmore's.)

I used to think equality was an idea passed tidily down from mother to daughter, gathering strength over the years -- like the shoe shop. But now, looking back over a childhood spent surrounded by an extraordinary number of liberating women, I am not so sure. There seem to be as many ideas about it as there are women.

All the teachers at the Sutton Coldfield High School for Girls seemed eager to enroll us as feeble successors to the suffragettes. They didn't believe women were men's equals. Certainly not. They knew we were far superior. That's why it was important for us to be extremely ladylike and always wear a hat -- but never eat food -- in the street. And there was something we weren't supposed to do on the buses but I've forgotten what it was. To be married was a confession of failure, and boys were, well, silly. We were groomed to be Career Women.

I much prefer the liberation enjoyed by my mother, her sisters, and their friends. There's a photo of them in the family album that's particularly revealing. Standing in a line across the main street of the Isle of Man, arms linked, straw boaters at a cheeky angle, Effie and Renee and Dolly, Sis and Dora, clad in ankle-length skirts and their brothers' shirts, look as if they were about to break into their favorite chorus -- a wicked one:

``No coffee, no coffee,

No tea, no tea,

No cocoa, no cocoa,

But beer, BEER, B E E R!''

(None of them, of course, would have dreamt of taking so much as a sip of beer.)

Just one look at them and you know neither men nor liberated mothers could dominate them. They knew who they were and were glad of it.

Incidentally, all but one of them had successful careers, and all married except Aunt Effie, who lectured on Careers for Girls.

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