Feminist Mother, Daughter Reconcile their Past

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Alice Rossi helped found the National Organization for Women in the 1970s while raising her daughter Nina. Today, Rossi is dying of emphysema and Nina is a single mother. Nina Rossi says her mother's career left her feeling neglected, and today, the women struggle with their divided past.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

There are problems in every parent-child relationship. The one between Alice Rossi and her daughter Nina is no exception, but their problems are exceptional.

Alice Rossi helped found the National Organization for Women. She sparked controversy when she called for equality in parenting. But her daughter, Nina, says Alice was not as successful a mother as she was a feminist. Today, Alice Rossi is 85 and dying from emphysema. Her daughter is 47, a single mother.

And as Karen Brown of member station WFCR reports, the two have been spending time together.

KAREN BROWN: Nina Rocci visits her mother, Alice, a rail thin but still cogent woman every Sunday for tea. But their relationship hasn't always been close. In the '60s and '70s, Alice was a nationally renowned feminist and scholar, author of a seminal book called "The Feminist Papers." Looking back, Alice admits that as she was trying to save the world's women, she may well have let her daughter slipped through the cracks.

Ms. ALICE ROSSI (Co-founder, National Organization of Women): There was a period of Nina's life that I felt was critical, where I was a neglectful parent because of the busyness of my life, and I took shortcuts in parenting.

BROWN: Sitting today in Alice's Amherst, Massachusetts' home were medical tubes crisscross the living room, Nina remembers those pre-teen years.

Ms. NINA ROSSI: Yeah. I would have been happy with a mother who is making rice crispy treats, I'm sure. I think I deeply resented all of her activities. I can remember, actually, just sitting outside her study door crying and not being able to break in.

BROWN: While Alice Rossi was writing papers on gender stereotypes, job discrimination and co-parenting, Nina was falling apart.

Ms. N. ROSSI: I actually ended up dropping out of high school, worked on the war(ph) for five years. I was very alcoholic at the time and had been since I was 15. But I still word(ph) up. I turned around.

BROWN: Nina's an artist now. She lives a half-hour from her mother. For decades, she kept her resentments secret. Then a few years ago, Alice was writing her memoirs and asks Nina to comment on the manuscript.

Ms. N. ROSSI: Because I felt they were too much of Alice, the heroine, not enough darkness and humanity. Well, what was your reaction to that feedback?

Ms. A. ROSSI: Well, I thought you've been hard about it. And it said a very vital point. And I had some responsibility therefore to future historians or future women who read my work but don't know the whole person.

Ms. N. ROSSI: Mom, why did you just phrase it as your responsibility to future women and blah, blah, blah instead of your responsibility to me, or to your family, to be honest and…

BROWN: Alice and Nina often tug at each other like this. Nina has chosen to work part-time so she can be home more for her teenage boys. Alice considers Nina a great mother, but wonders if Nina realizes how hard it was to be a professional woman in her day.

Ms. A. ROSSI: Well, I - what I was really trying to do and not doing very well was being a feminist in my politics. But in my home, I was trying to hold on to as much of the traditional female role as possible, partly because my husband wasn't backing me up in terms of picking up the slack in our family relationships. What you see in the story, from Nina's point of view, it's me. You don't hear her saying the same thing about her father.

Ms. N. ROSSI: That's true. That's true. I guess the different expectations with his role…

BROWN: Alice tried to breathe out gender stereotypes in her own family. She wouldn't let her daughters play with Barbie dolls, which may explain why Nina bought Barbies for her own sons, who weren't actually all that interested.

Ms. N. ROSSI: Because I have this unfulfilled Barbie desire. I got to put those little tiny shoes on those totally deformed feet. But I wasn't aware of this.

BROWN: Still, Nina says she must have absorbed some of her mother's feminist sensibility. Nina was a longshoreman on Cape Cod. She used to manage an auto parts store. She now builds wheelchairs - all traditional male domains. But she's never called herself a feminist.

Ms. N. ROSSI: It accumulated some connotations over time that it didn't have, I'm sure, when my mother first called herself a feminist. Now, it has this strident connotation, you know, a little bit man-hating maybe or whatever.

BROWN: But while Nina may not go to the kind of marches her mother's generation made famous, she does go after social injustice in her art. Alice says she not only admires her daughter's artistic spirit, she's long harbored a decidedly unfeminist wish for Nina.

Ms. A. ROSSI: I always thought that this daughter should - a very, very wealthy man so that she could spend all her time if she wanted just in front of a canvass. And then at sometimes I would think this and then I laugh at myself.

BROWN: Nina smiles at that and reflects on the direction they've each gone in.

Ms. N. ROSSI: I guess in my own life I have made different choices regarding that balance between family and professional life. But if I was in the position to make as much of a difference as my mother was, you know, maybe I choose the other way. I don't know.

BROWN: Alice Rossi's emphysema is getting worst. But she and Nina say they'll keep talking as long as they can.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown.

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