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What the Tooth Fairy Taught Me About Feminism
By Sara Leslie Miller
When I lost my first tooth, I expected the tooth fairy to leave me a dollar or two like she did for all my pioneering gap-toothed friends. A couple of loose teeth would trade in nicely for an after-school TCBY parfait, or so my seven-year-old logic went, because children don’t understand irony. My baby teeth were a little late to the party, but when I finally wiggled one out, I did not get a Washington or a Lincoln. Instead, the tooth fairy left me a large silver coin with a woman’s face I didn’t recognize. Because I knew my mother was the true power behind all fictional visitors, I immediately brought the coin to her and demanded an explanation, mainly, “Does TCBY accept this form of payment?”
My mother sat with me on the edge of my parents’ bathtub and proudly explained that it was a Susan B. Anthony dollar. Minted from 1979 to 1981, it was the first U.S. coin that honored a real, human female figure. (This was a few years before the Sacagawea “golden dollar.”) Susan B. Anthony was as brave and significant as any male president. She was a rebel, devoting her life to the anti-slavery and women’s suffrage movements—Look her up! She’s a total badass.
As I listened, I knew there was something urgent in this message. This coin, regardless of its numerical value, was worth much more than frozen yogurt, no matter how delicious. My mother had carefully saved them for years in a beautiful cedar box that Kornmeyer Furniture in Baton Rouge, Louisiana had given to all the girls who graduated from high school her senior year. They were meant to be small hope chests—a repository for things that young women collected for domestic married life. My mother cherished this box, but she chose to fill it with Susan B. Anthony coins instead—the tradition she would rather bequeath upon her daughter. She would give me one every time I lost a tooth until they were all mine, each a reminder of the resiliency she passed down to me.
My mother spoke of glass ceilings instead of glass slippers. She talked of storming into her male boss’s office while pregnant and demanding that the men not puff their cigars in meetings so that I would be safe. She balked at conservative talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh who called outspoken women feminazis. She wildly re-appropriated that label and wore it like a badge of honor. I didn’t completely understand what these things meant, but I knew she was strong.
I also knew that although my mother is a beautiful woman, when she said these things, people looked at her like she was not pretty, and I knew that was bad. I wanted to be pretty; I already instinctually understood the importance of prettiness, its virtue and security. I wanted men to approve of me because they seemed to be the ones with that authority. They were the ones on the money everyone used. It was their faces on mountains.
By the time I began dating, my mother’s voice had dwindled, drowned out by my friends, commercials, textbooks, and movies. Women were to be muses, sources of inspiration. We were to be the ethereal Lady Liberty, not the fierce, vocal Susan B. Anthony. It was only when I began my first job that my mother’s voice began to rise again from the depths of my younger memories. I encountered my own glass ceilings—men who did not take me seriously or who looked more at my dress than my work—and I realized that our mothers’ fight was more won in language than in action. I do not know what to do with this awakening.
My eyes brimmed with tears when Beyoncé quoted Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the VMAs and emblazoned “Feminist” on her backdrop, but that was a specific performative space. How do we live this awareness in our daily lives? Changing an entire culture is slow, painful, uphill work, and walking into an office with a banner behind me that says “feminist” won’t make someone comment first on what I’m doing instead of what I’m wearing. Will anything I say really make a difference? Can micro-actions surpass micro-aggressions?
I do not have the answers; I only hope that other women help me seek them. When we begin to shape our own, adult lives, we carry with us the lessons of our childhood while we seek our own path. Luckily for me, I carry the voice of my mother. She’d be so proud for me to share her voice with you.
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