I keep running into posts this week about the sorry state of feminism, especially the "woe is me" or femivictimist man-hating post-modern variety.  At House of Eratosthenes, one such post was combined with a touching tribute to the author's mother, whom he lost 20 years ago.  I am inspired to post a tribute to my own mother, of whom I have no conscious memories, but who left behind an example of feminism that has always been at the center of my life.

Myra Ferguson was born in 1924.  A fine student, she pursued studies that were nearly unheard of for women of her generation.  She met my father, John E. Kilpatrick, when both were studying for advanced degrees in physical chemistry at the University of Kansas.  They went on to study together at Berkeley, where my father, four years the elder, completed his Ph. D.  My mother interrupted her own doctoral work to marry and have three children.  I suppose she thought she would have time to return to her studies later, though as things worked out she did not.

In the meantime, she published research on her own and with my father.  It is an amazing feature of the internet that some of her work is preserved there, like this paper on elastic constants and sound velocities from 1949, based on work for the Condensed Matter and Thermal Physics Group at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where she and my father still make a ghostly appearance on the list of former consultants and collaborators.  It is touching that, in some later published versions, my father is listed as co-author in the second position -- something that can't have been a common practice in 1949.  They were very devoted to each other.  I have copies of several other papers they published together, but none I can locate on the net.

Myra F. Kilpatrick was diagnosed with cancer shortly after the birth of her third child, myself.  She must have known how unlikely it was that any of the rudimentary treatments of the time would cure her.  Nevertheless, she kept a journal of the doctors' efforts, and considered herself to be contributing to research.  After one treatment, she noted that the doctors had learned something about just how far a patient's white blood cell count could drop without resulting in death.  She died at home in the spring of 1959.

She faced headwinds during her entire short life, and was a feminist in my book, but she would have scorned to paint herself as a victim.


Grim said...

Tolkien makes the point, at the end of his essay "The Monsters and the Critics," that the heroic life involves struggling against what you are here calling "headwinds," and that even the hero falls before the dragon at last. Beowulf is a mythic standard for the best we can do in this world. To struggle in the manner of a hero, until the dragon finally overcomes you, is as far from being a victim as it is possible for us to get.

Cass said...

What a lovely tribute, Tex. I like to think that your mother knows what a fine daughter she left the world.

And now I have to go. I'm sitting in my 7th floor office with my eyes brimming with big, fat sloppy tears.

But they are good tears. Thank you for sharing this.

Texan99 said...

How sweet a thought! But she could not have relied on much more than a general conviction of my fabulous potential, since I had not achieved more than the average two-year-old when she was forced to leave us untimely. I imagine she had the usual maternal preference, though! I've often wondered what it would be like to meet her.

Grim said...

Since you have posted this tribute to your mother, I wonder if I might say a word about mine. My mother is still alive, and quite formidable. Her birthday is this weekend, in fact. I've been trying to think of what to do for her, but so far I haven't quite come up with the right thing.

She's quite a woman herself, and I'm proud of her. It is sometimes hard for me to express, though, because her sternness in ordering her world according to her will has kept us apart. But I know it is only her way, a rigor without which she would be lost. She and I find it difficult to be together because I won't submit to being ordered by someone else -- no more than she will.

It is somewhat like the way that a female grizzly bear will raise her cubs for a year or two, and then must drive them off her mountain entirely. They are too fierce to share territory. Yet I know that in spite of this she loves me, and I love her too. It's just how it is, given our natures.

MikeD said...

Oh Grim, I empathize completely. I love my mother to pieces, but I can't live with her. She and I are too alike. We joke that if she needs to move in with any of us kids in her dotage, it would have to be my sister, because the only daughter-in-law who can tell her no is my wife, and my Bride says she'd need me to be dead or divorced from her before my mother could move in. :)

Elise said...

What a wonderful piece, T99. Your mother's life was far too short but she was lucky in her husband, her children, and her work.

If I may return to your opening and closing for a moment, I believe that scorning to paint oneself as a victim is one of the hallmarks of a true feminist. Your mother seems to have enjoyed to the hilt all the gifts that God or nature gave her, to have made full use of them, and to have faced adversity with courage. What could be more admirable in a woman - or a man?