Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Marie Peterman Moore, Journalist, 1923-2007

By Nancy Jane Moore

My mother, Marie Peterman Moore, died October 23. It was a little sudden, but not really unexpected; she had emphysema and her health had been steadily declining. She would have turned 84 November 1.

There are many things I could tell you about my mother: her skill as a journalist, her uncompromising liberal politics, her support of me as a single woman (she never once asked about husbands or grandchildren), her green thumb, her famous temper.

But while I was down in Texas with my sister Katrinka Moore, helping my father deal with things and attending my mother's memorial service, I had several insights into her life. I'd like to share those with you.

My father, John Moore, is a storyteller. He also spent most of his life as a journalist, and has always told us the story of how he met my mother: He was just out of the Air Corps in 1945, interviewing for a job at the San Angelo Standard Times, where my mother was already working, and he saw her across the room. "That's the woman I'm going to marry," he said, and spent the next couple of years convincing her of the fact.

But he told another story from those days before they were married when we were sitting around the house last week. Mother covered city hall for the Standard Times and Daddy covered the courthouse. Apparently the city police chief did something that Daddy found to be a problem, and he went over to city hall to "straighten him out."

And Mother read Daddy the riot act for stepping on her turf. She was furious. Later she told him that one reason she got so angry was that she was worried about men coming back from the war and taking away her job.

It was, for those of you who remember or have studied the 1950s, a reasonable fear. The independence that women developed during the war years -- Mother was the first woman editor of the Texas Tech University newspaper and had gone to work on the Standard Times in 1943 right out of college -- came under vicious attack after the war.

Daddy told another story about a time when they were both looking for a job and interviewed with a newspaper in Tulsa. The editor wanted to hire my father and then told Mother he had an opening in the women's department. She told him to go to hell (very famous temper), and my father told the editor thanks for his time and they left.

Later, though, my mother did end up working in the women's department of a paper.

I always knew my mother had a temper. I was never completely comfortable with her anger, especially not when I saw it coming out in myself. Often she seemed to get angry about things she was powerless to change; to this day, I tend to associate anger with powerlessness.

But those stories from my father put my mother's anger in perspective. She had something to be angry about. She was smart, educated, and good at her profession, and so many people kept trying to force her back into the traditional sphere of women.

I recall an incident from childhood, when Mother told me why she didn't particularly like the wives of some of the men that my father knew well. "They look down on me because I work," she said. And from that day on I tended to look down on women who didn't have their own careers.

At Mother's memorial service, three women who knew her spoke. Delia Stephens, a lawyer, talked about my mother's commitment to her work, telling a story about how she once jumped out of the swimming pool and rushed off to a fire scene (this was in the years when my parents ran a group of community newspapers) to take pictures, still in her bathing suit. Dianne Robin, a geologist who became friends with my parents through local political activities, talked about how strong my mother was in fighting government corruption and standing for liberal causes. And my dear friend Susan Norwood -- an artist and aesthetician, and like me a happily independent single woman -- talked of what a role model Mother had been for our generation.

I knew all those things about my mother, of course, but I don't think I'd realized before how many other people knew them. She was a role model, and not just for me and my sister, but for all the others who knew her.

I tend to think the cigarettes that eventually killed her were tied up with her feminism and her anger. Smoking was one of the things she could do to telegraph the fact that she wasn't a lady in the old-fashioned sense, that she was independent and could follow her own career. I wish she had stopped smoking much earlier than she did -- it took the serious onset of emphysema to get her to finally quit -- but I think I understand why smoking was so important to her. It wasn't just physical addiction or enjoyment; it was part of her self definition.

I have some bad habits that I don't want to give up either, for the same reason.

I worried a lot that my mother wasn't happy. I know she got pleasure from putting a newspaper together on deadline, growing beautiful hibiscus, swimming laps, talking politics, reading mysteries, but I always wanted something more for her. What, I'm not completely sure. But some of it is tied up with all those good reasons why she was angry, all those people who stood in the way of her and the work she loved, all those people who paid her less because she was a woman, all those people who patted her on the head.

It never occurred to me that I couldn't go to law school and do most of what I wanted in the world, because my mother and other women like her had set the example. I have run into barriers, of course, but they are not as extreme as the ones my mother faced. I suspect this is why much of the anger of 1970s feminism didn't resonate with me: I saw that as the anger of my mother's generation.

But really, she was one of the pioneers.

I miss her very much.

(The Houston Chronicle ran a fine obituary about my mother, written by someone who knew both my parents from their days on the Houston papers. Along with the memorial service, this was one of the things that has comforted me.)


Diane Silver said...

This is a beautiful post. I am so sorry for your loss, Nancy.

I suspect that the work of pioneers like your mother had as much to do with me being able to pursue a career in journalism as anything I did myself.

I was particularly taken with this quote from your father that was printed in the obit: "John Bowman, who was news editor of the Houston Post when Marie was associate news editor, used to tell her: 'Marie, it's not like you really are a woman.' "

I'm sure Bowman meant his comment to be praise and not put down, but it is am amazing statement that sums up everything we have had to fight in our careers. It's the casual certainty that women just can't cut it that kills opportunity.

Thank you, Nancy,for writing this moving post. Most of all, thank you Marie Peterman Moore for all you did for me and for every other woman journalist who came after you.

Cat Rambo said...

Thank you for posting this, Nancy. My mom's a journalist as well, and I wonder if I'd be half as far if it wasn't for her example and encouragement. best,Cat

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Thanks, Diane. Yes, I think the trailblazing of people like my mother gave us all opportunities, and I was so thrilled to find out how many others knew it, too.

And I think you're dead on about the comment Bowman made about my mother not really being a woman. He meant well, but as you say, that's part of the problem. I think we're still struggling with it -- I see echoes of that kind of analysis in critiques of Hillary Clinton's campaign.

But there are more women doing more things these days than there were in my mother's professional years. We've got more support than she ever had.

Cat, thanks for your comments, too. We are both fortunate to have had mothers with careers and ideas -- it helps enormously.

Rebecca said...

What a beautiful piece. I'm so sorry about your mother's passing. Clearly her passion lives on in you, which seems maybe like some sort of justice in the world, and I hope it gives comfort to you and your family.

It is pretty amazing how easy it is to take for granted all the opportunities we have because of the strong, amazing women who have gone before...and still, as you say, so much of the rhetoric surrounding Hilary Clinton's campaign illustrates how far "we" have not come yet...