This 1930s headline from The Detroit News was part of an exhibition about Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo's time in Detroit. Hosted by The Detroit Institute of Arts, the exhibit ran last year, but the headline has been making it's way around the internet recently. Profiling a young Frida Kahlo, the newspaper refers to her as the "wife" of a master painter who "dabbles" in works of art.
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According to modern standards, the headline is outrageous. If a newspaper did this today, a great many would have sent off strings of angry tweets about it including hashtags like #askhermore or #morethanawife.
This glimpse from the past reveals a bit about the culture in which our grandmothers and great-grandmothers lived. I'm reminded that the notion that women can have their own lives aside from marriage or motherhood is still a relatively new. Then I read the article and was astonished to see women pushing back so long ago.
Take a closer look and you'll read one of Kahlo's answers, "Of course [Diego] does pretty well… but it is I who am the big artist."
Many of us might have encountered situations in which, like Frida, we were known merely as someone's spouse. But more often than not I find myself in situations where I'm known by a different social marker—that of being someone's mom. Motherhood itself is a nuanced identity which gets reduced in the mainstream culture to quips about minivans and suburban tedium. When you dismiss someone as merely a mom, you miss out on all those individual peculiarities.
Artist, professional, mother, wife, daughter, friend, citizen: can we be these all at once or just some of the time? Are they competing or complementary terms? These are the philosophical questions of motherhood.
An older mom friend once gave me advice, or perhaps a warning. "When you're in a job interview," she said, "don't mention the fact that you're a mom." Presumably, disclosing my status as a mom could cause an employer to make assumptions about me or my work. Maybe they'd think I was merely "dabbling" or that I'd never fully commit as long as my allegiances were owed to a few pint-sized bosses. (I personally know better; I'd want my staff full of busy moms because busy moms get stuff done.)
For any of us who've even been known simply as someone's wife or someone's mom, there's hope.
Different facets of my identity shift and come to the forefront of life at different times. Sometimes I travel for work, often my social life is sacrificed on the altar of motherhood, and once in awhile I find the time to do something that's only for myself. But I also feel like the different roles exist simultaneously. I'm not the same person I was before motherhood, but I feel like myself—a new self that still emerging.
For any of us who've even been known simply as someone's wife or someone's mom, there's hope. Frida defied the cultural norms of her time becoming a master artist in her own right, despite the doubters and naysayers.
We too can dare to know who we truly are.
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