Passionista Beth Harrington: Lessons I Learned from My Mother About Women
How many people can make the claims about their sister that we can about ours? Our rockin’ sis Beth Harrington recently won an Emmy for a film she made called Fort Vancouver, which aired on Oregon Public Broadcasting. She was nominated for a Grammy for Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly, a film which propelled Wanda Jackson to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She conducted the last in-depth interview with Johnny Cash before his passing for her doc The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music. She sang back-up vocals and toured with seminal proto-punk band Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. She moved to the Pacific Northwest to marry a volcano scientist. Oh… and she was the agent of a miracle when a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary blinked at her. And that just kind of scratches the surface.
To say she was influential in our lives as artists, entrepreneurs and women would be a supreme understatement. She was, by all accounts, our first Passionista. When we were kids, we wanted to grow up to be just like her and we’re still trying!
But, to be fair, there was one other women who could claim the title of our first Passionista, our mom Betty. Mama actually gave up her passions (art, archeology and history) to become the best mother that ever lived. Her family and her children became her passions and we are all the better for it. When we finally sat down with Beth to interview her for the Passionistas Project Podcast, we talked to her about what lessons she learned from our mother about women's roles in society.
Here’s an excerpt from our interview. You can hear the whole episode here. And scroll down to see some family photos you won't want to miss!
Passionistas: What do you think were the lessons that Mama taught us about women's roles in society?
Beth: Mama, like a lot of women of her generation — and I also will include my late mother-in-law, Marie in this — it's the old, “You can't be it if you can't see it.” Right? And those women didn't have any range of opportunities. Mama, to her credit, went to art school and she became an art teacher. And in conversation with her over the years, I realized there were things she probably would have loved to have done, but she was also somebody with a strong sense of duty. And she already had kids and that there was just like off her radar screen at that point. And she couldn't pursue those things to her way of thinking.
I remember many afternoons sitting with mama watching television, watching the talk shows, watching Merv Griffin. And Gloria Steinem would be on, or Betty Friedan would be on, or any number of radicals — Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, all these revolutionary figures — were on TV. And I sensed a tremendous ambivalence from mom. On one hand she was like, “Now, these people are crazy. You shouldn't… don't do what they're doing.” But there was a piece of her that recognized that some things were being dismantled in a good way. And I think she wanted that for all of us. She wanted us to have opportunities that she didn't have.
The fact that she always used to say she wanted to be an archeologist, she would've dug that, no pun intended. She would've loved that. She would've thought that was the greatest. One day we went on a little dig together, that BU had, just so she could do it. And I ended up going on a dig for a while in Spain and she thought that was great because it was something that she was so curious about.
I don't mean to make it sound like I only learned stuff from her by what she didn't get to do because she also very much promoted our sense of possibility. She very much wanted us to pursue our ambitions and dreams, especially the creative ones. Even at the same time saying, “Yeah, but you have to support yourself. You have to figure out a way to support yourself.” And that was really important because some parents just go, “No.” Some parents just say, “You can't do that.” And they mean really, “Okay, if you can support yourself.” But most people just say, “No.”
Mama had the presence of mind to say, “Yeah, go ahead and do that. You're going to be in Jonathan Richmond and the Modern Lovers after you've just finished college? Okay.” She never made it seem like that was a bad idea. As long as I could justify how I was going to take care of myself. And at that point they were paying me enough so I could. And she was like, “Great, then have fun.”
She was so accepting of people, too. She was so incredibly accepting in a society that wasn't that accepting. We had gay friends and friends of color and all these people come into the house over the years that I know other parents would not have been so open. And she was the one that was open. And remarkably so. All of those people still comment on it today. That's an extraordinary thing for someone from her time. And what she couldn't do for herself, in a way.