Liza Cowan Remembers Her Mother, Polly Cowan

Polly was always an advocate for social justice. Even when I was I small girl, her rules for fair play were motivated by this passion. “No clubs,” she would warn little Liza, who was endlessly making a dog club, or a drawing club or whatever. “Clubs exclude people, and exclusion is never right, no matter what.”

Another favorite rule: “no playing in threes, because someone is always left out.” This was hard, since I always seemed to have two best friends. But inevitably she was right. No matter which threesome I engaged in, there was always a tendency to pair off and exclude the third chum. How, I wondered, could she have foretold this.

Her training in sociology helped her see things in terms of group dynamics. Her experiences as a Jewish child in a gentile neighborhood had taught her the personal effect of exclusion. She would have none of it. She could easily have been another socialite lady. She chose, instead, a life that combined social activism and socializing. She did the lunches with the other ladies. She accompanied her TV executive husband to the fancy parties with corporate big wigs and New York intellectuals. But her heart was in the fight for justice.

Her brilliance was that she fought in little white gloves and pearls.

While my heart desired clubs, and I even savored my childhood nastiness, I was always amazed at her powers of observation, and ridiculously proud of her rules and her accomplishments. Most of my friends’ mothers had no work. They were rich enough not to need the income, and in the 1950s most ladies of the upper classes just didn’t work jobs to fulfill their own creative or intellectual passions. Some did volunteer work, but to my young and critical mind, they were pretty insipid. My mother was not only beautiful and athletic, but also radical. She inspired my own radicalism (which, ironically, she had a hard time accepting) and she continues to inspire me. The white gloves don’t work anymore, but there’s nothing quite as amusing as expressing outrageous ideas while twiddling ones pearls.

Liza Cowan