One reason I am always deeply interested in presidential elections is the crucial appointments presidents get to make to the courts, especially the Supreme Court. Let’s face it, presidents are like boyfriends–they come and they go–but The Supreme Court is like the arranged marriage you have to outlive to escape. Therefore, people like Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, men of such extreme conservative views that I find very little common ground with them on anything, will forever be woven into my life and the world my children inherit. And now they have made it possible for an employer with a religious objection to deny types of contraception medical coverage for females. Naturally, vasectomies and Viagra remain covered items. Because when it comes to women, well, we just don’t have the personhood factor that men or corporations do.
That’s why yesterday was a day of wrath for me, the “sin” of the deadly seven that I too often experience in an anguished, impotent way. As a long-time feminist I am used to the feeling of righteous anger, but when things seem to be slipping so inexorably backward for women, whether it be the stunning rise in rape culture on campuses, legal inequalities for mothers in the workplace, horror stories about the status of women in 3rd world countries, or simple control over our own American bodies here at home, I feel not only angry but discouraged, sad, and hopeless. It’s encouraging to see the outrage online from lofty minds (like the eloquent dissent by Justice Ginsburg, may she live forever) and private citizens, but the dark, angry misery I feel reminds me a bit too much of similar moments from the past. It’s a feeling I never wanted to get used to.
In the late 1970s, I was a hopeful young mother, wife, and feminist who believed with all my heart that we would pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Why on earth wouldn’t we? Twenty-two words would add rights for women to our Constitution. As state leaders of an organization called Homemakers’ Equal Rights Association, my cohort of moms, grannies, and others tried diligently to educate the people around us about the need for an amendment to address thousands of legal inequalities rife in almost every state in the nation. We did our homework and were overwhelmed with the depth and breadth of the problem. As was the case with the Civil Rights Act, sometimes a Federal move is necessary to deal with discrimination so ingrained that would take forever to fix if done piecemeal, state by state, lawsuit by lawsuit.
Florida was a key state in this fight. We had Anita Bryant, with her ludicrous fear campaign that promised such horrors as government-mandated co-ed public restrooms if women were given equal rights with men. We had Phyllis Schlafly, screaming from her national perch that women did not need equality; we were much better off up on a pedestal. We were protected by men, she maintained; therefore, we need never seek equality with them. When Florida fell under spell of Anita Bryant’s now-laughable fear tactics and rescinded their ratification of the ERA, it was a dark and angry day for many of us. After years of hard work, our cause fell to lies, misinformation, and deeply held fear and sexism. Hard to get up after that one. But I tried to stay positive. It wasn’t always possible.
While the ERA was still a hot topic in Florida, I attended a holiday cocktail party in my neighborhood and a friend brought over a man she wanted me to talk to. He was a lawyer who didn’t understand what all these women were squawking about, wanting “equal rights.” Now, I had long ceased being surprised by southern, old-boy-network lawyers with zero interest in women’s rights. I had lobbied the state legislature many times and encountered some amazing ignorance on sex discrimination in the law. He asked me to please “name one state with a law that discriminates against women.” Good grief—where to begin? I decided to start with communal property states.
As he sipped his bourbon and looked me up and down, I told him about states where a wife could own property with her husband, but the husband had 100% control over the property. In other words, he could sell, mortgage, or give away the property without even consulting her. He could do these things even if she had inherited the property herself. If they were married, he had the full control. It was a pretty straightforward example, but if he couldn’t process that, I had a few hundred more. He seemed to listen, smiled, and finally gave a response:
“Yeah, well, you women still have 100% control of all the pussy!”
This was a genteel party with a Christmas tree and dressed up Christmas children running around. But because I was now associated with “women’s lib” as people still said in 1980s, this otherwise gentlemanly, mama-kissing, yes-ma’aming, chivalrous fellow felt perfectly entitled to talk to me that way in polite company. In the last two years of serious work in an education campaign for the ERA, I had endured fools, idiots, blatant sexists, and way too many simpering females who thought the words “equality” and “feminist” were ugly and might make the boys not like them anymore. I always tried to keep my cool, but that day I lost it.
I threw my drink in his face. I did it without thinking, and it was as if a dozen dead kittens just fell into the middle of this beautiful sparkly party. My husband suddenly appeared and we left the party in short order. I was talked about all week as the crazy woman who made a scene.
I was not sorry then and I am not sorry now, although I don’t know what good such statements make in the end. Today, I would probably advise against wasting time talking to idiots like him. But the fear and misunderstanding persist today. Just think of the mind-withering public virtual flogging Sandra Fluke got from conservatives when she stood up as a citizen for contraception coverage. Somehow, the leap from the medical product coverage to Fluke being called a prostitute (getting paid by the government to have sex!) was fast and revealing. Our long-standing Puritanical horror of women in control of anything about their sexuality is particularly unattractive at such times.
Feminists have always had to live with the threat of being silenced. Now it seems to take the form of derision, undercutting, and further marginalization of women’s experience and women’s issues. And furthermore, due to my age, my skin color, and my history as an active supporter of women’s issues, I am surprised to sometimes find myself lumped into a new vilified subgroup called Liberal White Feminists. Younger feminists dismiss “us” as not radical enough, not inclusive enough, not angry enough, and other complaints that don’t seem to apply to me. My earliest bonds in the women’s movement were formed with women of color and LGBTQ activists, for crying out loud.
Still, it’s OK. Because here is what I say to young feminists: Go for it. Please! Get angry and don’t let the world wear you down. But know that it’s going to be hard to keep up the energy. I have collapsed and had to lay low and lick my wounds more times that I can count. But once you actually see that this world is not getting better for so many women, you cannot sit by again. I cannot and I hope you won’t either.
After many decades, I can tell you it’s hard out here for a feminist. Even when we started this blog, The Gloria Sirens, and dared to say that among other things, it’s feminist, a well-meaning male voiced concern that it would come off like “a bunch of women bitching.”
My wrath would love for me to respond to that last bit, but I am afraid it would take all day.