Saturday, November 17, 2012

Past Lives, Or Are They?

I remember feeling resentful and disoriented when I took a class in U.S. History that taught the events of my childhood and adulthood out of a textbook.   It is strange to read a history book about events that I remember clearly.  Although I've been too busy working and raising children to pay attention to every little world event -- when, in 2002, my history teacher at Portland Community College introduced a discussion about the ending of the Cold War, I said, startled, "The Cold War's OVER?"

Now I'm re-reading "The Year Everything Changed," the brilliant history of the women's movement by Gail Collins.  Again, it feels strange to read about my life's events as "history."    Because the women's movement doesn't feel like history.  It's pretty recent.  My grandmother was 19 years old when women finally got the right to vote, and had to have written permission from her husband to teach school in the 1930s and '40s.  My mother was one of the first women in Portland to go "back to school" for a degree, while her own children were still in junior high.  That was a pretty radical thing to do in 1970.

And I seem to have missed the recent swing to the right among young women who feel that the women's movement was something disreputable and tiresome.  Many young women, it seems, are so far removed from what it was like before the women's movement that they can afford to dismiss it.

When someone like Hillary Rodham Clinton can go from being the wronged First Lady who has to make cookies and get the right haircut to be accepted as a worthy First Wife, even though she's uncomfortably smart and capable, to becoming a celebrated member of the U.S. Senate, to candidate for President once (and maybe twice!) and then Secretary of State, you know we've come a long way, baby. 

How far have we come, how fast?  Here are just a few examples of common occurrences among girls and women in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, drawn from my personal experience.  These were so commonplace that they weren't worth talking about at the time.   As a matter of fact, you would be thought to be unreasonable, or whiny, or irrational, or a bad sport for bringing them up, at the very least.  Or you could lose your job or your boyfriend or husband for bringing them up.  If you're under 30, you might think I'm making this stuff up.  I'm not.  Ask anybody over 50.

In 1968, my 8th grade science teacher told me that girls couldn't do well in science and math.  They didn't have the brains for it.  (My grade in science promptly fell from an A to a C, and I gave up on my dream of being a neurosurgeon.)

Also in 1968, I was sent home from a school dance because I was wearing a pantsuit with a tunic.  I could stay if I took the pants off and just wore the thigh-high tunic.  No thanks.  (I should have known better.  If a girl wore pants to school, she could get sent to the vice-principal's office to be paddled.  Bend over!)

During high school, it was understood that the girls who got leads in the school musicals got them because they spent long periods of time with the drama teacher in his windowless office.  I didn't.  I was never cast in anything but the chorus.  (I did get to stand in for the lead one year when she suddenly lost her voice halfway through the first scene of "My Fair Lady," but just for opening night.)

In 1975, my college advisor told me that "they" discouraged women from getting a secondary certificate in music (choral directing, that is) -- because "we don't believe women can handle the large classes." 

As a secretary at a major real estate management firm in 1980, I saved all my copying chores to do once a day, because going down the hall to the copy machine meant running the gauntlet of men standing in the narrow hallway who would grope me as I shouldered past them.

As a secretary in the placement office for the largest employer in Oregon, my manager patted me on the fanny, as he did every woman in his office.  I wheeled around, pointed my finger at him and said, "Never do that again."  When I asked later that year about opportunities to move up, I was told, "You'll never get out of the secretarial pool."  I noticed that two women in the office who didn't object to the fanny-patting had been promoted to interviewer.  My father was the head of Human Resources at the time, and my manager knew that.  I didn't tell my father about the incident.  The Common Wisdom was that it wouldn't do any good to complain, anyway.  This was in 1981.

In 1985, I divorced a man who was an alcoholic and wife abuser.  I was supporting a small child as a researcher in a small private college.  Because my ex-husband wouldn't leave our house and wouldn't pay the mortgage, I had to make the payments by myself, without being able to live there, essentially becoming  homeless (or at least dependent upon the kindness of family until I could sell the house).  My credit union responded by requesting the return of my credit card and immediate payment of the balance, because I was no longer a married woman.

(That was the same year that I was asked to leave the chamber choir in my church, because I was single now and that made the wives of the men in the choir uncomfortable.)

In 1988, as the development officer of a nationally renowned private school, I raised more than one million dollars in one year -- a record.  On the way to a City Club speech by the president of NOW, my boss, the headmaster, announced that he was going to fire me after the fall fundraising campaign because "a man could be more successful because the school's culture was patriarchal."  I asked for a  copy of my latest (glowing) performance review so that I could use it in my job hunt and he refused, because it proved that I had done a good job and shouldn't have been fired and he was concerned about liability issues.

Now I hear that there are worries about the imbalance in the numbers of men going to college.  The majority of people on college campuses, in law programs, medical programs, divinity schools, are women.   This is a grave concern.

Really?  A gender imbalance surely wasn't a concern when most of the people in professional college programs were men.

We have just endured an election season where the right to contraception -- not abortion, contraception -- was back on the table, where the Republican candidate for President seemed to believe that professional women couldn't work the hours necessary to be successful in a cabinet post because they needed to get home to cook dinner for their family -- I'm not even going to comment on the "binders full of women" statement -- and where a U.S. Senator was quoted as saying that pregnancy as a result of a rape was God's Will. 

And last week, a news item popped up on a local TV station.  Seems that a treatment clinic for sex offenders has been operating in an unmarked building five blocks from my house, for the past year.  This came out because of "incidents" involving men from the clinic and women and children in the neighborhood.  I was advised not to walk alone after dark  -- this would mean anytime after 5:00 p.m., in November in my city -- because, being a woman, I wouldn't be safe.

It's 2012.  I'm fifty-six -- fifty-six years old -- and I'm tired of this nonsense now.  I'm tired of it, but I still don't understand it.  Why this unremitting hostility against 51% of the population? 

I'm still taking my walks.  I'm a trained opera singer with an excellent pair of lungs, and besides, I've got my umbrella and I'm not afraid to use it.

I once read that Women's Liberation was defined as the radical notion that "women are people, too."  Yes.  We are. 

And maybe this is an artifact of my age, and maybe not, but there is part of me that is uncomfortable with posting this essay, because I am afraid of provoking comments that I'm whining or being unreasonable.  Don't be a bad sport.  Get over it.

I'm posting it.  There.  Get over it.