Backwards & Forward in Heels 

Linda Belans 

 

International Women's Day: March 14, 2020 & March 8, 2021

     At 75, I’m reflecting on the policies, laws, and rules – written and whispered –  that shaped the personal, political and economic power of my generation. 

    At the very least, it meant that my college girlfriends and I were required to wear skirts to campus. If we were caught wearing long pants, even when it was 10 degrees below zero trudging through two feet of snow, we could get shipped back home. In the spring, we had to pay as much attention to keeping our legs crossed as learning about ecology -- the new field of study. 

    It meant that one hyacinth-scented day, I was ejected from the sorority I joined in a moment of first-year loneliness. It seems that an alum spotted me riding on the back of my male cousin's Moped. Off campus. On a Saturday. This behavior was considered "unladylike” by the sisters who tossed me to the curb. My cousin continued to scoot around town, to and from campus, or anywhere he liked, in his seldom-washed blue jeans, while I searched the bottom of my purse for bus fare every day.

    Ladylike also meant using the euphemism “sick” for having our periods, and feeling shame when purchasing tampons which weren’t yet appropriated by Madison Avenue as money-makers. It meant that high-heels at the office were an expectation, not a choice.

    Those were all arbitrary inequities and indignities, the ones that had ripple effects through our daily lives and imagined futures.

     Then, there were the legal discriminations. When I married the first time in 1965, I was the breadwinner and bread-maker for a big chunk of that 13-year marriage, while my husband pursued several advanced degrees. But the law prevented me from having a credit card in my own name. For the next 9 years.  

     In 1966, it meant that at a secretarial job interview at the University of Pittsburgh, the male personnel manager asked me what kind of birth control I used because he didn't want to hire a woman who would get pregnant. It was legal for him to ask that question, legal to fire me if I did get pregnant, and illegal to have an abortion.

     In fact, I was using Enovid, the first birth control pill that came to market five years earlier. It was so overloaded with hormones that we did, indeed, get sick. Initially introduced for menstrual problems, then prescribed as a birth control pill for married women only, Enovid caused dizziness, extreme nausea, and severe headaches for most women. For some of us, it also caused blood clots, for others, heart attacks.

     Shortly after I married for the second time in the early '80s, I made sure my reclaimed birth name was on my own credit card. The house, of course, was in his name. A few years later, about to be divorced again, I presented the card to pay for a newfangled microwave oven to help make life easier for my two adolescent children and me. The card was rejected. It seems that my soon-to-be ex-husband cancelled it because the law, or lack of one, allowed this. My children still talk about the day they witnessed their normally composed mother lose her mind screaming at the cashier, at the bank manager, and anyone else who got caught in the crossfire as I charged my way down the mall concourse, waving the useless plastic. 

     Like most women, I was paid less than the man who sat next to me, even though we did the same job, or I had more experience, or trained him, or in one rare blip, was his boss.

     For most of us, glass was something we rubbed squeaky clean, not shatter. When we did, we got injured from the debris of broken marriages, angry colleagues, bosses who humiliated us for asking for a raise – and the loneliness that comes with that territory.

   I never made it past a couple of episodes of Mad Men. It should have come with trigger warnings.

     Nevertheless, we kept dancing forward. Finally, there are herstoric firsts including Vice President Kamala Harris, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and a record number of women and women of color in prominent government positions. 

    And, we keep standing still – we have a staggeringly stagnant number of white men in Republican leadership. In the United States. white women still make twenty cents or less on the dollar than white men do, Black women make 61 cents on every dollar, and Latinas 54 cents. 45% (74.2 million) of women, & 52.1% (38.5 million) of children under 18, are poor or low-income in America.

    We step backwards – we have lost the Wage Gap Initiative. We teeter – women are at grave risk of losing our right-to-choose. We advance – women are using political voices and power against misogyny, injustice, and inequity.

    Somewhere along the way, I kicked off my heels and planted my calloused feet in warrior pose. Speaking truth to power, I continue to fight for a future where women don’t have to do that dance anymore.