Backwards & Forward in Heels 

Linda Belans 

 

Originally written on International Women's Day:

March 14, 2020. Updated June 15, 2022

At 77, 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 knee-length skirts to campus. If we were caught wearing long pants, even when it was 10 degrees below zero in Ohio, trudging through two feet of snow, we could get shipped back home. 

 

We had to pay as much attention to keeping our legs crossed in class as learning about ecology -- a new field of study. 

It meant that one hyacinth-scented day, I was ejected from the sorority I had 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 rummaged through 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 Kotex or tampons which weren’t yet appropriated by Madison Avenue as money-makers. .

Those were arbitrary inequities and indignities, the ones that had determining 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 during 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 and sometimes, death.

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, had to be in his name. A few years later, about to be divorced again, I presented the card to a salesman to pay for a newfangled microwave oven to help make life easier for my two young 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 shopping mall concourse, waving the useless plastic. 

Repercussions of legally subjugating women echoed throughout office buildings with the click-clack of requisite high-heeled shoes. 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. 

The ceiling may have been glass, but most of us were Windexing, not shattering it. When we did, we got injured by the shards 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. Currently, there are herstoric firsts in the Biden administration including Vice President Kamala Harris, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, a record number of women in his cabinet, and a record number of African American women federal judicial nominations.  

 

And, we spin in place. In the United States, the gender pay gap for women is still shameful.

 

With at least a bachelor's (designation noted) degree, white women make 82 cents on the man's dollar. Black women make 0.79 cents on every dollar, Latinas 0.78, American Indian and Native Alaskan women 0.71. For culturally complex reasons, Asian women are paid slightly more than white men. As women age, our salaries dip. (This site has extensive aggregated data including age, race, location and other eye-opening numbers.)

   

We teeter. As I write this, we are at grave risk of losing dominion over our own bodies. Abortion is so severely restricted in some states that it might as well be illegal.

We advance forward and move dangerously in a new direction. Women are using political voices and power against misogyny, white supremacy, injustice, and inequity. It is no coincidence that at the same time, there over 100 Republican midterm campaign ads – including women –that flaunt assault weapons

I don't know which direction we will move in as we hover on the brink of losing our freedoms. But long ago, I kicked off my high-heels and planted my calloused feet in warrior pose to fight for a future where women don’t have to do that dance anymore.

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Linda Belans is an award-winning journalist, founding host of The State Of Things on North Carolina Public Radio, and author of States of Being: Leadership Coaching For Equitable Schools. She earned her doctorate at age 70, has hired countless numbers of people, and owns her own home.