Backwards & Forward in Heels
Here, on the heels of International Women’s Day, I’m feeling reflective as I anticipate beginning my 74th revolution around the sun in May.
I’m thinking about the policies, laws, and rules – spoken and whispered – that defined and 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 in 2 feet of snow, we could get shipped back home. In class, we had to pay as much attention to keeping our bare legs crossed as learning about the new field of study – Ecology.
It meant that one hyacinth-scented day, I got 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 that threw me out. After that, while I searched the bottom of my purse every day for bus fare, my cousin continued to scoot around town, to and from campus, or anywhere he liked. In his seldom-washed blue jeans.
Ladylike also meant using the euphemism “sick” for having our period, and feeling shame when purchasing tampons which weren’t yet appropriated by Madison Avenue as money-makers.
Those were all arbitrary inequities and indignities, the ones that had ripple effects through our daily lives and imagined futures.
Then came 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, 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 newly 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 my life easier for my two adolescent children and me. The card was rejected. It seems that my soon-to-be ex-husband cancelled it, and the law, or lack of one, allowed this. My children still talk about that day, the day their mother lost 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.
And, 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. I never made it past a couple of episodes of Mad Men. It should have come with trigger warnings.
For most of us, glass was something we rubbed squeaky clean, not tried to 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.
Nevertheless, we persisted. And we keep on persisting and moving forward – we have a record number of women in the Democratic congress. And, standing still – we have a staggeringly stagnant number of white men in the Republican senate. In the United States, white women still make twenty cents or less on the dollar than white men do, Black women 61 cents less, and Latinas 54 cents. And stepping back – we have lost the Wage Gap Initiative. And teetering – women are at risk of losing our right-to-choose. Pushing back – women are using political voices and power against misogyny, injustice, and inequity.
So, on the day after we call attention to women internationally, we can never afford to forget that women around the world are still far from equal – even with each other. And I’m imagining a future where we don’t have to imagine this anymore.