The Face of Heroism
I met my neighbor on the bus the other day. We began our conversation, as we are wont to do, by exchanging details about our various children and grandchildren before falling into the usual lamentations.
“Can you believe what. . . “
“No, I feel like I’m living in a cave reeking of batshit.”
“Right? Nothing makes any sense anymore. . . How can so much doubt remain when three women. . . .“
We nodded, shook our heads, tzikached profusely. Kavanaugh, his accusers, the tradition of blaming women. We shared mutual condolences.
Then I made the mistake of saying, “All this, and Bill Cosby gets only THREE years for drugging and raping –“
She jumped in.
“Well, it was only one woman. Three years seems reasonably punitive for an old man. Especially because we can only prove it happened once.”
“Further,” she went on. “A young woman has the right to say no. You accept a dinner invitation from a Bill Cosby, you know what he wants. What are you doing going out with him at all?”
I realized talking to this woman, whose intelligence and empathy I generally trust, why we older women continue to be part of the disconnect in America. The rules have changed, and instead of embracing the new world order, our judgment remains crippled by old standards.
When my neighbor and I were young, the so-called Sexual Revolution was just getting underway. We got caught up in it, and as we did, we endured the disapproval and shame of the society that had not yet embraced its precepts. We were called sluts, easy women, weaklings without morals. Women were not supposed to explore options, to experiment with sex, to enjoy it. Their imperative was to comply with the wishes of the patriarchy.
We knew that if we spoke out about our experiences with assault, molestation, denigration – and believe me, I know NO one who has had those experiences – we would only besmirch our own good names. I was keenly aware that when I turned down s casting director’s demand for a blowjob, when I eschewed the opportunity to gratify an employer, I was ruining my chances to move forward professionally or personally. I would become the subject of gossip. I would be ostracized not only by the would-be usurper himself but by everyone he either supervised or collaborated with.
I was lucky in that way. I never felt like I had nowhere to go when things didn’t work out for me where I was. There was no driving compunction to give in to male impulses. There was always a refuge. My mother joked about the swinging door on the family home, and my grandmother kept the apartment in her basement stocked, furnished and ready for any time I might opt to leave where I was in order return and begin yet again.
I began many times. We did in those days. Marriage removed us from the fray. It gave us a comfortable hiding place, an awning to protect us from the inevitable detritus that would drop out of that man’s world. Marriage was admirable. No more shame. No more idiotic comments about single women from other women.
In my single days, a self-righteous matriarch told me my hips looked like they were spreading. That, she said, was a true sign I was sleeping around. “Easy virtue, spreading hips,” she sneered. In marriage, we could watch our hips spread with childbearing and be proud of our sexual activity.
We took it all in. In our hearts, however, we rejected the notion that the traditions must continue. We raised our daughters to push back, to stand up to the men who were holding them down. In the process, we taught our daughters to hate that we were not able to do that for ourselves. We forgot to teach our daughters what it was like to be entirely ruled by the parameters of the ruling penises, what it felt like to be unable to open a bank account, have a credit card, rent a car, buy a house without a man’s name attached to ours.
No matter how they judged us. We taught them to refuse to comply.
Now many of us look at them and feel a pang of regret. Maybe they are right about us. If they are successful in fighting back, why were we paralyzed? If they can achieve some kind of retribution, why did we succumb? What is wrong with us?
Nothing. We got our restraint from our own mothers, women who had survived the Great Depression, escaped the horrors of two world wars, fought for the right to work outside the home. Many of them were born before or shortly after the 19th Amendment allowed them to vote. We honored their achievement and initiated the Women’s Movement. We applauded our more brazen sisters who publically burned their bras. We hitchhiked through Europe singing protest songs and making the case for an ERA. And then we raised our daughters to say, “NO.”
But our self-doubt, our self-chastisement can lead to a lapse in judgment so that we say stupid things like, “There was only one. . . .”
Too many of my peers are willing to look the other way as Kavanaugh steamrolls toward confirmation. More shockingly, I learned this week that my 27 Freshman Comp students at a city university, 25 of whom are female, do not know who Anita Hill is. They are nearly as complacent as my cohorts in age about the fact that Rachel Mitchell, a hardline Republican, a friend of criminal Sherrif Arpaio, is conducting Dr. Ford’s hearings. Have our misgivings encouraged our daughters to teach our granddaughters to remain silent? I hope not.
We live in dangerous times. The patriarchy recognizes that women must be silenced. Again. That they are in danger of coming unhinged if we are not checked. It’s dangerous to defend Bill Cosby or to question Dr. Christine Ford Blasey’s veracity. Every time one of us does that, they are victorious.
We don’t have to let them win.
There are plenty of liberated women and men to take the legislature from the ruling, oligarchic party. There are enough enlightened women and their male allies to upend the system. Women need not be dismissed, abused, assaulted, denigrated. We have sat by and allowed the maltreatment to go on long enough. Women in my generation owe it to our country to take a firm stand against the fetid tide.
It’s time for us to remind our daughters what we are made of.