Today, March 8–International Women’s Day, True Stories Well Told concludes our special focus on the problem of violence against women. The following essay was written by Leigh O’Leary Hyde. I suggest listening to Peter Gabriel’s “Shakin’ the Tree” as you read. -Sarah White
Who Do I Kill?
Coming of Age — at Last — in the Women’s Movement
In the summer of 1973 my husband Jerry, our two kids and I arrived tired, dusty and hungry at his mother’s house in Cut Bank, Montana after a three-day drive across the country. I woke the next morning with plenty of time but nothing to read, like an alcoholic who has drained the last drop. This was not an easy problem to remedy since the nearest bookstore was in Great Falls, about 120 miles away; but Jerry –- ever resourceful — drove me over to the tobacco store, which had one rack of paperback books, mostly westerns and bodice rippers.
Idly I picked up The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer. No doubt whoever had ordered it had thought the book was really racy and would jump off the rack into some cowboy’s back pocket in no time. Instead the pages crackled with invective against the historical and current treatment of women. A few years before, I’d read Betty Friedan, whose book, The Feminine Mystique, first defined “the problem that had no name” and encouraged women to complete their educations and get professional jobs. It would not, she warned, be easy. I’d agreed but the book, with its upper middle class tone, had failed to galvanize me. Greer was no-holds-barred furious!
Greer focused on the mistreatment of women and their mistreatment of themselves. To her it seemed close to a conspiracy carried out by all segments of society, a conditioning that began in the cradle and accelerated in girlhood, when even “tomboys” grew increasingly aware of the stereotypes of appearance and behavior demanded and enforced by patriarchal laws, customs and propaganda. She described “the crush of puberty,” in which the body of the girl who may well have gloried in active play and sport suddenly betrays her in “a hideous violation of her physical integrity.” YES! That’s what I had felt.
The book sucked me in like a black hole. Skirting the edge of bad manners I read and read, fending off Jerry and the kids. When the other adults urged me to come out for the evening, I volunteered to babysit the kids and cousins. Lying on our basement bed I whipped through the pages. “O my God,” I kept saying, “Oh my God.” Well before the end she had worked me into a fury and it was all I could do to keep from roaring (however melodramatic or even ridiculous it may sound to most women now) “WHO DO I KILL?”
She savaged the idea of romantic love not because she rejected the reality of love but rather because it distorts that reality and leads so many women to behaviors and expectations that are not only just plain silly but that plant the seeds of disillusionment and misunderstanding into countless marriages. In the workplace a woman faced low wages (even in professional positions), being passed up for promotion and sexual harassment, and at that time, there was no redress. To whom could a poor woman turn? Greer had the answer: to her sisters and to revolution. She proposed that women meet regularly in small, leaderless groups to share their experiences of the patriarchal system. The experience of being sisters in common would conquer “the fear of freedom [that is] strong in us.”
She saw revolution as women’s spreading the truth about oppression and reducing their role as “chief spender.” Stop spending, she urged, on expensive clothing, cosmetics and children’s toys. Discover the thrift shop. Share washers and dryers with a couple of friends. Cheat the middlemen and buy groceries at warehouses and food coops. Don’t buy into the myths of romance and security. And speak up to power because “women who fancy they can manipulate the world by pussy power and gentle cajolery are fools. It is slavery to adopt such tactics.” She ended with a challenge to each of us: “What will you do?”
Shortly after I returned home I had the opportunity to join a leaderless “consciousness-raising” group. I leapt at it. We started with 12 women and went at it – laughing, crying, cursing, pounding the floor. We ranged in age from 20 to early 40s, in education from high school graduates to graduate students. A few of us were middle class; three were on welfare; some were married, some were single and some were divorced. Some were mothers.
Sitting on the floors of one another’s homes and drinking gallons of coffee, we went at it as though our lives depended on what we said there. And in a very real way, they did. For most of us, being able to say just what we thought or felt or had experienced was new and exhilarating. Parents (especially our poor mothers, who had taught us subservience), teachers, callous doctors, sexist clergy, relationships with men, sex and the big O, the media and that huge source of male power: Money — All stood before our disdainful eyes like prisoners before the bench. Few were spared because this was a time of purging, of leveling the ground for a new beginning. We also felt free to challenge one another but almost always in a spirit of caring, most of us feeling we were in a safe and nourishing place. We all pledged to hold in confidence all that was said there.
Yet anger sometimes flared and some of us were scorched more than others. One woman felt undervalued because she had no traumatic incidents to relate. Another objected to the more educated language we sometimes used. “What does that word mean?” she would ask, annoyed. Our big blow up came over the question of whether a woman who had left the group hoping to come back later could rejoin. At the time she left she had told us it was taking all her energy to cope with a divorce (her husband had found his secretary more attractive), four kids and no money. A few made a weak case for broken confidentiality and the difficulty of re-establishing trust. We had established at our first meeting that any re-admissions would require a unanimous vote. It didn’t happen. Deep scars followed and then a chasm. We limped along for a while, no one feeling very good.
By the end of the first year we were down to six: Shelley, Alice, Mira, Abby, Sheryl and I. The bonds among us had deepened in and outside of our group meetings. For us the movement wasn’t so much about ideology; it was intensely personal. All of us were dead serious about crawling out of the pit that sexism and our own ignorant decisions had dug for us. After two years of meetings and priceless intimacy we disbanded in 1976; our work together was done and we were moving on. Those years and the time before those dear friends moved away were the best years of my life.
We had changed. We were smarter, tougher, more focused on what we wanted to do in the world Sheryl and I divorced and she made a much better choice the next time around. Alice got her technical degree in drafting and went to work supervising linemen at a power and light company. She went on to an executive corner office thanks to hard work, assertiveness and a degree in business administration. We were all so proud of her, with her hard hat thrown casually into her car’s back seat. When she found out that the other executives made many of their business decisions on the golf course, she bought some clubs, learned the game and joined them.
Mira and Abby got their Ph. Ds. Mira found a college teaching job in Connecticut and continued to follow her passion as an award-winning filmmaker. Our brilliant, gentle but hardheaded Abby lived for a while in India, translated folk tales of the South Indian Tamil people for her dissertation, then taught in Washington DC until her death in 1997. Shelley finished her BA, moved to New York State and moved up from running her own day care center to a career in day care administration, picking up a Masters degree in education along the way. She is the gentlest person I’ve ever known yet fierce in her refusal to compromise her principles. I cannot imagine how many children have benefited.
Sheryl, our politico (or should that be politica?) joined the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development and worked for improvements in employment practices, continuing this work after her move to Washington DC. She was an active campaigner for President Obama and former US Senator Russ Feingold, whose visions she shares.
I worked for the state Division of Economic Support in several jobs, most notably as a planner for the new Energy Assistance Program. I remarried and had two more beautiful daughters, Fritha (1981) and Autumn (1982), whom I raised at home in rural Lodi until Autumn started school. I’d made that commitment to them and I’m proud to have stuck with it. A part time job, though, would have provided the balance I sorely needed.
Jumping back into the fray, I completed an MS at the University of Wisconsin in 1990 and fulfilled my dream of becoming a vocational counselor. Soon after, I began working at Employment Options, an agency that prepared women on public assistance for employment. The stories, the stories …the stories …and the wonderful feeling of usefulness!
We keep in touch and have occasional reunions, coming together from the Midwest and the east coast. We fall upon one another noisily. Though we don’t always agree on everything (when did we?) we enjoy a grand weekend of talk, laughter, food and a sense of community so hard to come by in today’s society.
In 2010 Alice sent me a copy of an Internet correspondence among our remnant with the beginnings of arrangements to meet in Connecticut that summer. In response to Shelley she had written:
I think of those days often also — and how we got through them — no money — no support — no men to help with parenting — and then I realize we all had each other to make it through — and that saved me — I don’t know what I would have done without the support group and being in Madison at that time in my life.
The Women’s Movement was never a panacea. The legislation that Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, US Representatives Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm and tens of thousands of women worked for did a lot to even the playing field. Millions of women profited, including the many who now enjoy the benefits but think the whole movement was rather silly. Girls grow up with a sense of possibility now, even many living in poverty. Many men would agree it has benefited them too. It’s hard to bear the whole financial burden for a family by yourself. It’s hard to come home and feel alienated from your partner and kids, as I think it was for my father with his need to rule the roost. Still, discrimination (usually subtler now) against women, as against minorities, those with disabilities, gays, lesbians and older workers still exists today. The fight goes on.
Mistakes, yes. Shrill, sometimes. What freedom movement hasn’t had these? So it is that I still believe with all my heart and certainly with less fury: Sisterhood is powerful.
– Leigh O’Leary Hyde (c) 2013 all rights reserved.
– — –
If you’d like to see the women’s movement thrive, please consider making a contribution to One Billion Rising or Half the Sky, organizations that use the power of media to ignite the change needed to improve the lives of women and girls worldwide.
It’s International Women’s Day. Let’s take on the world.