A while ago, Gloira Steinem, a near-contemporary of mine, the well-known, famous feminist ,"the pretty one" as she humorously calls herself, the one with the signature hair and big glasses, came to town to give a talk and autograph her latest book advising change from within. You know, don't try to change Him into a better person; instead change yourself into a better person. As she hastened to tell us, she would have thought of change from within as a cop-out only a few years ago, but that we needed to learn or find peace and self-esteem within ourselves. She hasn't changed a bit, on the outside. I'll bet she hasn't changed as much as I have over the years; her unchanging appearance would suggest as much (I know, she's kind, so kind, how can I criticize).
I wouldn't have come but Gayle called me up and asked me along to this reading. We took the bus to avoid the parking hassle. In Portland the busses are lit with red lights at night, which makes for a raffishly romantic atmosphere, totally spurious of course. It's just a smelly old bus full of tired people, after all. We got there very early, but we found the book store already packed. Women never get anywhere on time for these evening things if they have kids in their life, so I was not surprised to see so few children there. There's supper to cook, the dishes to clean up, and the baby-sitter may be late, too. So the audience consisted mostly of childless workers or students, who must have grabbed a bite and stayed in town. Or they were older, like us. As Gayle and I positioned ourselves in a nook where, if we peered around the corner we could just glimpse the podium, a youngish woman tried to order us away, saying that her friend had reserved that place a while ago. I said I didn't realize you could reserve standing room. She got angry and said, "Well, he really wants to see her." I divined her motive immediately. She had the hots for him. She favored me with a pop-eyed glare, that generic yuppie femme look. I guess they diet and exercise themselves into hyperthyroidism. When her young, slim, eager, cheekily bearded gentleman came back, I did not refrain from saying, "I always defer to those whose needs are greater than mine." The courage, audacity, or madness to say things like that is my newest attribute. It works, because he actually moved back and let us alone. Maybe he thought I'd bite him. I guess I spoiled a potential romance, but that's how it goes. Or maybe they could unite around their contempt for me, bitch that I am.
As I say, the place was packed. Mostly women, a few men. A lot of them middle-aged , just like me, tired, pale, unrested and baggy-eyed, young ones like the enamored Miss, a darker face or two. I saw an old acquaintance (she didn't see me) that I remember from only a few years ago as a proud, vital and very active feminist. She had aged quite a bit since I last saw her, her once jet-black hair full of untouched-up gray, her back bent. She stood there, quietly crying, to my astonishment. What had brought her to this misery? Not hard to imagine, really. A cruel lover, a failed child, poverty, cancer-- the usual stuff.
In front of me sat two women with a boy between him, around eight years old or so. Practically the only kid in the audience. Baby-sitter default? This couple did not get much out of the talk, because they had to spend all their time entertaining the boy to keep him quiet, reading to him in whispers, feeding him and giving him drinks. Naturally, they would not have thought of offering "his" seat to anyone. First come, first serve, they would have said. These two women looked like servants in attendance on a princeling. That was the price they had to pay for being there at all. And the famous feminist went on for two hours. It was jammed. It was hot. I sure could have used a seat. My feet were killing me, even in flats.
The talk itself wasn't bad, but it seemed pitched to a very general audience, so I didn't know what her advice could mean to any particular individual. Are we really all the same? She said she wanted to empower us, or rather, that she wanted to empower us to empower ourselves, or something like that. The microphone gave her a bully pulpit, she felt. Such nicety of feeling. I was sure she would get a laudatory review in the papers for being such a nice person (and she did) and so accessible to everyone, not like that Susan Sontag, who came here a few weeks ago, her with all those complicated intellectual ideas and the funny white streak in her hair. Not at all an ingratiating character, that one. A few women stood up and mentioned meetings and rallies for this and that, and she encouraged them with smiles and so on. How incredibly patronizing she was. (Don't applaud me, she said, applaud yourselves. Clap, clap, goes Vanna.)
During the question and answer period after her talk, she called on a Middle Eastern woman who recommended a book that helped her understand why her brothers were such chauvinists. Now she could learn to live with them. To understand is to forgive. Another woman (I could barely hear her; she was tucked away, mikeless, in a corner) said, " I believe we ought to have a moment of silence to commemorate our sisters who have brought up their families and are now dying alone." The Lovely One scowled and said" We must have a more positive attitude! Women these days are full of zest and doing wonderful things in middle age and old age" Well some are and some aren't. But what about the sadness and isolation which are the lot of too many women in their later years, zest or no zest, someone managed to inquire? She had a perky idea. She recommended that we form support groups to keep from finding ourselves alone in crisis situations, to help us and nurture us. How I wished this could work for me. I thought with regret of the meager handful of real friends I had left behind me the many times I had moved. I don't like everyone. And anyway I think most women are just suckers for men and will always defer to them, make them the center of their thought, will fight each other for their all-important approval. (Except for lesbians, I guess. But I don't want to sleep with other women.) Of such women I could make a support group? The famous feminist had her choice among hundreds of people to support her emotionally. Most of us had our families. We had made and lost friends, had spent isolated years with small children. We did not have infinite financial resources. Why couldn't she understand how limited our options were? The general talking to the troops, as usual, the buyers of her magazines and her books. Just another bunch of consumers to be gulled out of their money, like the followers of Jung, the Goddesses who go to all those lectures and buy those expensive books, in quest of inner wisdom and beauty ( nice women, most of them, and often very artistic with surprising competencies, but my interests go in a different direction. )
Gayle looked tired and put out, too. Gayle is a writer. She writes what she calls "problem fiction" for women's magazines and makes a modest amount of money with it, enough to rent an office downtown, her precious solitude, and to buy a second-hand computer. Gayle goes about her business, almost unnoticed, a women in her 60's. Who cares about the brains and courage of women like her? She brought her daughter up alone and remarried in later life. She does not drive and does all her shopping on foot. She lives with her husband in a tiny house near the freeway and comes home punctually at five to cook his meals. Outwardly, her life means little or nothing, just like mine. But she's tremendously proud. She's always been a loner. She has no extra money. No trips to New York City to do the galleries and take in a few off-Broadway shows and maybe drop in on her publisher . No agent, even. No big themes for her; her life cannot provide her with great visions and striking stories. But her "little" stories obviously move her female audiences, showing ways to solve problems with no help or encouragement from anyone, the hardest thing to do. And, it's not so bad to be able to say, "A poor thing but my own." And not really poor either, just small and private.
I’m a teacher. I teach English to Russian and Vietnamese immigrants. I work for the same college that first woman to use Kevorkian's suicide machine did, and I do the same kind of work. I hope that isn't a bad sign. I put my heart into my job, but I keep getting laid off. I'm punch-drunk from getting fired and re-hired every year or so. No one thinks I ought to care, since I have no financial problems. Even some of my so-called friends say to me, "You don't have to worry, you've got plenty of money." My mother says there's too much competition in low-status teaching jobs and I need to set my sights higher, but she's my mother and she would say things like that. I exist on the fringes of the academic world. I take graduate courses and attend the occasional conference. So far I see people clawing at each other for attention and jobs. And hardly an original idea in sight. Not very inspiring.
I'm slogging through graduate school as slowly as I can, because I can't get any useful comments on my writing unless I take courses. But it isn’t as much help as I need, since most of the professors are desperately trying to hold on to their jobs or find better ones and have no time to think or worry about anyone else's ambitions, especially not those of an unyoung suburban housewife.
Wait for better times. That's what the slaves always hear. This is only temporary, there will be pie in the sky. Well, pardon me if I don't see it. Maybe it's better than it used to be. Not so long ago, I might have been put in an institution or tranked out of my skull. Why don't I just back off? Stop being angry and bitter? Count my blessings? Take anti-depressants? Halcyon? Estrogen? Go away gracefully? No way.