The Way We Were & the Way We Should Be

There are many reasons to love The Way We Were. Number one: Robert Redford’s 1970s-era face. Number two: Barbra Streisand’s 1940s-era wardrobe (and in the name of equal opportunity, also her 1970s-era face). The 1973 film is a favorite of romantics and, among many women, is considered a must see (for reference, see, Sex & the City, season 2, episode 18, “Ex and the City”). For me, with my interest in romance and relationships and the 1960s and 1970s, the movie is a perfect representation of the shift from a happy ending-driven cultural world to a universe in which there is recognition that we may love and we may lose and the reasons for loving and losing are complicated.

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But the film is more than a tear-jerker and more than a representation of changed relationship norms, and I have been thinking of the movie non-stop in recent weeks (and months) because of the central tension of the film: Streisand’s K-K-K-Katie’s inability to be light, and Redford’s Hubbell’s ongoing reluctance to go heavy. Such is Katie’s desire to be with Hubbell, she joins him in leaving dark and serious New York City and embarks upon a new life on the ever-sunny and boundlessly optimistic West Coast. Integrating into the inner Hollywood circle, the pair inevitably find themselves amongst the lefties and intellectuals who’d long populated that biz. Katie, in particular, with her 1930s Popular Front background and fervent sense of social justice and the importance of free speech, becomes embroiled in this world. When she travels to Washington, DC to take part in the famed House Un-American Activities Committee interrogations of politically-minded Hollywood writers and producers and actors, she pushes Hubbell to his breaking point. He is exhausted by her talk of principles and encourages her to remember: there are principles and there are people. Katie is shocked. In a withering and syllabically-accentuated rebuttal, she responds: “People *are* their principles.”

If the world is divided into Katie’s and Hubbell’s, I am emphatically and without hesitation a Katie. True story: I was in a bar with one of my best friends; she left to go the bathroom; when she returned, I was finger wagging at the person we’d *just* met after he told me he neither paid attention to politics nor did he vote. Why had the conversation even gone there? Because I can’t not. And when I was a young Karen Dunak, I wished – man, I WISHED – I were not like this. But, baby, I was born this way. When I learn that people don’t talk about politics, I am aghast. What do they talk about? And I love books and movies and sports and other things that are not politics. But I am enmeshed in the world around us, fully conscious of its opportunities and inequalities and unable to ignore the ways in which American democracy and those we’ve elected to enact it live up to the nation’s values or fall short. Also: I am a historian; argument is my business.

And so I, like Katie Morosky, firmly believe people are their principles. And right now, and in the days and months leading up to right now, the seemingly endless time of and after the 2016 election cycle, people have revealed themselves fully. The political posturing of the Republican Party and its members, affected in an effort to shore up the President-elect, who ostensibly represents their Grand Old Party, has revealed the ideological fragility of that side of the aisle. In their willingness to wage and their determination to win a culture war, Republicans have stood by a bumbling but aggressive bully who is an affront to free speech and American democracy (and some might suggest, human decency). What’s more, the party of patriotism, as Republicans have claimed themselves for a generation at least, have shown an absolutely absence of concern for national security and, relatedly, for a clear division between public service and private gain. When I write to my representatives, I implore them to be people of principle rather than party operatives. But it seems my (and more than half the population’s) plaintive cries are falling on deaf ears. Now, more than ever, people are their principles.

I know there are those who look on, amused, to some degree, by the spectacle of American politics in 2017. There are also those who think four years isn’t so long. We’ll have the chance to get it right next time, they suggest. And four years isn’t really that long for the native born, the financially secure, the insured, the employed, the half of the population who don’t have to fear unwanted pregnancy, and all those who enjoy the various privileges a certain combination of identity markers can convey. The Hubbell’s would rather turn inward, to family and work, maybe even their local community, and allow the broader world to play out, avoiding difficult discussions or the cultivation of hard views. But this is the time and the place for hard views and the difficult discussions of those hard views. When Katie traveled to DC to support her friends at the HUAC hearings, she was in the advanced stages of pregnancy, clearly and visibly with child. Hubbell berated her for the private risks she took in being so vocal in her public support of those whose rights were being violated. Katie’s views for her time and place hold strong for ours: There are risks to speaking out, but the risks of remaining silent are far greater.

 

A Severe Impact

It’s summer. I’m supposed to be immersed in the past. I’m meant to be writing about Jackie Kennedy and the 1960 campaign, about women at mid-century looking to the future and wondering what it will hold, about mass media’s ability to craft narratives about and for women and about women’s agency in shaping those narratives. And I am. But I keep getting dragged back to the present, right now, thanks to the ongoing barrage of truly heartbreaking information related to the violent rape committed by and the infuriatingly lenient punishment given to Brock Turner.

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In the ways that my worlds of work and the world are colliding, today I read this, from an essay in a 1978 collection about the portrayal of women in mass media: While alleged bra-burning and women’s rejection of the accoutrements of femininity regularly appeared in journalistic reporting of the women’s movement, “the other issues of women’s liberation were less prominent: the extent and implications of women’s lower pay scales; the chronic and clear-cut (to women) discrimination in education, job, and credit access; the stereotyping by the media of women as trivial-minded, unreliable, and mercurial; and the invidious administration (or non administration) of rape laws.

Well. Some issues, it seems, just won’t go out of style. Except that here, in 2016, it seems the law had worked. Turner was found guilty on three counts: assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated or unconscious person; sexual penetration of an intoxicated person; and sexual penetration of an unconscious person. But the sentencing. Oh, the sentencing: six months in county jail, of which Turner is likely to serve three. Everything old is new again.

I have felt vague-to-full-blow nausea with each new revelation from the Brock Turner case. Beyond my horror at Turner’s own abhorrent actions (and having just realized he’s APPEALING THE CONVICTION), like so many others, I am disgusted by the apologist language being used to refer to the violent, violating rape he committed and the attempts to shield him from the consequences of his brutal, brutal attack on another human being. In requesting parole for his son, Turner’s father wrote, “His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve….That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” His words clearly resonated with Judge Aaron Perskey who delivered the sentence and declared, “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.”

Beyond the very conscious word choice – “action” rather than “violent rape” – both parties underplay the severity of the crimes committed by Turner and instead pine for what might have been. First of all: that ship has sailed. This is a topic for another time, but these claims about the rape as a “first offense” and being so out of character for Turner…I have my doubts. If you have this in you to do when drunk and prone to “foolish”actions aka INTENSE PHYSICAL VIOLENCE, you have this in you. And you’ve long *had* it in you. But more importantly, this didn’t happen to him. HE DID THIS. HE COMMITTED THIS CRIME. AGAINST ANOTHER PERSON. And that other person? She will live with this terrible, terrible attack for well beyond the next “20 plus years” of her life. As for “severe impact”? Yes, this “action” will have a severe and lasting impact on her. As she noted in her beautiful and terrible and brave letter to her attacker (https://www.buzzfeed.com/katiejmbaker/heres-the-powerful-letter-the-stanford-victim-read-to-her-ra?utm_term=.qdJE4Wa9D#.id8LNQrzX): “It is embarrassing how feeble I feel, how timidly I move through life, always guarded, ready to defend myself, ready to be angry.” Every day, she is working to get back to herself, but what happened, she read, “stays with me, it’s part of my identity, it has forever changed the way I carry myself, the way I live the rest of my life.”

And the “severe impact” goes even beyond Turner’s victim. I’m set to visit one of my best friends next week. We’ve been excited to see each other and get our girls together again. In an exchange about this case, I emailed, “We’re teaching them about the buddy system next Friday.” And she responded, “Seriously. How early is too early? Probably never.” My daughter is two. Hers is one. And this is our thought process in raising them to face the world. Their lives are the ones likely to never be the ones that we dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. The same can be said of the lives of all women and all girls living in a world where the threat of sexual violence is real, but the consequences for that violence remain only vaguely defined and unequally applied.

And yet. While I despair, I do not only despair. Also from the aforementioned collection of essays, re: women and media: “The media report women’s issues selectively and, apparently, through a man’s sense of the world.” I know we can argue about how much has changed, but the response to the Turner case – the outcry, the indignation, the rage – that tells us things have changed. Are changing. And for the better. If you’ve not read the letter written and read by the woman Turner attacked, do so now (link above). Her willingness to – again – relive what happened to her, to vocalize how it’s affected her: that is bravery and determination and the steel will to have a voice and make it heard. As she notes, “You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.” Until today. Bravo to Buzzfeed for printing the letter in full. And for all that we can say about Facebook and Twitter and social media more broadly, the sharing of that letter, the dialog it opens up: that is magnificent.

In Danielle McGuire’s incredible At the Dark End of the Street, she writes about the importance of black women’s voice in naming the physical and sexual violence they endured and by whom in the Jim Crow South. They motivated communal action in response to the ongoing threat posed by white men who faced little recompense for attacks on black women and black girls. They motivated communal action against a broader system of inequality and injustice. Today, I saw McGuire tweet about the young woman raped by Turner and her letter with the notation of the importance of #testimony. I don’t know what consequences this sentencing will have for Judge Perskey. Or the consequences the case will have for Turner and his victim. I don’t know. But my hope is that the young woman’s voice, the publicity afforded it, and the awareness generated will shape conversations and viewpoints so that acts like these do, in fact, have a severe impact on future responses to and punishments for sexual violence of this kind.

 

“She has kept me on the warpath”: Of Mean Girls, First Wavers, and Female Friendship

When my Youth in Modern America class discussed Mean Girls, I asked them to consider whether or not the female friendships presented in the film were authentic. Among the men in the class, I got the sense that this question seemed entirely beyond their purview (despite the fact that I’d asked them about the authenticity of numerous representations in the past, all of which they’d seemed to find reasonable requests for consideration). I then asked how the female friendships of the film seemed different from the male friendships with which they were familiar. One student suggested that boys were more willing to confront each other face to face whereas girls resorted to talking behind each other’s backs. “Why do you think that is?” I asked. “Probably just nature,” he responded.

At which point I pretend spat and said, “I hate that.” Pedagogy. Master class.

Admittedly, I am the worst. But the good news, I guess, is that I didn’t stop there. I asked students about the gendered nature of raising up children and about patterns we had identified over the course of the semester: about which emotions were/are legitimate to display, based upon sex; about which characteristics were praised versus those that were/are discouraged, based upon sex; about the ways in which kids – and then teens – were/are measured by parents, by teachers, by peers, based upon sex. Where did kids learn to behave as they did? The home, presumably. And school, of course. But after a semester of considering American youth’s experience – with the majority of our consideration taking place in the 20th century – students knew the media and the marketplace played substantial roles in suggesting (directing? mandating?) the proper behaviors of boys and girls. Female agreeability, flexibility, and acquiescence remained fundamental elements of getting along. Appearance and attractiveness – denoted by the response a girl received from the opposite sex – were likewise key to fitting in. Rocking the boat was not part of the path to popularity.

Obviously much has changed since women’s liberation challenged gender binaries and advocated on behalf of equal rights and opportunities for American women. But old habits die hard (as I am learning when my daughter [WHO IS TWO] has learned and says that certain behaviors are “not ladylike” [she did not learn that in our house]). Even in Mean Girls, a millennial classic, a very 21st century film, the girls, for all their “power,” continue to be measured and evaluated on an antiquated system based on looks, goods, money, and heterosexual appeal. The power the mean girls wield is related directly to how well they adhere to the tried and true elements of the popularity scale. And even as they are mean, they pretend, outwardly, they are not. Only among friends do they reveal their animosity and hostility, for those in and outside the group.

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Susan Douglas has written beautifully about the problematic nature of the “queen bee” girl bullying “epidemic.” She suggests the phenomenon is a kind of red herring. The bullying that cuts to the core of high school girls’ coming of age experience is much more often sexual harassment administered by boys than girl-on-girl meanness. She suggests also the anxiety about the rise in “girl power” run amuck is directly related to the increasing rate of girls’ success when compared to their male peers. She also critiques the call for what seems to be an ever-increasing thinness. As girls gain power, they are encouraged to take up less space. Hunger, Douglas suggests, might contribute to bitchiness. The Rise of Enlightened Sexism, I think, was published before the publicity dedicated to girls’ and women’s increased devotion to maintenance of the thigh-gap, but Douglas anticipated its rise as she noted that girls, at younger and younger ages, named losing weight as their number one goal and often identified their appearance as the greatest obstacle they faced in their pursuit of happiness.

In any case, all of these considerations were my motivation for assigning the film (and a chapter from Douglas), but as I find with topics that that encroach increasingly on the present and with sources students feel they already know, this was a hard sell.

But I think the experience of talking about these things in the classroom was good – for them, and maybe more, for me. Because there is no rest for the wicked, I’ve been reading for a US Women’s History class I’m teaching next semester (A NEW PREP). Because the most recent works I’ve read considering 19th century women’s rights work are books I’ve read to my aforementioned daughter (read: intended for children), I’ve needed to engage in a reintroduction with the basics. And so I’ve turned to Jean Baker’s Sisters, which is wildly readable, and very much dedicated to a reclamation of the first wavers’ public AND private lives, which I love. Baker argues that key women’s rights ladies – Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, and Alice Paul – often appear in historical consideration as dehumanized figures, all work and no play, all politics and no pleasure. In fact, they’re fascinating and not only for their dogged commitment to the suffrage cause but also for the ways in which they attempted to integrate their views of sex and gender into their own lives, in competing and often contradictory ways.

So where am I going with all this? Friendship is the thread here. I now am obsessed with the friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (I know ECS is a problematic figure for many reasons – but please, just give me this). Besties dedicated to breaking the oppressive bonds of patriarchy? Tell me more. Opposites in looks and disposition, clashing over key issues but keeping arguments in-house in order to present a united front? Not to mention recognizing these arguments were an essential part of their friendship? MORE, NOW. Yin and yang in their writing, research, and philosophizing? Oh my God. I just died of happiness. The ghost of Karen Dunak will complete this post. Wrote Stanton of their pairing: “In thought and sympathy we were as one, and in the division of labor we exactly complemented each other. In writing we did better work than either could alone. While she is slow and analytic in composition, I am rapid and synthetic. I am the better writer, she the better critic. She supplied the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric…” What’s more, Anthony had been the force, Stanton claimed, that “kept me on the warpath.”

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SBA & ECS, Bosses

Ever since I was just a baby historian (aka five minutes ago) and I first read Carroll Smith Rosenberg’s “Female World of Love and Ritual,” I have loved the idea of a distinct women’s culture, forged between and among women as a means of support and solidarity, a place where men, for all their power, were superfluous. A thing I especially love about this world is how women recognized in each other particular elements of knowledge and strength and understanding that were ignored by or, I guess more accurately, were invisible to men, not knowing what to look for. Certainly, in my research and reading and teaching, concentrated much more in the 20th century than the 19th, I have seen remnants of this culture and argued for its ongoing value.

Women needn’t be denied rights in order to find solidarity among other women. Certainly, I haven’t found that to be the case. But I have also found an understanding of women’s rights and roles – the challenges to and infringements upon – enhances camaraderie among women. Recognition of the often competing responsibilities of public and private life and the challenges of integrating political principles into private relationships has yielded some of the most important discussions and solidified some of the most important relationships of my adult life.

I wouldn’t say Mean Girls is anti-feminist. It certainly attempts to communicate a feminist message in calls to limit girl-on-girl crime and in its concluding statements about the value of individualism, self-expression, and acceptance of difference. But more consideration of how the mean girls came to be so mean would’ve been welcome, and would’ve done much to reveal the institutions and mechanisms that indicate to girls what it is society will value in them. This, I think, was fundamental to Anthony’s and Stanton’s friendship: seeing the world in which they lived and their part in it, how it shaped them but also limited them, how so many of their private indignities were linked to their limited political power. It was with those considerations that they not only forged their friendship but also endeavored to improve the world beyond their beloved pairing.

#marriagewins

Timothy Stewart-Winter’s Op-Ed in Sunday’s New York Times, “The Price of Gay Marriage,” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/opinion/sunday/the-price-of-gay-marriage.html) is a beautiful and concise summation of pivotal moments in the struggle for gay rights since World War II. After reading, I thought immediately how useful the piece would be as a concluding reading in a course on Gender & Sexuality or the American Family or a History of Marriage. What I especially loved is Stewart-Winter’s ability to celebrate this victory but remind readers that tremendous gains often come with costs. This is a win, but one that should give us pause.

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When SCOTUS first undid DOMA back in 2013, I wrote about the influence of the decision and how I loved the extension of equal rights across the population, but how I also felt uneasy about the privileging of marriage above basically all other chosen relationships (https://aslongaswebothshalllove.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/thoughts-on-marriage-equality/). Stewart-Winter writes to that end: “The gay movement has stood for valuing all families — including those led by single parents, those with adopted children, and other configurations. It has stood for other ideas, too, that risk being lost in this moment’s pro-family turn: that intimacy, domesticity and caretaking do not always come packaged together; that marriage should not be the only way to protect one’s children, property and health; that having a family shouldn’t be a requirement for full citizenship; and that conventional respectability shouldn’t be the only route to social acceptance.”

When I teacher Gender & Sexuality in US History, I emphasize the ways in which gay and lesbian relationships, more visible in the aftermath of Stonewall and the creation of a Gay Liberation Front, contributed mightily to the changed nature of opposite-sex relationships. For gays in the 1960s and 1970s, marriage, laced with patriarchal overtones, was rarely identified as a goal. Love didn’t have to mean marriage. Living together without a license from the state, a necessity for same-sex couples, was a possibility for a man and a woman, too. Love didn’t have to mean forever. One kind of love could end while another kind could come to take its place, allowing relationships to evolve over time. All that said: there is great value in alternative lifestyles to enhance and improve the possibilities for those living in the mainstream (although, of course, that’s not the responsibility of the marginalized – but it’s a pattern that we see time and again). To suggest that relationships should conform eventually to fit one model (even as flexible as marriage has become) is troubling. As is the implicit reinforcement of the idea of marriage as the primary relationship one should aspire to and the ultimate relationship one can achieve.

So the SCOTUS decision is a win, but it’s complicated. Do I love the outcome of last week’s decision? YES. And ESPECIALLY after reading the HORRIFYING dissents (please note the deliberate use of caps). Have I loved seeing the rainbow-tinted world of Facebook and the many hashtags celebrating SCOTUS’s ruling on same-sex unions? Yes, #loveislove and #lovewins. And yet, love is nowhere in Justice Kennedy’s 2013 delivery of the court’s opinion. Kennedy writes about citizenship and status and the extension of benefits. Love doesn’t necessitate a marriage license (or vice versa [sorry, romantics]). So maybe more accurately, #marriageisbenefits or #marriagewins. If we’re talking about marriage – and we are – we’ve achieved equal access not only to the institution, but also to its limits and flaws.

Lives and Limits of the Known and Unknown

In spring of 1951, during the semester at whose end she would graduate from George Washington University, Jacqueline Bouvier competed in the Prix de Paris contest put on by Vogue magazine. This competition was no joke. Contestants submitted a personal profile, four papers on various fashion-related questions, an outline for a full issue of Vogue, and an essay on three people the applicant wished she had known. The winner’s prize: a yearlong trainee position at the magazine – six months in the Paris office, followed by six months in the New York headquarters. Bouvier, fresh from a junior year in France, which had inspired, for all intents and purpose, a growing interest in fashion, culture, and writing, submitted the winning application. Out of nearly 1300 applications, hers was the best.

Historians love the Prix de Paris application materials. As Jacqueline Bouvier became Jacqueline Kennedy (and then Onassis), she was not a figure known for her transparency. But in these documents, she is forthright and open. She recalls, as a child, pretending to sleep when in reality she was reading the Chekov and Shaw she found upon the shelves in the room appointed for napping. She suggests an advertising campaign to link perfume with wine, given that “both are liquids that act upon the closely related sense of taste and smell to produce an intoxicating effect.” She wishes she’d known, among others, Oscar Wilde, revealing an admiration for the power of his wit: “with the flash of an epigram,” she wrote, he could “bring about what serious reformers had for years been trying to accomplish.” She reveals, in this personal writing, something of the “real” Jackie.

prixdeparispictureJacqueline Bouvier’s picture as winner of the Prix de Paris competition.

When I read Bouvier’s materials, they communicate the time and thought and care put into the application. They reveal a keen but also pragmatic mind, showing an understanding of the need to blend one’s esteem for the arts with the practicalities of publication. I imagine there are those who would dismiss Vogue as not a site of serious publishing – but those people are wrong, especially about Vogue in the 1950s. There was the fashion, but the publication was also a bastion of high culture, publishing essays by and about great artists of varying fields. When I imagine Bouvier taking this opportunity at Vogue, I wonder what the experience might’ve meant to her.

But I can only imagine Bouvier in Paris at the Vogue offices. She turned down the prize, later noting “I guess I was too scared to go to Paris again. I felt then that if I went back, I’d live there forever. I loved Paris so much. That’s such a formative year when you get out of college.” The inside scoop – or at least the theory that is most often bandied about – is that her mother and stepfather dissuaded her from accepting the Vogue position, afraid, indeed, that Jacqueline would become an expatriate and live forever outside the United States. And so in Washington, D.C. she remained, becoming the Inquiring Camera Girl at the Washington Times-Herald in 1952 and marrying Senator John Kennedy in 1953. And so on.

I’ve now spent a decent amount of time thinking about a) American women at mid-century and b) Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. And I now here declare that the Prix de Paris turn of events make me mad. Admittedly, it’s impossible to test the veracity of the “we remember Jackie when” sentiments that came in the years after the American public “knew” Jackie, but across the board, the reminiscences of friends, of classmates, of teachers identified in Bouvier intelligence, wit, curiosity, and, possibly most importantly, potential. I want her parents to get out of her way. I want her to take a chance, rebel, and GO. Who knows what she might have done? All I can think: what a missed opportunity. These feelings are not for my professional consideration of the past, but they are there, and I’m grappling with them.

To that end, I communicated my indignation to the other historian of the household. From him, I get a decent amount of the devil’s advocate, and I’m pushed (Intentionally? For fun?) to defend my points of view. When it comes to regretting historical figures’ missed opportunities, I’ve thought about Hillary Clinton in this way, too, and I brought this up. Years ago, I read the early chapters of William Chafe’s Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal. In those early chapters about Hillary Rodham, the underlying sentiment is “Holy shit. This woman.” She was a force, and people saw it. But then there was the relationship with Clinton and her efforts to support him and what this meant for her own ambitions. When they moved to Arkansas for his political ambitions, I had to stop reading. In thinking about Bouvier and Rodham (eventually Kennedy and Clinton) my devil’s advocate suggests I’m fighting an uphill battle in suggesting they deserve sympathy or indignation at opportunities missed and paths not taken. The fame, the wealth, the privilege as a whole – and for HRC, obviously, the political power outside her time as FLOTUS. In so many ways, and in comparison to so many women (in the US and around the globe), they win. And I know that. (Sidenote: there are so many opportunities to talk about the personal sacrifices these women made inside their marriages – but that’s a topic for another time. I just want people to know that I know that’s there.)

But then I also think about how, even in their privileged positions, they faced and in many ways capitulated to the social and cultural expectations of their times and places. Back specifically to Bouvier here – she had the education and the connections and the status (the money was more complicated) enough that she might have achieved cultural and intellectual and professional success outside the confines of her link to any man. But the expectation of the link to a man was THE expectation – even for someone of her elite standing (and maybe especially for someone of her standing?). In many ways, I think her giving in to her parents’ wishes, staying stateside, finding a man, and marrying well speaks volumes about the powers of convention on women during the 1950s – and the limits of alternative possible roles they imagined for themselves. Do I wish that she would have bucked the trend, accepted the prize without parental approval, and found out what she could do on her own? YES (as previously noted). But I am (big time) of the post-Port Huron generation, where fulfillment of personal desire is of the utmost importance. In 1951, that was not the norm, and particularly not for a person of Jackie Bouvier’s station.

I know as I wonder what sort of voice and what sort of influence Bouvier would’ve developed I’m asking for people to remind me of the influence she had as First Lady. And then as National Widow. And as cultural icon. And as publisher. Etc. Etc. Etc. And again, to remind me of the power and the privilege of her many roles. Am I privileging too much the idea that the development of voice and influence on one’s own and by one’s own merit is more natural or more satisfying? Is it wrong to speculate that she may have enjoyed her position more were it to come from her own efforts? And even if she’d not become “A Voice,” would it have been more satisfying to have followed personal predilection? Am I projecting too much of here and now onto the past? I don’t know. Maybe? Could be.

In the course of working through this (thank you for your patience), I maybe end up here: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is a famous case, a person who was and is known. So privilege is definitely going to be there. For me, when I think in terms of the famous and the known (a limited population), I think, too, about all those many more unnamed and unknown people of the past. For women’s historians, there are many, many unknown figures. Perhaps it is best for me to frame my indignation at the missed opportunities of one who ultimately had so many opportunities in this way: the power of convention, the dictates of family, the expectations of her time limited even Jacqueline Bouvier, someone who had so much. If that’s true, than what of those without? The power of convention, the dictates of family, the expectations of their time, not to mention the factors of their race, their religion, their class, their region, influenced so many unknown women – and who knows what they might have been and done?

Mad Men and Strong Women

In these, the final days before Mad Men is done and gone forever, I have been LOVING the post-game analysis. In our world of market fragmentation and DVR’d viewing, I’m so happy to have a number of tried and true locations where I can go to get other people’s assessment of fashion, plot lines, character arcs and conclusions, writing triumphs and failings. I don’t agree with all points put forward, but as a person who fully believes and regularly proselytizes about the importance of media and popular culture as so much more than *just* entertainment, I love the seriousness with which authors approach their celebrations and critiques.

The last two episodes leading up to the series finale (“The Lost Horizon” and “The Milk and Honey Route”) have had these writers (and many viewers) losing their minds – and for good reason. I basically did not breathe for the entirety of Joan’s meeting with vile Jim Hobart and then breathed fire until the episode’s conclusion; I rewound and rewound to rewatch and rewatch Peggy 1) roller skate through her abandoned workplace while Roger played the electronic organ and then 2) walk into McCann like the baddest bad ass on planet Earth (or any other planet); I reeled at Betty’s terminal cancer diagnosis; and I wept at her matter-of-fact “when I die” letter to Sally. I could write forever and a day about all of these things.

But I’m trying to focus. The work I’m doing right now (in the world of research and writing) is about how the radical ideas of Second Wave feminism – primarily women’s rights to compete freely and fairly in the public and professional world, to manage their sexuality without consequence, to make decisions based on personal preference rather than cultural expectations and social standards, and to see themselves and be seen by others as equal to men – became mainstream. And very clearly non-feminist Betty Francis, in the last conversation we may ever see her have with her girl, rang just about every bell for me as I thought about this show and what it does to tell the history of a time and place to which I’ve committed much of my professional life.

Despite Betty’s marriage to Henry Francis, New York GOP big wig, the person she expects to take charge after her death and to whom she gives her list of instructions for burial is her teenage daughter. Henry, Betty tells Sally, won’t be able to handle it. Having seen him turn to Sally to convince Betty to receive treatment (a task at which he’d failed), having seen him weep in Sally’s dorm room on her twin bed, and having seen teenage Sally awkwardly comfort this grown man, that seems true. Don Draper, off in the hinterlands, seems not even a thought in anyone’s mind. Betty is right: Sally is the logical choice to see everything through.

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Betty, of that forgotten fifties generation, too young for World War II glory and too late for “the Sixties,” had done what she was supposed to do and ended up knee-deep in the Feminine Mystique. Even when she was finally happy, maybe she wasn’t. Baby Boomer Sally had watched her mother with a keen eye, vowing since little girlhood to avoid all the traps into which Betty fell. But of course there’s little escape from parental influence, for better or worse (we’ve seen Don tell Sally this directly), and it may be a long time from 1970 until Sally finally sees her mother as more than her mother and as a person caught in a larger web of cultural expectation and social limits. For me, Betty’s letter to Sally is one of the spots to which Sally can return, their conversation and Betty’s approach to her death as evidence of a more complicated woman than Betty likely ever appeared in her daughter’s eyes.

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In telling Sally she appreciates her independence, that she’d worried because Sally “marched to the beat of [her] own drum” but now saw what an adventure her life would be, Betty reveals something of how she’s changed over the course of the sixties. But make no mistake: she’s still old-fashioned. In asking Sally to be responsible once she’s dead, Betty is working on an old trope: women can handle things men can’t. They have a reserve of strength men do not. For Betty, this is not about empowerment; it’s about nature. This is an idea with a long history, the underlying message being something along the lines of men enjoy status as the public face of the operation, but privately women are the backbone of the enterprise.

But where all of this may be obvious to Betty, a matter-of-fact way of the world, my sense is that Sally, coming of age alongside Women’s Liberation, and again, looking at the world with that keen eye, is likely to call bullshit on this idea. Or at least on the fact that women are “stronger” but simultaneously subjugated to a secondary status, a behind-the-scenes pat on the back. Before the 1960s, what was known in “women’s culture” about women’s abilities, about what they endured and what they sacrificed, would, by the 1970s, become much more visible in American culture more broadly. As public conversation shed light on what had been assumed as “private” issues, many women, young and old, began reconsidering the assumed way of the world. And being the unsung hero, the known (but largely uncelebrated) support for American men wouldn’t cut it for the Sallys of the world.

For those who’ve “never really faced inequality”: How nice! But it’s not just about you.

Generally speaking, I live in a world where my Facebook feed is best described by the phrase “preaching to the choir.” The lefties of my life – from college, graduate school, and my current university – post on a fairly predictable host of issues and from fairly predictable perspectives. I’m fine with this. I often agree and sometimes share and am happy to have yet more fuel to add to my fire on any number of topics. I like my little like-minded world where I can pretend everyone cares about racial & gender equality, legal & economic justice, environmental protection, celebrity gossip, and the real and hopefully forever comeback of rompers and overalls. All of which is to say that when I come across the alternative perspective, I’m often taken aback. Wait, what? People don’t think like us?

Then I analyze. Then I stew. Then I rebut, sometimes publicly (keep reading, please).

My feed recently featured an article entitled “Big Bang Theory Star Just Said the Most Conservative Thing on the Internet,” from youngcons.com (Young Conservatives: http://www.youngcons.com/big-bang-theory-star-just-said-conservative-thing-internet/#2hLUbfp1E7QLxGAu.99). I clicked. Why, oh why, did I click? Because I just cannot resist.

This Young Conservative article declared that Kaley Cuoco’s recent Redbook feature interview would have “liberal feminists yanking out their underarm hair and screaming not-so-sweet sentiments into her virtual ear via social media.” Well. Let’s not even get started on what radical feminists might think.

When asked if she is a feminist, she responded, “Is it bad if I say no?”

It’s not. If people choose to reject the idea of social, economic, and political equality between the sexes, that’s their business.

The Young Conservative piece speculated that part of the interview that would really raise feminist ire against Cuoco was her statement “I like the idea of women taking care of their men. I’m so in control of my work that I like coming home and serving him.” She’s talking about making this man, her husband, dinner. Fine. Whatever. She claims that she likes feeling like a housewife. Also fine. And just speculating her, but she probably particularly enjoys feeling like a housewife because a) she’s not; b) cooking is approximately 1/100 of what being a housewife is about; and c) she can stop feeling like (or pretending to be) a housewife whenever she wants. Good thing feminists pushed for women to have choices of this kind.

I am a for real feminist. And I will tell you right now I don’t care that she likes cooking a meal for her husband. I have been known to cook a meal for my husband as well. Cat’s out of the bag.

I do, however, take issue with other parts of the interview. And the fact that the Young Conservatives piece didn’t recognize the problematic nature of the following statement, for me, reveals just how little those on the other side of the feminist debate really understand about feminism. The quote, re: feminism: “It’s not really something I think about,” she said. “Things are different now, and I know a lot of the work that paved the way for women happened before I was around… I was never that feminist girl demanding equality, but maybe that’s because I’ve never really faced inequality.”

Record scratch.

First, let’s take a minute to discuss The Big Bang Theory, of which Cuoco is a star. I feel fine about this show. It’s not uncommon that someone in my house is watching this show. But it is not a program that features particularly enlightened views of sex or gender (or race, but whatever). Cuoco’s character, Penny (no last name – unlike all other main characters), the failed actress, waitress, community college student turned stellar pharmaceutical rep is regularly the butt of jokes for her a) stupidity; b) sexual promiscuity; c) drinking. In the world of super-smart nerd scientists, she has street smarts, but they’re of the kind where she sends in a check for the less-than-required amount to pay her electric bill, along with a picture of herself in a bra, all in the hopes that she’ll get a bit of an extension. Cuoco, in landing this part, a dream job, I’m sure, may not have faced inequality, but she’s MAKING BANK on exploiting tired – and often sexist and unequal – views of gender and sexuality. I will not even engage with the episode in which she and the “girl scientists” go to Disneyland and do the whole dress-like-a-princess thing that apparently you can do at that place. (Sidenote: I don’t even *not like* TBBT, and I’m sure experts of the show could argue opposite points to those I’ve made, but my evidence is not wrong.)

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Second, and much more importantly, I take issue with Cuoco’s “It’s not really something I think about” and “I’ve never really faced inequality.” How nice it must be not to worry about issues of inequity that half the population faces daily and without respite. How easy it must be to think only of yourself and not give consideration to other people and their experiences. How simple it must be to ignore your privileged position and thus ignore the realities of people’s lives as they struggle in a system that, at its core, privileges certain segments of the population over others.

Again, it’s okay not to be a feminist. I accept that. But I will not accept a political perspective – even one that’s as seemingly unintentionally political as Cuoco’s – based pretty clearly on willful ignorance and limited regard for any experience beyond one’s own.

So yes, as a feminist (albeit one with shaved pits), I have beef with Cuoco’s sentiments. But for reasons apparently unanticipated by the Young Cons.

To come back to my Facebook feed: another article caught my attention more recently and prompted me to put to paper the ideas floating in my head about Cuoco’s Redbook interview. California Magazine (Winter 2014) published an article that asked “What Stalled the Gender Revolution?” and answered “Child Care that Costs More Than College Tuition” (http://caa-web-prod-01.ist.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/winter-2014-gender-assumptions/what-stalled-gender-revolution-child-care-costs). Ummmm…YES. As author Tamara Straus reported, “A 2013 report from Child Care Aware noted that as of 2012, in 31 states and the District of Columbia, day care is more expensive than one year of public college tuition—and that was among a cohort of faculty, people with the highest levels of education.” RECORD SCRATCH AGAIN. I know this stuff, and my jaw still hit the floor.

1941 Conference on Day Care

A working mother drops her son at a federally-subsidized nursery school in 1943. Between 1943 and 1946, a half a million children received care in such centers. After World War II ended, they were closed. Please note: better support for working mothers in 1943 than in 2015.

Straus also states, “Feminism isn’t a prominent social movement in this country anymore. And one reason for this is blazingly clear: We don’t have an affordable, taxpayer-subsidized system of infant-to-12 child care that levels the playing field for all women, their partners, and their children. What we have is elite women (and men) blathering on about choice, and billionaire executives passing themselves off as role models for working women, while refusing to acknowledge, let alone celebrate the women who help raise their children and manage their homes.” Those who are unaffected by the inequity (ahem, Ms. Cuoco) ignore that inequity, or even worse, and this is the true crime, believe and willfully perpetuate the idea that it isn’t there.

The individualism that emerged at the end of the Second Wave, as the Second Wave weathered attack by increasingly conservative forces of the Reagan Revolution and the Religious Right, is precisely what contemporary feminists must combat. The personal is political, but it’s our collective personal that should be motivating our political activism. Shout out to Tamara Straus for writing so beautifully what we in my world – virtual and in-person – so often discuss: “My plea to the remaining feminists out there is this: Let’s find some class solidarity and make government-subsidized child care a campaign issue. Let’s identify and vote for candidates who see affordable child care as a legislative necessity. Such family-friendly demands would make sense to low- and middle-income women. They would bring more people back into the feminist fold, and they might even revitalize a movement.” And to that end, I’ll answer Cuoco’s question of “Is it bad if I say no?” in this way, the way a politically engaged interviewer might have: It would be better if you said yes.