Since I came of age in the midst of all the greatest changes in American women’s lives–I was 23 when Roe v. Wade was enacted–all the recent attacks on women’s rights by a dying, gasping white patriarchy have left me baffled, distressed, and nostalgic. How can we still be fighting these battles in the 21st century? Why are we allowing these men to move us backwards? All these thoughts prompt me to sift back through my memory bank, to try and recall my own experiences of becoming a woman in the 1960s and 70s, to try to get some clarity, if that’s at all possible.
First I must recount some painful memories of my own mother–a victim of the “way things used to be” for women, if there ever was one. She was kicked out of university in 1946, because she had contracted gonorrhea from a man just back from the war, in an incident that now sounds ever so much like date rape. The man responsible, who had already been treated but who had failed to inform the women with whom he had had sex, was not kicked out of university. My mother–a very naive, emotionally immature young woman who had lost her father when she was 10 during the Depression–was accused of lying about who she had had sex with. She was forced to return home to a very Victorian Christian Scientist mother, who would have been disgraced by the fact that her daughter was a fallen woman. After a little while, my mother took the bus to California and a new life. Within a year, she was pregnant with me, and, as they said in those days, “had to” get married. As her sister, now 88, said to me recently, “Maydee just wanted so badly to be loved”. As my sisters & I were growing up, she still conveyed the message–if only subconsciously–that to be “popular”, you had to “give in” to boys–even as she attempted to teach us to be strong and independent individuals. It was a confusing and ambiguous attitude, to say the least, and I vowed to be stronger than my mother was.
I came to a woman’s college in the late 60s with an attitude of intellectual prissiness. But I was determined to construct an interesting life. Still a virgin, I spent the revolutionary year of 1968 dating Air Force cadets, for god’s sakes! No radical involvement in women’s issues, or any other political issues, for that matter. We were very naive about lots of things, but products of our volatile times, when the world was our oyster, and we were up for anything. I do remember ominous whispers about one woman on the dorm floor who had to get an abortion, which was a very scarey proposition then, totally dangerous and illegal. If memory serves me, she went to a sympathetic doctor who was later accused of performing them as “D & Cs”–that’s the kinds of hoops you had to jump through then.You usually had to either go to Mexico, which was frightening, or you had to have a lot of money and connections.
Then came the summer of 1969–the Woodstock summer–spent working at a mountain resort, where everything that could possibly happen to young people in the 1960s happened–I lost my virginity to a wine steward from Kansas (well, sort of to a biker cook, but those are technicalities), there were lots of drugs around (although I did not partake, or even drink much yet), we partied hard and often all night, one guy wielded a pistol in the hotel lobby, and some people went off with Indian gurus. That summer, my friend (who had also become sexually active) and I had to go quite surreptitiously to the one gynecologist (male, of course) who everyone knew was sympathetic to young unmarried women who wanted birth control to get a prescription for The Pill. We had a helluva time getting the prescription filled because several pharmacists would not fill it for us, or gave us dirty looks. But it was so empowering! Those first few times having sex that summer ( we used a spermicide) were the only times I had sex without protection that I controlled for the rest of my sexually active single days. Oh, and no one used condoms then! That was one of the results of The Pill–now contraception and protection were ENTIRELY in the hands of the woman.
After that summer, I went to Europe for a Junior Year Abroad year, which was a revelation and liberation on every front. Our entire college group of women got European boyfriends, sweated out pregnancy scares, and returned to the States having learned that there were other ways of thinking about sexuality and life in general. The invasions of Cambodia and the Vietnam moratorium happened while I was in Europe, only to make a dent on me because one of our group had a brother-in-law who died flying into Laos where we weren’t even supposed to be. So I was getting a little more aware of injustices in the world and the need for political engagement, but it was still secondary to my own personal life.
Almost all of the European romances fizzled, as did mine. The next few years were spent in a lot of graduate school and having a lot of sexual adventures, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Yes, I guess I was a harlot for a short time, but on my own terms, and I certainly never hurt anyone (I never slept with a married man). I wasn’t particularly careful, but somehow never got into any really sticky situations with men, even one-night stands. I even had a few long-term relationships in that time. I don’t think my level of promiscuity was particularly high, certainly not for the times, although I did have my share of adventures, none of which could have been possible without the freedom that access to birth control affords women!
I was never happy taking the Pill, so quite early on, I got an IUD–yes, one of those devices that would later be declared so dangerous for women. I didn’t have any problems with it until a few years later, when it caused excessively heavy bleeding, and I had to have one removed while on my honeymoon trip in Geneva, Switzerland, by a French-speaking male doctor while my friend–the same one with whom I had initially gotten The Pill–translated in the other room! Once I was attached in a committed relationship–at 25 and totally monogamous for the last 40 years–I used a diaphragm, until my failure to remember to use it led to the birth of our son. A few years later, George’s vasectomy liberated us from all that worry.
These memories have come back so strongly as I hear all the recent attempts to turn back the clock on women’s rights. I was in Portland, Oregon, in my first professional job, freely on my own and growing up happily when Roe v. Wade happened. By this time I had become quite involved with very left-wing politics, I had marched in numerous demonstrations, I threw away my bra, and had a Socialist boyfriend. I came to feminist politics through Portland’s many women’s health centers, where everyone carried around a copy of that ground-breaking book, “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”( I was never a good card-carrying feminist, though–all that standing around in circles and singing “I Am Woman” seemed silly to me). It was through one of those groups that I attended a meeting after Roe v. Wade made abortion legal. It was meant to be a discussion evening about why this was such a significant decision. Many women recounted horror stories of botched abortions in back rooms, of suffering caused by the very painful decisions they had to make in having an abortion, and many women came with their children to emphasize that every child should be a wanted child. But in the room was also a handful of very vocal women opposed to abortion, who accused us all of being immoral and, to use Rush Limbaugh’s phrase, sluts. The speakers tried to reason with them, to very little effect. I still remember vividly one woman who, when she was asked what form of birth control she used that was so infallible that an accident couldn’t happen, said “Oh, I don’t know, my husband does something.” I was completely astounded! This woman had not even taken control of her own body! It was my first real experience of the intractability of the opposition, since of course everyone I knew was college-educated and liberal or radical. Except for my own family, which harbored some redneck voices, I wasn’t exposed to these women very often.
I was amazed then and I am amazed still–now I’m even more amazed and dismayed, because this MINORITY of self-righteous zealots and the willfully ignorant have appropriated the debate, and there is NO reasoning with them. At least these women in 1973 were forced to have a dialogue with us, even if it didn’t change any minds. That white men are now backing the most ludicrous ideas of how women should behave and act is not only insulting and terrifyingly close to Taliban attitudes, but it goes against the MAJORITY of even conservative women’s thinking about reproductive rights. I have no idea why I have felt compelled to write all of my personal history down like this, but perhaps some young women will be reminded of what things were like 40 years ago before Roe v. Wade, and what a blessing birth control and women’s progress toward equality have been. You must fight to preserve your right to be the person you want to be, without moralistic indictment or authoritarian patriarchy. Sex can be fun, but only if you have the power to control your body and your mind. If we let these zealots have their way, then we will be back to throwing women out of university for having sex, like my mother was.