Here’s what I know about 1972:
Clad in my polyester double-knit pants ensemble (the one with the sleeveless v-neck top and bell-bottom bottoms in the pink/orange/white chevron pattern), I spent countless hours ‘performing’ my favorite songs in our den, singing along with the record player that was hidden in a corner behind my father’s pthalo blue vinyl recliner. 1972 chart toppers in the Larkey family room included “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” and “I Am Woman,” which I belted at the top of my seven-year-old lungs with my toddler sister singing back-up. I am strong. I am invincible. I am blissfully oblivious. (Also odd; it’s true.)
That we were allowed – encouraged, even – to listen to Helen Reddy but not to the Rolling Stones should tell you something about my parents. Even though feminist was as bad a word as any racial slur in our household, the world presented to us, two young girls in Memphis, was one of unlimited possibilities, infinite futures. We were taught to be polite, certainly, but never in a way that marginalized our independence or importance. We were seven and two. We were strong and invincible in 1972, the year of Watergate, a plane crash in the Andes, and Bruce Jenner’s first Olynpics. It was also the year, 1972, that the Equal Rights Amendment passed Congress and went out for state ratification only to spend the ensuing 43 years (and counting) in limbo.
I know. You thought I’d forgotten all about it. No, it is too much to forget.
I would love to be writing today with a cheery update on the piece I wrote last fall, the one in which I outed myself as a complete ignoramus, unaware of the fate that befell the Constitutional amendment I’ve taken for granted most of my life. Unfortunately there is no cheery update, at least not one I’ve found. Or maybe it’s just where I live. Memphis may be the new Austin, but that means only that we’re kindred islands of blue amid the swells of conservative red seas. That the captains of those seas decry the way foreign cultures treat women is clear; that the captains will ensure equal legal stature for women in the U.S., though, is unlikely.
I wonder if Bruce Jenner knew that Caitlyn would not be his legal equal, knew that if he could have morphed into two different, separate bodies, man and woman, that nothing in the Constitution would declare their parity. That’s what it means to be a woman in the U.S., to be of unequal status. That and a few other things. “I am woman,” the three simplest, most complicated words in today’s lexicon.
In case you missed Elinor Burkett’s bombshell op-ed “What Makes a Woman?” from last Sunday’s New York Times (bombshell, I say, because of the swift slap of backlash) or Jon Stewart’s supremely hilarious, if painful, “Welcome to being a woman in America” segment, well … oh… where to start….
The line in the Stewart segment that got all the attention was about Caitlyn’s now being judged on her attractiveness instead of athleticism or accomplishment. It’s a good line. But don’t miss the zinger about how we can’t laud one woman without taking down another, ensuring the balance stays intact. It’s an equal opportunity shooting range, too, one in which women are just as quick to take aim as any Y chromosome carrier. Sure, we’re swift to raise fists when an utter moron says all we female distractions do is cry, but if it’s cat-fight “she doesn’t know her place” criticism of any specific woman, whether Hilary Clinton or Ann Coulter, we’re much slower to rally the sisterhood. We’re likely instead to show our clanish instincts, Lululemon-clad Kates on one side, patchouli-scented Nandhis on another. We want the freedom to be women, provided we just aren’t ever associated with those women, the NOTDs (not our type, dear), whoever they may be. Or, better yet, whoever they choose to be. I am as guilty in this segregation as any woman I know. There are so many women I just can’t bear to like.
We are all women. To deny any of us an individual brand of womanhood is to deny us all. Yet we can’t seem to get our collective act together, can’t seem even to agree on our most basic sameness.
We who are born into the anatomy and physiology of female bodies all start with the same basic equipment. That equipment, compared to men, is different. And to Burkett’s point, no man has ever made a furtive purse dive, feigning a hunt for loose change while actually searching for a loose tampon to whisk secretly up the sleeve and waltz with haste to the nearest ladies’ room. No, that one’s ours alone. As are a few other things, again mostly tied to anatomy and physiology. Our hearts and bones and joints behave differently from those of men. It’s possible our brains do as well, but it’s equally possible that nurture trumps nature. Not even the neuroscientists seem to agree on that point, and if they don’t know then, really, who does.
How we use what nature and nurture give us, how we turn female into woman, that’s where the road forks and splinters. We divide, but the only thing we conquer is ourselves.
For every reason and no reason in particular, I recently re-read Nora Ephron’s 1996 speech to the graduating class at Wellesley College. Suffice to say, in almost 20 years we’ve come a short way, baby, if any way at all. And it is our own damn fault. We’ve been so busy fortifying the walls around SAHMs and WAHMs and WOCs and whatnot that we repeatedly ignore the point Ephron makes so clear: that an assault on any woman’s womanhood is an assault on every woman.
I don’t pretend to understand the Primates of Park Avenue set or, God knows, those women who sign up to compete in Naked and Afraid. But if I want “I am woman” to mean for me that I get to be my own self, then I have to want the same thing for all those other women who choose to be nothing at all like the woman I am. I have to believe that what’s good for any of us is good for all of us, lest we each become Echo, belting anthems of strength within solitary canyons of our own carving.