I’ve been thinking a lot lately about feminism, which I haven’t done for years. Mostly, that’s because it seemed I didn’t have to, because … well … we won.
In the United States and Canada, at least, women have been pretty much doing what they want to for a very long time. At least, that’s true if you’re middle class or better with access to one of those snobby colleges, like the high-falutin’ one I went to. The “womyn’s” bookstore in my town, The Lioness, closed for good a few years back, in part because you could find any title you wanted online, and in part because you didn’t need a a special place to find writing that promotes the radical idea that women can do anything, and have a right to decide their own destinies.
It stopped being radical a long time ago. Or so it seemed.
In just the last few years I’ve met women who do things such as flying C-130s for Coast Guard, saving the lives of horses like Derby winner Smarty Jones, serving (and dying) as war correspondents, running major media outlets they didn’t inherit from their dads and working as electrical engineers, firefighters, police officers, plumbers, ranchers and farmers, long-haul truckers and stockbrokers, actuaries and jockeys.
In short, everything. And to a lot of these younger women, especially, what they do doesn’t even seem special to them. It’s just … life.
Just a generation ago, I know I felt far differently. I started my writing career as a sportwriter, which in those days was a pretty good strategy for any young women who wanted to skip the normal career path of all other journalists, starting at a small weekly and working up to small dailies and finally, to a decent metro daily.
My friend Russ Stanton, until recently the editor of the L.A. Times, followed this timeworn path. His career:
College newspaper (we were on it together), Tulare Advance-Register, Elk Grove Citizen, Visalia Times-Delta, Riverside Press-Enterprise (or San Bernardino Sun, or both, we lost track for a little while there), Orange County Register, L.A. Times Orange County Edition, L.A. Times (reporter, assistant editor, section editor, all the way to the top).
College newspaper, Sacramento Bee.
Which was not to say my route was all that easy. I was a sportswriter at a time when I was decidedly not wanted in that corner of the newsroom, and the level of what would now be called sexual harassment was pretty high. Example:
In the days before Teh Interwebs and smart phones, sportswriters called in their stories from pay phones, where “re-write men” took down the bones and fleshed out the story. Part of this process was called “taking dick,” as in “dictation,” from correspondents in the field. And of course, this term was good for yuks among the men of the sports department.
As a “stringer” — a paid intern, basically — I sometimes covered games and called in stories, and sometimes I worked the desk typing in stories from others. Like all other women in non-traditional jobs, I knew I had to put up with a raunchy atmosphere, even when the “humor” was directed at me.
I’d come in from a game that ended in time for me to have the luxury of writing the story in the newsroom, and I was with an editor who was going over my article on his monitor. In those days (1981-2?) the lighting in the old newroom wasn’t good for computer monitors, which were clunky old beasts with fuzzy light-green letters on a darker green display. To be able to see words on the screen, most people put a hood on their monitors to cut the overhead glare. All the rolling office chairs had butts in them already, so I got on my knees next to the editor so I could see the screen as he worked over my story.
Since I was done with my story early, I was to stick around and type in notes from those still in the field. One of the other editors took a call then, looked at me and said,
“I need someone to take dick. Gina, I see you’re already in position, and I bet you’ve taken a lot of dick. Get this one, willya?”
And, of course, I did without comment while they all had a good laugh. Because that’s what you did then, and because that wasn’t even near the worst thing that had happened to any woman who dared to be a sportswriter in that era. Or even in the same newsroom as I was in, for that matter.
Oakland A’s slugger Dave Kingman sent a rat to the pressbox for The Bee’s Susan Fornoff, with a tag that said “My name is Sue.” Michele Himmelberg was assigned to cover the ’49ers, and when The Bee forced them to let her have the same access to the locker room as her colleagues, she was smeared. In Boston, the same fight to grant Lisa Olson access to the Patriots ended up with her moving to New Zealand to get away from the death threats.
I was mostly an editor by then, and I remember the calls for Michele, from men who’d assume that there was only one women working in sports, and who figured on hearing my voice that I was her. Typical call:
“You fucking BITCH. You wanna see COCK? My friends and I will show you all the COCK you want. Watch yourself, CUNT. We’re coming for you.”
And people wonder why stuff like “unfriending” me on Facebook or posting pictures of me with a dunce cap on just makes me laugh.
You gotta try a lot harder to get under my skin. I once heard my grandfather telling his son — my father — that he was ashamed of him because he wasn’t “man enough” to “control” me, and that I was a “whore” and a “slut” for wanting to be around naked men in locker rooms. (I actually wasn’t in any locker rooms by then, but this was about the same time as the Lisa Olson/Michele Himmelberg muck-ups so he likely figured I was.) My father didn’t argue — there wasn’t any point, really — and I never heard a word of anything but support and pride from him.
I haven’t thought about any of this for years, maybe even close to a couple decades, until recently.
- Not until the pink-ribboning social conservatives at the Susan G. Komen foundation decided to cut breast health screening for women because Planned Parenthood was involved.
- Not until men decided that denying women access to birth control was an issue of “religious freedom’ when it’s really about nothing more than regaining control. (For a good perspective on this, see Kathy Flake’s piece, here.)
- Not until a Congressman decided to hold a hearing on women and not invite any.
And mostly, not until the words “slut,” “roundheel” and “prostitute” jumped back into the fray in describing the woman who was not allowed to testify before that committee. I felt those words hit me viscerally, and I was flooded by the memories — of being asked to “take dick,” of being threatened with gang rape by a stranger on the phone, and of listening to my grandfather tell my proud father that I was nothing more than a whore who needed to be put in her place.
It all came up like bile this week, a bitter taste of how it used to be. It made me hurt, then made me fear it would be that way again here. (It never has stopped being that way elsewhere, course. Do you see women here? Here? In the last two days I took in both of these extraordinary — and extraordinarily courageous — works of journalism and had the same thought as I did in looking at this picture: Where are the women?)
Except that it’s different here now, it really is.
We do not accept this anymore in America. Komen and Limbaugh had to retreat from the worst of their behavior. Rick Santorum, should he get the Republican nomination, will be crushed by a incumbent president who’s really not all that popular.
A woman still flies a C-130 over my house every night for the Coast Guard. The best equine surgeon — actually, the best two — I know are women, and so are both of my dog’s oncologists, my dentist, my accountant, my attorney and about half of my editors. My brother’s shoulder was fixed by a female orthopedic surgeon whose gender wasn’t an issue. And my friend Carol’s wife was asked out of retirement to design the electrical system for a new building to handle overflow offices from the Pentagon.
We are not going back, not now, not ever. And now, we just need to make sure we’re still going forward, because it’s pretty clear there’s still work to do.
Shame on us? Shame on you. We’re not taking dick any more.