Mar 4 2012

Just Us Girls

Feeling proud that I’d conducted the entire business of buying our train tickets in Spanish and not once reverting to French, I pointed the girls toward the train station café. Buddy-roo strutted ahead of me, pulling the miniature rollaway valise – my mother’s old weekend travel case – that I’d packed for all three of us for our overnight trip. I liked the idea of one of my daughters dragging that same little black case behind her, evidence of the good-at-traveling gene successfully passing from generation to generation.

It’s comforting to me, the sound of a suitcase rolling behind you. I like hearing muffled departure announcements in another language that you have to strain to understand, or can’t comprehend at all. I’m at home at a train station café with a perk-me-up-coffee or a celebratory beer, anticipating the voyage ahead. I love to travel, so did my mother, and her mother. I think I’ve succeeded at infecting my girls with the bug, too.

“Why isn’t Papa coming with us?”

“He has to work. But we get to play.” The timing of his job was perfect. The girls were on vacances scolaire, a two-week winter break. We’d headed south, making stops in France and northern Spain, before driving on to Madrid.

“I thought it’d be good to have a little excursion,” I said, “just us girls.”

I’d envisioned the three of us, mother and daughters, traveling light with only our curiosity and a change of underwear, winding our way through narrow and yet unexplored (by us) cobblestone streets. A friend suggested a day trip outside of Madrid. I figured De-facto could use a quiet night to himself – a projection of my own preference for solitude before a job starts, or so he protested, when I informed him of my desire to stay overnight with the girls in Toledo.

Except it wasn’t De-facto who needed the break, it was me. We’d survived, remarkably well, through several long car trips and the zipping and of unzipping suitcases in a different hotel every few days, but I was reaching my limit. Unfortunately I didn’t realize this until we were at the station café, waiting for the call to board our train to leave Madrid. The girls battled fiercely about being next to or across from me, a good indicator that they, too, were over-saturated with our 24/7 companionship. My admonishments were met with pouty and insolent responses until eventually we sat at three separate tables. I questioned my sanity about being the sole adult chaperone at this ¾-mark in the vacation.

I looked at the barman and shrugged. “Una caña, por favor.” He nodded, knowingly, and poured me a cold glass of beer.

The train ride was just the ticket to distract them from their argument. The excitement of finding the right track, the correct coach and our designated seats obliterated the conflict that had caused such severe enmity. Thirty minutes later, our first view of the medieval walled city had them holding hands and jumping up and down. They were even good sports while we wandered in search of our hotel, a task made more challenging because of the maze-like pattern of Toledo’s narrow streets, and because we arrived at nearly the same hour as a public demonstration. We had to move fast or get stuck in (or run over by) the mass of marching protestors. I spotted a café-bar just ahead of the crowd; we sprinted to it and stepped inside, just in time to watch the long parade of chanting, banner-carrying protestors passing by.

“Who are all those people?” said Buddy-roo.

“They’re demonstrators. It’s like a manifestation in France, a political protest.”

“What’s a political protest?”

“They’re asking the government to change something that they don’t like.”

Redonculous,” said Short-pants. “Why don’t they just write a letter?”

I explained that many letters had probably been written, but in certain situations a collective demonstration is necessary to get the government’s attention.

“It sounds like a big temper tantrum to me,” she said.

“Sometimes that’s what it takes.” I reminded her of the picture of my mother at the ERA convention in the 1970s. That wasn’t a protest, rather an attempt to make a law that would protect the advances already made by the determined women who’d protested and demonstrated so that women could enjoy the same rights as men. “As women – at least in our culture – the two of you have rights that you’d never have if the women from two and three generations before you hadn’t demonstrated in the streets, just like these protestors.”

“You mean like all those women who couldn’t go to the stoning, unless they were dressed as men?” Buddy-roo said.

We’d stayed two nights at a small rural hotel in the north of Spain that had a curious collection of VHS and DVD movies. The Life of Brian, though perhaps not the most ideal family entertainment, was one of the few movies we could watch in English. There is a scene where the participants at the public stoning of a criminal are women (or Monty Python cast members pretending to be women) dressed up as men. We’d had to explain, several times, the significance.

“Yes,” I said. “But I hope you never find yourself at a stoning, dressed as a man or a woman.”

“That’s redonculous,” said Short-pants, “there are no stonings anymore.”

I didn’t tell her – not yet, I will when she’s a little older – that there are places in the world where stoning still occurs, without anything resembling a fair trial. Or how the rule of law – and its boundary with religion – grows blurrier in my own culture these days. I read with furrowed brow the news about proposed legislation to define the personhood of a just-conceived zygote, or attempts to restrict a women’s access to birth control and advice about reproductive health care. When the term slut is used unapologetically by a national media host to describe someone standing up for her rights to birth control, I wonder if something akin to public stonings – with women as the primary target – aren’t coming back into vogue.

Mostly, I worry that my daughters’ generation could end up with fewer rights than mine. It doesn’t impact them now, living in France. But what if they moved back to the United States? Would Short-pants and Buddy-roo would be willing go to the streets in protest to protect the rights achieved by generations of women before them?

We spent the evening wandering the streets of Toledo, sampling tapas at various bars. The girls had stayed up for the late Spanish dinner hour two nights in a row and no doubt this contributed to their ornery outbursts. My strategy was to get a feel for the city by strolling and snacking on enough tapas to feel like dinner. An early night would replenish the sleep in their banks and permit a better mood for tourist activities the following day. The girls are still just shy of the age to fully appreciate museums and churches, but I’d hoped to do at least a drive-by the cathedral and one of the synagogues and if possible peek into the El Greco museum. If I could squeeze in just that small taste of culture, I might be a bit less ornery too.

They resisted the idea, but once I dragged them inside, they marveled at the vaulted nave of the cathedral. While we’re not a church-going family, we respect the opportunity it provides for contemplation and prayer, so we found a pew, seated ourselves quietly and bowed our heads. After her prayer, Buddy-roo made the sign of the cross and looked up at the likeness of Jesus on the crucifix.

“Hey, that looks like Brian,” she said, recalling their (now favorite) movie. The two of them broke into a whispered chorus of the film’s closing song, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Too tired to protest, I hummed along halfheartedly, hoping – praying – that we always can.


Mar 8 2011

Determined Women

One morning in November of 1977, my father woke up to discover his wife pictured on the front page of the daily newspaper. She stood with her arm raised defiantly in the air waving a placard, cheering beside her cohorts, the delegation of women from New York State who were attending the Equal Rights Amendment caucus in Houston, Texas. The photograph had been picked up by the Associated Press wire service and appeared in newspapers nationwide – my mother received clippings from friends and family from all over the country.

I would never have called my mother an activist, but I think she classifies. Throughout her life, she was engaged in local and state (and even a little national) politics. A Rockefeller Republican – for real, she knew him – she managed to be fiscally conservative but socially tolerant, something that’s hard to find these days with the cacophony of the current political climate in the US. She was pro-choice and anti-discrimination. She worked for the passage of the ERA because she believed it would give women the opportunities that they deserved. Growing up with my mother, I couldn’t help but be cognizant of the strides women had made. I admired Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug. I would be a feminist too, just like my mom.

It helped a lot that my father stood beside her. He respected her immensely and the support and encouragement she gave to him was reciprocated. As a little girl, watching and learning about male-female relationships, this was the ideal scenario to observe. It created an expectation, one we ought to cultivate in all little girls, everywhere.

A small aberration: in college I attempted to distance myself from the radical segment of the women’s movement by giving a speech about how I didn’t call myself a feminist. It was an exercise for a class titled Persuasive Communication, which happened to be taught by the resident feminist on campus, a woman who once phoned the request line at the college radio station to complain about the lyrics to The Rolling Stones’ Under My Thumb. My speech, I’m afraid, wasn’t terribly persuasive, but it was a pass/fail course and I still got credit for standing up in front of the room. A few years later, when I went to work in the real world, it didn’t take long before I regretted the talking points of that speech. I came to understand that the existence of the radical is what moves the middle, it draws attention to issues that are otherwise swept under the carpet. There is good reason to stand with your strident sisters.

But what do girls today know of the battles fought by our grandmothers and great grandmothers so that we could be liberated? My daughters have seen the photograph of their grandmother practicing her feminist politics, but they don’t understand where she was and what happened, or that even though the amendment was never ratified, it still had an important impact on women’s rights.

“Women, for real, weren’t allowed to wear pants?” Buddy-roo said, in response to my list of all rights women had to fight for. Short-pants was fixated on the idea of equal pay for equal work, shocked that a man might be paid more for doing the exactly same job.

“Does Papa make more than you?”

“When we do the same kind of work, we make the same amount.”

“Did you have to fight him for that?”

I explained that because the previous generations of women protested and pressed for change, now I don’t have to fight, at least not as much as they did. My soapbox continued, delving into the complexities of women’s advancement and how although great strides have been made – here’s where the girls were starting to tune out so I raised my voice – we shouldn’t take them for granted ever. I told them how women are still paid and treated differently in many professions, especially when it comes to top management, and how there are some people who want to take away a woman’s right to medical care and advice that allows us to remain independent.

“But Papa said women were taking over the world,” said Short-pants, a reference to a speech De-facto made to his Toastmasters club. His speech combined his story of renting a muscle car with a summary of an Atlantic Magazine article about the end of men ruling in the workplace. He practiced it for her so many times that she memorized it, too. “Men. Love. Cars.” She’d repeat these opening words of his speech, emphasizing each word, just as he did.

“Even so,” I said, “we have a long way to go.” I thought about the veiled women who might prefer to be uncovered, and about the atrocities against women that are permitted and promoted in other cultures. Some day I’ll make the girls more aware of this particular brand of religious and cultural inequity, but it didn’t have to be today. They were still getting their heads around the idea of being prohibited from voting, playing sports or simply wearing trousers.

All of this just the warm-up for an inspired cultural excursion to a little museum down the street, the Galerie des bibliotèque-de-la-ville, which happened to be exhibiting a collection of photographs of French feminist movement. Short-pants was eager to come along, Buddy-roo not so much, opting to stay at home and watch a Barbie movie that I would later try to interpret for her through a feminist lens: “See, the princess didn’t need the prince to rescue her, she had her own creative ideas and they worked together to solve the problem.”

What better way to celebrate Women’s History month than an edifying stroll through French feminist history, of which I know very little. But even if I didn’t recognize the names of the women in all those photographs, I could recognize their spirit; there was a look of determination in the eyes of every portrait we saw.

I pointed this out to Short-pants, as we walked past the framed photographs, reading the paragraph about each woman’s contribution to the feminist movement. I told her about how the simple choices that she and I count on would not exist were it not for the spirit of these courageous women. What I didn’t her – not yet – is how lately it feels like women’s rights are being assailed in the United States, and that ultimately having a foot on French soil may be the thing keeps her free and fierce.

“When I grow up,” she said, nodding at the photographs, “I’m going to be just as determined.”

“That’s just what it takes,” I said, hoping she never has to put her fist in the air to get what she wants. But if it comes to that – because she’s got a bit of her grammy in her – I think she’ll be up to the task.