Back in Guanajuato after a five-day writers’ conference in nearby San Miguel d’Allende. This is an annual event that attracts some pretty big names as keynote speakers—last night, Gloria Steinem.
I found her address a bit disappointing. She’d been asked to speak about “writing our way to revolution”. Her audience consisted primarily of women of my generation, most of whom I sensed were not gearing up for revolution anymore. She did have some thought-provoking observations, though, most interestingly about the messages hidden in the language we use. In an earlier keynote, Alice Walker made some similar observations. None of them revolutionary, though.
I’m not usually wowed by famous names. I never choose to stand in line for book-signings. I’ve also never been in the vanguard of feminism. At first, I wasn’t wowed by Gloria Steinem, either—mostly impressed by the fact that she’s eight-one years old and looks fantastic. When someone in the audience asked her how she did it (clearly not the politically correct question to ask a feminist!), she insisted she’d been dying her hair all her life and that how she looked didn’t really matter. But come on!—nobody looks like that at eight-one without working on it as if it mattered!
What struck a chord in me, as the questions-and-answers came to an end, was the remembered sense of purpose that permeated our generation’s early years. For that half hour, I felt it resurrected in that room, where the vast majority were women who had been young in the heydays of second wave feminism. And—despite my vague disappointment in the keynote address—I stood and clapped and cheered, tearing up a bit in memory of those days and in appreciation for how much women’s lives have changed, thanks in no small part to Gloria Steinem and her cohorts.
The keynote speaker who wowed me beyond all others was poet Richard Blanco. Read him. Just read him. (But I think listening to him was even better.) And I’m not really a poetry person.
I pitched my memoir to a couple of agents at the conference–no real interest there, no surprise. But I did connect with a woman who’s an agent and a consultant for first-time authors, and she seemed interested in working with me, so I’m feeling encouraged.
It’s been awhile since I posted anything from the memoir, so here’s part of the chapter entitled “Rural Sisterhood”. And this is interesting–for the first time, distributing it widely, I feel the need to change names. So I have, as many of you will know.
Although I had attended a few Women’s Lib meetings during my grad school years, by the early 1970s—while I paid lip service to feminism—I wasn’t battling gender stereotypes; as a back-to-the-land wife and mother, I was embracing them. And by distancing myself from the vanguard of second wave feminism, I became entangled in its central contradiction.
In one ear, I heard voices telling me that women’s lives and experiences were to be celebrated, their domestic and child-rearing skills—honed over generations—to be honoured. In the other ear, louder, more insistent voices exhorted me to free myself from the chains of the patriarchy and break into the world of higher learning, commerce, politics—the world of men. They hammered their message into my subconscious: women’s work was drudgery and women at home with children—women like me—were slaves to the patriarchy, unknowing co-conspirators in our own imprisonment. The quieter voices resonated with my heart; the louder voices battered my self-esteem.
Jane was resisting the louder voices, too, but she was not a slave to anything, and she protected her self-esteem with an armour of conviction. She arrived at Susan’s house for our first women’s health discussion group in her standard attire—a cotton skirt just reaching the tops of mismatched knee socks, with an over-sized brown cardigan hanging loosely over a peasant blouse. She radiated more energy than seemed possible for her tiny frame. She carried flip charts, a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and a plate of small, dense-looking brown muffins. She started speaking as she set up her easel and flip-charts at one end of the room. “My idea is to have a different topic each week—something that relates to female health and anatomy.” We exchanged glances; this felt more like a class than a discussion group.
“I thought we’d start with bladders,” said Jane.
As it turns out, there’s a lot to know about the role of the bladder in female health. Jane began with the basics. “In women, the bladder is below the uterus and in front of the vagina.” She pointed to her first diagram. “It’s pretty tight in there, which means that women have a lower bladder capacity than men.” She flipped to a cut-away diagram of a male whose bladder did, indeed, have more room to expand. “It also means women are more prone to bladder problems than men.”
“A great topic,” said Susan. “Anybody else here ever wet their pants when they laugh?” Susan crossed her legs to emphasize her problem and burst out laughing. “Everybody knows where the bathroom is, right?” We all laughed with her, and I hoped Jane would lighten up.
She didn’t. Serious business. “So, Susan has a weak bladder. That can be an inherited condition, or it can be brought on by pregnancy.” She held up a balloon half filled with water and a pear pretending to be a uterus. “We’ve all experienced the pressure on the bladder from the expanding uterus during pregnancy. Sometimes the muscles and ligaments involved in bladder control weaken during pregnancy.”
And so it went. We learned about bladder infections, aging bladders, and bladder repair surgery. We learned how to do pelvic floor exercises, and perked up a bit when Jane assured us they would improve our sex lives as well as our bladder control.
When there was nothing more to know about bladders, Jane announced, “I’ve brought muffins. They’re coarse-ground wheat with extra wheat germ. And they’re sweetened with molasses. Very healthy.” She pushed the chipped china plate with a dozen muffins toward us while Susan hurried to the kitchen to make tea.
“And I have butter tarts,” said Connie. Ah, yes. Connie’s butter tarts. Perfect little 2-inch pastry cups, filled with a sweet, gooey, butter-and-brown-sugar mixture.
“We are what we eat,” I thought, eyeing the butter tarts, thinking of Adele Davis, and realizing that my relationship with natural food was becoming increasingly fickle.
“I’ll start with one of your muffins, Jane,” said Fran, “and then have a butter tart for dessert.” Fran was the gentlest, most innately kind member of the group.
“Good idea,” said Nancy. “We’ll have healthy and then sweet.”
“Is that herbal tea?” asked Jane, as Susan came in with a teapot and mugs.
“No. Just regular tea.”
“Well, I have mint tea bags here if anyone else would prefer that. Better for you.” She reached into her sweater pocket pulled out a couple of crumpled tea bags.
And so we continued with Bladders—as, unbeknownst to Jane, we quickly dubbed these sessions—week after week, topic after topic, from one house to another, using Our Bodies, Ourselves as a guide. Pregnancy and birth—always an interesting topic when it’s your own, but as for the technicalities, we’d all been there, done that. Breast feeding—hardly controversial among this group of women who all milked cows or goats and knew how mammaries worked. Some alien process called menstrual extraction, by which we could learn to extract menstrual fluids all at once to avoid having periods—a concept that Jane illustrated with diagrams of tubes and suction devices and the rest of us dismissed immediately. Menopause—which ranked somewhere near funeral planning for a group of women who hadn’t yet celebrated their thirtieth birthdays. Sometimes Jane’s intensity was infectious, but more often than not I was counting the minutes until the butter tarts appeared. And the muffins.
One evening in early March, the group was sitting around Connie’s spacious kitchen table, drinking tea from flowered china cups and enjoying the aroma of butter tarts fresh from the oven, when Jane arrived with a movie projector and screen.
I knew this week’s topic was abortion. It was a topic that made me uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable because—unlike the vocal pro-choice advocates—I couldn’t ignore the potential humanity of a fetus. Uncomfortable because I knew restricting access to abortion caused misery and death to women, and sometimes to children, whose humanity was unquestionable, here and now. Uncomfortable because I was the mother of both a biological daughter and an adopted son—the result of an unwanted pregnancy—a rambunctious, curly-haired, bright-eyed boy who might otherwise have been an abortion. Uncomfortable because abortion presents a prototypical dilemma—an issue that offers no solace on either side. Or so I thought. Jane’s movie that night begged to differ.
The film introduced us to a series of women who had had abortions. They looked into the camera and told us how that decision had changed their lives, in every case for the better. A woman with three young children could care for them better without the burden of a fourth. A young teen could go back to school and finish growing up without the responsibilities and stigma of motherhood. A woman who felt herself unready for parenthood could now make life choices that suited her. And so it went. A liberating decision for all. No regrets, no second thoughts. “Orgasmic,” one woman said, facing the camera, referring to her three abortions. I squirmed.
Suddenly Nancy, sitting beside me, pushed her chair back and left the room. I heard her pull on her boots and open the door. The movie carried on, but for the moment, no one was listening.
“I’ll see if she’s okay,” I said. At the door, I called out. “Nancy? What’s up?”
“I just have to go home,” she said.
“Wait. I’ll come with you.” She must be sick, I thought, and it was a fifteen-minute walk to her house.
When I caught up, zipping my jacket as I ran along the snowy road, she was close to tears. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to make a fuss. But I have a lot of trouble with abortion.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Well, I had a baby.”
We were walking along the snow-covered road between Connie’s house and Nancy’s. Our boots were squeaking in the cold. My eyes adjusted to the darkness and took in the stars, the rocky hillside to my right, the fields and Connie’s barn to my left.
“We’ve all had babies,” I said.
“I mean I had a baby—a little girl—that I gave up. Before I met Bill. I thought about an abortion. I couldn’t do it. It’s okay with me if some people can. But orgasmic? I just couldn’t listen to any more of that—those shallow, insipid women singing the praises of abortion as if it were a new hairdo. Let them do it, but have some respect for the seriousness of it.”
I tried to take this in. “How awful for you. I can’t imagine.” And I really couldn’t. I’d tried before, when I thought of Robin’s birth mother.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
I couldn’t speak. She continued.
“Hardly anybody knows. Susan. My sister. Bill. Now you. Not my parents. Please don’t say anything. I know she was adopted into a good home. I gave her a locket. I don’t know anything else. Every year, I can hardly get through her birthday.”
I caught my breath in a wave of recognition.
“I always think of Robin’s birth mother on his birthday—how she must feel.” I paused. “Maybe her mom thinks of you.”
The tears I felt welling up in my eyes were for Nancy, and for Robin’s birth mother—whoever and wherever she was. But they were also tears of happiness. Nancy trusted me with her confidence, with the depth of her pain, with a full measure of friendship.
I pictured the women in Jane’s movie. Their right? Yes, of course. Their right, their choice. I would defend that; we destroy human lives for less. But surely not so easy. Surely not orgasmic.
Bladders was winding down. The season for evenings of laughter and butter tarts was almost over; soon we’d be back on the fields and in the gardens.
The first week of April, we converged on Jane’s house, which was still wrapped in its plastic shell for the winter, though icicles dripped from the eaves. I crossed the bare wood floor with a braid rug in the centre and settled into the worn, brown sofa beside Nancy. We had a clear view of the apple and pear parade on the kitchen wall.
“I still think we should have made the apples level with the counter,” Nancy whispered.
In addition to the usual group, Jane had invited a couple of neighbours to join us for the evening. When we’d all settled into chairs or sprawled on the floor, we went around the circle with introductions. Alice was a quiet, heavy-set woman a few years older than the rest of us, her short dark hair beginning to grey at the temples. She greeted each of us with a whispered “Nice to meet you.” Joyce, who already knew Fran and Connie, nodded a friendly hello.
The evening’s topic was breast cancer—its symptoms, treatments, survival statistics—and how to detect it. Jane described the different types of cancer, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and passed around her copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves with drawings of women after radical and simple mastectomies. Then she moved on to detection.
“Now, if you all want to take off your blouses—and bras if you’re wearing one—I’ll give you a demonstration of self-examination, and you can practice,” she said, pulling off her sweater to reveal her own small breasts, dark nipples puckered in the chill of the barely heated room.
I looked around. Though none of us reached the high standard set by Jane, we saw ourselves as liberal, relatively uninhibited women. We could at least pretend to take this in stride. I didn’t mind exposing my breasts, as long as everyone else did. Joyce shrugged and began to unbutton her blouse. But Alice barely knew Jane and didn’t know the rest of us at all. Clearly her expectation, when she headed out for the evening, had not included stripping from the waist up. Connie didn’t look happy, either. An uncomfortable squirm made its way around the room.
Nancy finally spoke up. “Not everyone is comfortable with this, Jane. Maybe we could just stay covered up if we want to.”
“Well, we’re all women after all,” said Jane. “But of course, everyone can do what they like. When we’re done with self-examination, though, we’re going to learn to examine each other.”
“Over my dead body,” I heard Alice mutter—the most she’d said since she arrived—as she tentatively slipped her hand under her blouse. The rest of us unhooked our bras and hunched our shirts up far enough to follow Jane’s instructions on how to search for abnormal lumps and bumps. As we moved the fingers of our right hands clockwise around our left breasts, I suddenly imagined this scene from an onlooker’s eyes: eight women lying on their backs feeling their own breasts while Jane stood bare-breasted before them, feeling hers. Then I fast-forwarded as my imaginary voyeur moved on to the next scene, when—at Jane’s command—we began feeling each others’ breasts. Then I imagined my Women’s Institute neighbours at this event. A snort of laughter escaped my lips and ignited the tension in the room. All pretense of submission to Jane’s lesson evaporated. Like a roomful of teenagers, we laughed until we cried.
“I think we’ve had enough of this,” said Susan, who never hesitated to take charge. She was still gasping to control her laughter—and perhaps her bladder. “Jane, how about I put on the kettle for tea?”
Jane reached for her sweater. “I guess so,” she said, pulling it down over her head and shaking her hair free. “I’m really a little surprised that this group is still so hung up about their own bodies. But let’s call it off early. I’ve made some oatmeal cookies.”
“And I have butter tarts,” said Connie.
Bladders was not about women’s liberation. And yet, as I page through an old copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, I realize that our weekly discussions about the intricacies of hormone cycles and sexual response fell squarely into the context of the feminism of the 1970s. It’s hard to remember, now, how radical the book was then. Its frank discussions and detailed illustrations were a primer for women just beginning to gain the right to control their own bodies, as a precondition to controlling their own lives. The pill had just—finally—given them an independent and reliable method of birth control, and women’s sexuality was bursting into the public arena with a frankness and a vigour that startled the timid and shocked the reserved. A few brave lesbians were emerging from the closet. But abortion was illegal in most jurisdictions; childbirth was still a largely medicalized procedure; new mothers fought for the right to put babies to their breasts before nurses bottle-fed them sugar-water; and male doctors trivialized issues relating to women’s bodies. When Connie’s doctor recommended a hysterectomy and she wasn’t convinced, he compared her uterus to a baby buggy in the attic—no longer of any use. “I could say the same of his aging balls,” Connie said. To us, not to him.
Forty years later, Our Bodies, Ourselves is a mainstream publication in its ninth edition, sporting a pink cover. In those four decades, the women’s movement has claimed a thousand personal and political triumphs, but the contradictions that plagued me in the 1970s have not been resolved. The conflicting voices that vied for my soul still compete to seduce young women, pulling them toward and away from both home and careers. Toward and away from the constraints and the joys of childrearing. Toward and away from the traditions of their grandmothers, the accomplishments of their mothers, the expectations of their peers, and the secret dreams of their private selves.
I still hear the voices, too, but faintly now. In the end, of course, my heart carried the day and my self-esteem limped along, never fully satisfied that I met the criteria for a truly liberated woman, until at some point—more later than sooner—I looked over my shoulder and noticed that the fork in the road was too far back to see clearly and the paths not taken were tangled with brambles, no longer inviting.
Our Wednesday night explorations of mammary glands, birth control, and our own sexual natures were far from the cutting edge of feminism. To assign much real influence to these sessions would be stretching the truth. In fact, Jane’s earnestness notwithstanding, they were more about friendship, laughter, and food than the weighty issues of the women’s movement. But Jane did give voice to the softer side of feminism, and by celebrating the role of the female body as a source of strength and traditional power, she helped clear the path I had chosen through the maze that was—and still is—womanhood.