The executive director of the local history museum found me on a Saturday afternoon in a friend’s art gallery. “I’m glad I caught you,” Susan said, and launched into a litany of information about an event she was organizing on Washington women’s suffrage.
She caught me off-guard. Although, I claim to blog about politics, I usually squeeze it in haphazardly, no big plan, just an occasional ‘hey,’ which sounds surprisingly like, “And we should all care about government...or at least pretend we do.” I never think about my right to vote, or ponder that it’s a privilege earned not by divine right, but by courageous women who believed in equality, wrestled men with words, challenged leaders and laws, and exhibited extreme persistence by introducing the same amendment every session of Congress for 41 years.
Susan, wrapped in enthusiasm, noted that Wyoming was the first state to allow women to vote, Washington—not too far behind—was the fifth. Of course, I knew globally some women still did not have the right, and it wasn’t until 1971 that women in Switzerland were able to vote—if you’re older than 38 that happened in your lifetime. So, why don’t I appreciate this right more, if at all?
Susan detailed her event, a gathering of sorts, a mind-meld of diverse women from our community, a way to brainstorm how to celebrate the 100th anniversary of our right to vote. “Sign me up,” I said. She did.
A month later, on a sweet summer evening I walked up the steep steps of the Carnegie Library on Main Street. Years earlier the building had been converted to the museum and more recently updated to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. I entered the echoing space and shared a meal surrounded by women and women’s handiwork, pieces of reed and bark once bought for mere tokens, now revered as priceless, an ongoing display of Native American basketry.
My table mates were also priceless:
Jean - ran for public office in the late 1950's and became the first woman on city council
Ann - our county’s first woman scoutmaster
Florence - first woman executive director of the Francisco Symphony
Cheryl - college debate team member whose experience propelled the first test case on harassment and discrimination
Dorothy - first HR specialist to put women into jobs on the male-dominated manufacturing floor
Jerri - past state president for Delta Kappa Gamma, a national society of women educators
Mi - first female president of our local Korean Society
Karen - recruiter (and counselor) for political candidates
Norma - stay-at-home mom in the 60’s, now university professor
Melissa - English as second language teacher
Erika - a college student
Becky - a volunteer at our local community college
Kerri - one of the first women on the Rotary Foundation Board
Molly - an attorney
Lisa - an art history professor
Stacee - a mayor in a neighboring town
Maureen - an artist
Molly – daughter of the first woman to receive a Meier & Frank credit card, but only after the department store called her husband and asked for his permission
These fascinating women shared amazing stories. They reminded us that over 130 state laws changed in 1972 when Washington enacted its own Equal Rights Amendment. Changes, so small and seemingly insignificant by today’s standards, but ones they valued because they had lived without them:
“Getting my name in the phone book along with my husband’s”
“Getting credit cards in my own name”
“Having my own checking account”
“Being able to compete in sports...Title IX”
“Comparable worth pay”
They spoke of personal gains:
“Learning we could get married and postpone having children”
“Or not have any”
“Or choose a career”
“Being part of a state that produced the highest number of women in the legislature”
“The only state to have a woman governor and two women senators at the same time”(Chris Gregoire, Patti Murray and Maria Cantwell)
“Changing the school dress codes so I could wear pants in weather 35 degrees below zero”
The chill of remembering changed the pride. The hurts of the past emerged like a lazy, backwater relative you were hoping to ignore if not hide, a cultural backlash from the younger generation, youth who do not comprehend how recently gains have been made, have no idea how much they take for granted, and remain clueless on what yet remains to be targeted to create new opportunities.
The women I met that Sunday noted that cleaning products are still only advertised to women. They complained that college systems mostly make competition fair, but outside in the job world it isn’t. “Along with many other bright and caring women my daughter went into medicine and salaries plummeted,” shared a mother caught between pride and anger.
“I agree we have more laws that help us with access, but that glass smacks you hard if you go against the ceiling,” said a woman with experience in the military.
Another added, “I broke through the glass ceiling with shards of glass in my neck.”
They spun stories of subtleties and how dangerous they can be. The older women encouraged us to teach our children what those subtleties are, how they pervade our assumptions, our language, our perceptions.
“A conference room is littered with men and someone needs to take minutes. Everyone looks at me.” Why?
“BlueCross would not pay for my birth control, but they would pay for Rick Nelson’s Viagra.” Why?
“Women’s dress codes state ‘no dangling earrings,’ but is that on the dress code for men?”
“If you stand your ground, you’re aggressive, you’re a little hormonal, it’s that time of the month.”
“I can assert myself appropriately, but I hear 'she’s bitchy, she can’t take a joke.'” Why?
“If I beat boys in sports I’m labeled a lesbian.” Why?
“If you’re going to succeed you need to learn how to play golf, but you can’t be good enough to win. If you win you emasculate them.”
Them...why is it we all know who they are? Or do we?
Women’s experience dealing with credit issues or banks has changed very little. You are not the same person without a man. “Recently, a staff person’s husband was killed in a car accident. They had a line of credit with a local bank, never had a late payment and had good assets. The bank came at her the week he died and asked her to file new loan papers.” Why?
“This generation hasn’t had a struggle, hasn’t fought a significant war, they sense that everything is okay, and look for the path of least resistance, get what I want without too much effort.”
“We don’t remember that before 1976 marital rape was legal in every state.” I heard a door open and close as a few women with evening commitments drifted out: meal planning, laundry, ironing.
In the aching silence a woman sighed. “I don’t get a sisterhood feel. I get more pressure from women to not be more.” The room tensed.
“When do we get to not blame ourselves?” someone asked.
“It's not simple,” Susan answered, her voice gaining strength as she gathered our drifting attention. I was eager for a resolute summary that would conclude we had not faltered with the gift we'd been given. “There's a case right now in Newport prosecuting a teenager who took photos of another girl and sent it out over a cell phone. She is being held for a stupid mistake she made. She didn’t comprehend what she was doing. Now the way the court is looking at her she could be jailed and have to register as a sex offender.”
“Texting has made our children predators,” a young mother acknowledged.
“Sexting,” a co-ed corrected.
I shivered. Susan’s right. It's not simple.
The group took a collective breath and then released it as Susan steered the discussion to easier topics -- how to celebrate the gains that had been made over the last 100 years. Someone mentioned a display of underwear and that elicited a collective laugh.
The renewed planning warmed the open space as I slipped out. I started my car and before backing out flicked my eyes over the rear view mirror. How did we lose sight of the line between right and wrong? I waited for the traffic to clear. Or has the difference only become more subtle?
What do you think?