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November 24, 2008

The dropping of barriers

After the historic election this month, the visions dancing in my head are of a post-patchwork America where race, gender, and other dividing lines fade away and people are judged, as Martin Luther King dreamed, by the content of their character.  And this hopeful moment comes just as I am thinking about a conversation I had recently with Judith Nies about her new book, “The Girl I Left Behind:  A Narrative History of the Sixties."

Gender equality is the issue in this book.  Talk about the personal being political:  Nies has written a fascinating account of her own personal experience interwoven with her observations of a pivotal decade of political and social history. 

Given that women doctors, tenured professors, Supreme Court justices--and, yes, candidates for national office--no longer surprise us with the very fact of their existence, it is a little shocking to realize how recently that has come to be.  The ‘60s Nies remembers, as I do, was a time when the celebrated peace activists were often men who still expected the women to be making the coffee.  It was an era when smart women were  shunted into low level jobs for, as Nies quotes one job recruiter, “a year or two before you get married.”  This is a story about a time when it was taken for granted that the person in charge would be a man.  A white man. 

Nies’s story is about political and personal awakening.  The spark for the book came in a 2003 speech by President George W. Bush in which he promised “the women of the Middle East” that “your day of freedom is coming.”  Nies heard that and thought, instead, of the men who, just a few years before, had not rushed to guarantee that freedom to America’s women.

“I remembered that most members of his Cabinet and of his Administration had voted and worked against us,” Nies says.  “I was interested in looking at how history affects individual choices and behaviors.”

The decade’s most notable markers are all in the book, and Nies’s readers often tell her how much of what she has written resonates for them, too.  There are the countless slights and oversights that resulted in the “click of recognition”--that double-take moment of suddenly seeing how women were excluded from serious conversation and for consideration for serious work. There is the remembrance of gratuitous comments that constantly told women their value was decorative, supportive.  

There is the scene of arriving for a meeting and being stopped at the front door and directed, instead, to the “ladies’ entrance” in the back.  And there is the dramatic moment when representatives of a grassroots movement of 50,000 women from across the country insisted on being heard by the Congressional committee considering what became the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. 

Nies makes the point that change doesn’t just “happen,” how even talking about women being “given” the right to vote denies the years of struggle and sacrifice that went into making it happen.  She tells about her own actions in arguing for women to be admitted to the House of Representatives’ visitors’ gallery instead of being segregated in a “ladies’ gallery,” and in helping open the Rhodes Scholarships to women. 

It comes as a slight shock to realize that these changes happened only 40 years ago, just as it’s amazing to see this new president elected short decades after Emmett Till, the Birmingham church bombing, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge made nation-shaming headlines. 

Just as I was back in a ‘60s state of mind, a friend phoned with this story: Her daughter had applied for a restaurant hostess job and was told that she could be given an interview only after submitting a photograph. Click! 

It may be a new morning in America, but there’s work still to be done.

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©2007 Ellen Steinbaum

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The cover of my book, Afterwords, was designed by Kate Misail.
The painting on the cover of the book, which is also pictured on this page, is by Eric Sealine.

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