NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ve reposted a milestone post each day. But since tomorrow is The Day I went back and grabbed a bunch of photos – watching years fly by. Here they are – in no particular order.
I don’t know if it’s possible for younger people today to know how terrible that time before Roe was for so many young women like Penny, who faced the terror and hopelessness of an unwanted pregnancy, or what a real miracle it was that she was rescued.
Dirty Dancing is set in the summer of 1963, just before Francis “Baby” Houseman is about to leave for Mt Holyoke. I left only a year later, for Smith. So she and I are cousins, if not sisters. Each wanting to change the world, each with a wonderful, trusting father, each falling for a bad boy with such a different history from our own … and each inexperienced in realities such as those faced by a pregnant dancer with no money whose illegal abortion goes terribly wrong.
She nearly dies — saved only by the skill of Francis’ doctor father. The film is a fairy tale – in the love story for sure, but also in the story of the damsel in distress rescued by a fatherly wizard who brings her back from the brink. Most women in those pre-Roe days – and many again now, in states where abortion rights are savaged every day — faced real back alleys and unskilled procedures on kitchen tables with no wizard, or anyone else, to save them. Penny’s story was as real as they come, and it’s no joke to remind us that her fairy tale is in real danger of once again becoming the dark horror story it used to be.
So yes – it’s always fun when cultural references inform reality. But it’s hard to enjoy even this clever comparison when the lives of so many Pennys and her sisters are in such terrible jeopardy.
How do the artists we admire find their way? What do they sacrifice to share their vision with the rest of us? How does it feel? Were they ever satisfied with what they made?
The great Patti Smith answered many of these questions, and more, in her 2010 memoir Just Kids. It was, to me a real gift – a peek behind the curtain that stands between the journey and the outcome. It was a long time before another such revelation turned up. But first, consider this:
“Of course women aren’t as creative as men,” he said. “After all, they create children. They don’t have the same drive to do anything else. How many female composers do you know of?”
That wasn’t some 21st century sexist. That was a professor at Smith, the excellent, committed, women’s college where I spent four years in the late 60s. He was sitting in the “housemother’s parlor” after dinner, speaking with whomever of us had turned up for coffee. I remember thinking “Huh. That’s interesting.” and feeling, at his declaration, not outrage but sadness — and humiliation.
I remembered this moment for the first time in decades as a rash of holiday films raised questions about creativity and art, agency and power, commitment and sacrifice. Into the Woods offered a grim view of women’s lives, where mothers imprison their daughters, daughters abuse their sisters, bakers long to become mothers and deliver their most important lessons after they’re dead, and it’s all the witch’s fault. Steven Sondheim’s beloved musical includes some lovely songs and I went mostly to see Anna Kendrick but still…
No witches but a desperate mother who sells her soul for her art (and, kind of, for love) emerges in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes. It’s the story of American painter Margaret Keane, whose husband Walter stole her art, her talent and her reputation and took them for his own. The cost of continuing to paint and still support herself and her daughter was to surrender the right to take credit for her own work. A woman in the 50’s making art for a living was unthinkable, or so he told her. Her story is a bridge – she owned her creativity but not the product.
Then came Mr. Turner, an exquisite profile of the brilliant JMW Turner, a maker of art, no matter what the cost. The film is a journey through his life as a painter of sea and landscapes and the invincible drive to create images of the beauty he saw. His singular vision, the decisions he made to preserve that vision, his almost Asberger’s detachment from most people and his startling depth of commitment to the two people he truly loved combined in a thrilling consideration of art and love and living with both: a portrait of what is required of any artist, woman or man, to share what they see and feel and understand.
And so we return to Patti. She and Turner are bookends on this shelf. As with Mr. Turner, we learn what she lived and learned and made and what she left behind to do it — a woman slamming through barriers with commitment and with love. An woman’s tale of what must be done – and of a woman expecting, demanding and embracing — as did Turner — all it took to share what she sees with the rest of us.
I was 17 the first time I saw this, a Pittsburgh kid with grand ambitions for worldliness and intellectual heft and the ability to do the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink; so many that I actually subscribed to magazines like The Saturday Review, The New Yorker and SHOW: the Magazine of the Arts, where Gloria’s famous Playboy Club expose first appeared.
My reaction: “What a showboat, dumb thing to do!” My (never-less-than-honest) mother responded “You’re just jealous!” And she was right. Gloria had done something I so wanted to do – and so early in her career! How could I ever get from a Monongahela River mill town to that?
I never dreamed that Gloria, too, came from an industrial town – Toledo – much less that we would both have attended the same college, that I would hear her speak at my sister’s Smith graduation, and that, amazingly, I would actually come to know this remarkable woman. And here, on her 80th birthday, is what I learned:
In 1974, I told one of Ms’ spectacular co-founders how much I admired her. She replied “That’s how I feel about Gloria.” Heroes have heroes too, and hers was Gloria.
In 1982, for Ms. Magazine‘s 10th birthday, I produced an anniversary story called “A Day in the Life of Gloria Steinem” for the Today Show. The camera crew and I took a train from Penn Station to Philadelphia with her and followed her from event to event, including a couple of large public appearances. At least once every couple of minutes, a woman would walk up to her to thank her for something: courage, perspective, “you changed my life.”
Every time, every interruption, every stop on the street or in the hotel lobby or the ball room or the train, she treated each woman as if she were the first one she’d ever met. She listened intently. She responded in a very personal way. Every time.
To Gloria, every woman: each of us, all of us, has mattered to her. We are not just a formidable, critical cause, we are women who one by one by one have been living the lives women live, unequal, unheralded, amazing lives.
It is this that has made her the most remarkable of leaders, of change agents and of women. Never, in all the marches and speeches and honors and sadnesses has she forgotten that each one of us is all of us. She is not just a leader, she is a shining example. And inside each of us, we know it.
Happy Birthday Gloria – and thanks, from all of us here now and the girls and women yet to come.
Take a look at this MAKERS profile, too.
When you're nineteen or twenty and living in a college dorm in western Massachusetts life is beautiful. Especially in the morning. There's something about a New England morning that feels like a new beginning. If you're in the country, that's even more true.
So today, when I received my "Happy Mountain Day" message, I found myself hurtling back to those mornings- once a year – when the fall foliage was at its best and mid-terms were coming, when we'd awaken to the sound of bells and know it was Mountain Day. Classes were canceled, box lunches were waiting in the dorm dining rooms, and the day was ours. The idea was that we take our bicycles or the bus or someone's car and go see what a New England autumn was all about.
Smith College was way before its time in many ways: educating women, educating the whole person (maintaining a healthy body AND a healthy mind), advocating for an equal role for all of us. It's no accident that Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan along with Julia Child, Molly Ivins, Jane Harman, Madeleine l'Engle and hundreds of other remarkable women studied there.
You didn't teach at Smith to get famous or publish best-sellers. University professors got the attention, even though those who taught us were certainly as knowledgeable. Somehow though, people who taught "girls" were considered lesser beings. Of course there were rewards: eager, grateful students who reveled in learning and arguing and growing toward success, students who returned to say thank-you, and a lovely, civilized environment. When we wanted to start an African-American studies curriculum, we just found a professor who was willing to supervise us, and we had one. Faculty members were expected to come to dinner when they were invited, and eat with a table of curious underclasswomen. We spent enormous amounts of time hanging around with professors, and one another, figuring out everything from the meaning of pacifism to the puzzles that were Stan Brakhage films.
As women, we formed a sisterhood that lasts. Meet another "Smithie" and there's a bond – a grateful understanding of what we've shared. I know that happens in lots of schools, but women's colleges have a special understanding – because we made a choice to study with one another in a specific environment that enriched and strengthened us.
And Mountain Day? Well, think about it. Seasons, beauty, nature, a sense of priorities, self-education, fun, friendship. All enhanced by ringing bells, box lunches and the oranges, reds and yellows of a New England fall. Reminding all the ambitious, capable and very busy women who came to and left to remember, as they moved forward, to ring the bell once in a while, go outside and look at the leaves.