If you had been there, last Friday, what would you have retorted?
At my Friday morning Free Fall writing group, Judy told us a woman at her swimming pool fitness class objected to the instructor saying, “…you guys…”
I retorted, “Take her aside, and tell her the history of feminism.” That’s all I felt I had time to say. Otherwise, I could have added, “If she twists the word “guys” to mean males only, then she is twisting apart the good work of feminists. She’s grabbing the wheel of progress, and pulling it backwards.”
I wish I could tell you that when we strain at the ropes and pulleys of progress, there is a ratchet clicking in, making sure that “equal rights” do not go backwards. But I can’t, for that’s not the case. There are forces opposed, people opposed, pulling us back.
Case in point: I can remember, back during the same years as the women’s liberation movement, when words like “homosexual” and “lesbian” were dirty, fearful things to say. A gay woman asked me to say, instead, “gay,” as being a nicer word without stigma. We were then entering a world of gay rights and phrases like “in the closet.” But there were opposing forces, and today the bigots, when they don’t say homosexual, will snarl “gay” with a degree of hatred once reserved for “homosexual.” Idealists had hoped the 21st century would mean equality and tolerance. Instead, teenagers have taken to saying, “gay” the way we used to say “gimp” or “that’s lame,” by saying “that’s so gay.” The pulley has no ratchet.
These adolescents, on the brink of full adulthood, using “gay” as a term of disparagement are perhaps, possibly, the same ones who say “I don’t believe in equal rights” and “I am not a feminist” and “don’t say “you guys.”” Back in 1977, mercifully, idealists could not foresee that such an un-liberated, unequal, unimproved world would still be with us in 2017. To know this wimpy dark future, back then, would have punctured our hearts and deflated us. …just when we needed all the energy we could summon for our uphill climb.
I was born in the un-liberated 1950’s. It’s still my favorite decade, but I wouldn’t want to live there. New labor saving appliances were appearing in our homes… and in response? We just labored more. Every housewife was to be her own Martha Stewart. This was normal to us, the only culture we knew. How could any well-adjusted sensible person possibly say our surrounding culture was wrong? Maybe artists knew better, maybe, but not the rest of us. We were happy to be normal.
When the 1960’s came along, when there was new affluence and all sorts of new action groups for change… that was a time when the young longhaired males were the leaders, and the young women fetched the coffee—always. In the 1970s, though, things slowly changed, as some groups of women began meeting in circles, without a leader, involved in something new under the sun: Consciousness Raising. And that’s a phrase that young people of today don’t know.
What is “consciousness” you ask? Put it this way: Take your space-and-time machine to the U.S. south east, to the year 1965. If you are white like me, step out of your machine and ask around. All the self-described “Negroes” are conscious that something is very wrong. But many of the white Americans are saying, “Our Negroes are happy, the only problem is these dam “outside agitators” coming in and stirring them up.” An entire society of white liars? Not exactly. Rather, it’s as if the whites live in a separate society, one with a lower consciousness. Maybe not the artists, not comedians like Lenny Bruce or George Carlin, but the others? Sure. Even white church leaders thought this way.
It remained for Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., writing in 1963 to some clergymen while he was imprisoned in Birmingham jail, to explain that no one in the United States could be called an “outsider” any more: When the bell tolls, it tolls for us all. King challenged them to take action, saying, “…human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability”.
Can any church or community leader believe in equal rights if he is male, white and filthy rich? Yes he can. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made half of his cabinet female; he responded to a question about this action by saying, “Because it’s 2016.” He said this because forces were still opposed.
There are consequences to having your consciousness raised or lowered. Case in point: It will be a long time before U.S. citizens forget the court case of Roe versus Wade, making abortion legal. This case allowed a change of actions, allowing a change of views, and causing, of course, a change of consciousness.
Important to feminism is the case of Brown versus Board of Education. Brown was a young idealistic parent who said his Negro children should be allowed an education equal to whites: In other words, be allowed the freedom to sit in white classrooms, so as to get an equal education. At the time, some whites presumably said it was good for Blacks to have their own separate schools, because those all-Black elementary and secondary schools offered an equally good education. Needless to say, this view was false. The Black schools, in the words of the whites, were “separate but equal.”
A phrase that might, depending on the consciousness level, be well-intentioned or sinister. My view? Sinister. How so? The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May, 1954 that the schools had to racially integrate, to change, but NOT change “as fast as humanly possible.” Instead, change “with all deliberate speed.” Regardless of the ideal, in practice this meant change that was slow, glacially slow. Meaning: A child born the year the court ruled could grow, start grade one, go one to finish her final year of high school, if she got that far, and still not attend a half decent school with whites. The forces of opposition were with us then, and are with us today.
If you wish women to be separate but equal, then don’t use gender inclusive words like “guys.”
Maybe the first women’s libbers were wiser than they knew. Instead of separate names for the genders but with theoretically equal rights, that is to say, a firewoman beside a fireman, a policewomen beside a policeman, a flight stewardess beside a flight steward… the feminists called for the language of true and beautiful integration: firefighters, police constables and flight attendants. Today, and for the past few years, in the newspapers I have read of an ongoing effort, well before President Donald Trump got into office, to overturn Roe versus Wade. The feminists were entirely correct to get in their gender inclusive language, before any counter reaction could set in, as I’m sure all you guys could agree.
If I have mentioned women, gays, Blacks and rich straight males all in the same essay, then it’s partly because we can all learn from each other. Our learning is our strength.
My Friday morning writing group includes our fearless leader, Judy. She is a “flight attendant.” Forget separate. Our group represents all the standard socio-economic classes. Forget classism. Come to think of it, “sexism” is another word young people of today don’t know.
I’m an artist, but specifically I’m a writer, for my medium is language. I can point to George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-four to show how, in words woven far better than I ever could, as E.L. Doctorow points out: There can be a diminishment of thought through constriction of language. Call it a deletion of thought, a deletion of thought-cells in the brain, as constricted blood vessels have led to cells dying. To me, deleting a one-syllable nice gender-inclusive word like “guys” is a diminishment. Every word’s death diminishes me.
I’m still not sure what I could have said Friday morning, or what Judy could have said to that woman in the pool.
But I do know another good word to delete if you wish the fairer sex to be “separate but equal”: Would you prefer women—but not men—separated out into married and unmarried? If so, you will be cheerful to know I overheard two alert high school girls asking each other what “Ms.” means. They didn’t know. That’s a fact. Call it another act of diminishment, as the bell tolls, for all you guys.
Two Pieces of Classic Writing:
Today we look out the window to ask, “Where is the ambulance stopping?” Our ancestors, when the bell tolled, would ask, “Who died?”
Here’s an old poem in the public domain, one I’ve half memorized, by John Donne (Dunn) entitled For Whom the Bell Tolls
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
This poem is referenced in what I regard as being one of the greatest documents of my lifetime, a beautiful piece of rhetoric, written on scraps of paper, Letter From Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Junior. 1963. Here’s the link.