Lunch Counter

“I’ll need your husband’s social security number.”

“Why? I’m the one paying the bills. My name is on the account.”

“I’ll need his information in order to give you any information. Sorry, that’s the procedure.”

My hatred could fill a football stadium. I hate the woman on the phone, the bank she works for, and my husband. I’m 65. I earn half our income. I have a Ph.D. for Christ’s sake. I am not good enough to access our joint bank account? Her tone, her insistence, throws me back 40 years.

I am singed.

When I was a very young woman and first married, I always had to go to the grocery store with my husband. He was the one with the checking account. He wrote the checks. That’s how it was. Months before, I had jettisoned the name my parents had given me and taken his. I had my Social Security card changed. I still have it, my signature written in teenage upright round letters, it’s a wonder I didn’t put a little heart for the dot on the “i” in my new name.

When I was divorced, I contemplated changing my name back to my birth name but, not liking it all that much, I considered by grandmother’s surname. I was suspended in indecision for months until I read an academic article on African American names in which the author noted that surnames were meaningless because, essentially, they were all slave names.

I thought to myself, every single name I would take is a man’s name, all the lineage is patriarchal. It doesn’t matter if I keep my married name or go back to my birth name or take another name because, you know what?, they’re all slave names. It doesn’t matter. It just really doesn’t matter one good God damn. So I kept my married name after I was divorced. It didn’t matter. It was, as they say, six of one, half dozen of the other.

There is something wrong with me. My frame of reference is all screwed up. I don’t live in the now. I live in the past. The oppression I feel is decades old, historical, quaint.

The women who were thrown in jail for organizing for the right to vote? I’m with them.

The women arrested for wearing bathing suits instead of wool dresses and stockings? I’m with them.

The one-room school teachers who were no longer welcome to teach because they’d gotten married. I’m with them.

The women who sat on the couch while the police officer walked their men around the block and told them to cool down and not hit their wives again? I’m with them.

The little girls told to stand back and let the boys go first, try first, be first? I’m with them.

The women stuck in secretarial jobs while the men they trained went on to run the company? I’m with them.

The women who were maimed or killed by illegal abortionists who thrived because of laws created and enforced by men? I’m with them.

The women who stuffed the envelopes for the candidates that would forget their promise to vote for the Equal Rights Amendment? I’m with them.

Last week, there was a headline in our local paper. “Woman elected head of [national law firm based in Milwaukee].” Really? What year is this? Is this remarkable? Why can’t the headline say, “Well-known attorney” or “Legal expert” or anything but “Woman?” I am to be glad for this? This is progress? Good fucking grief.

Tonight, my daughter suggested that I write about how feminism doesn’t really resonate with her generation even through she and many of her contemporaries are, in fact, feminists. And so I pondered this for the past several hours while I made a pumpkin pie with an actual pumpkin (the topic of another blog).

And this is what I’ve concluded. It’s hard to be a feminist if you don’t feel it. By this, I mean, feel it in your gut, feel it as a physical thing that you can point to, as in, “I feel it right here.”

In the 70’s, sitting around in our little teeny NOW (National Organization for Women) chapters, we spent a lot of time talking about our ‘click’ moments, the eureka moments when we got it about male privilege.

The ‘click’ was the going red in the face, humiliation- bubbling, speechless, mortified, physically galling experience of someone treating you as if you are lesser than because you were female. It was the horrible netherworld between indignation felt as a result of some male’s oppression and half-witting acknowledgement that the oppression might have been justified. Self-doubt, self-hatred, anger, rage, disbelief, belief. Nausea, vomit, retreat.

If you haven’ felt it, felt this, you can’t get what feminism is about for all of us old timers. It’s isn’t cerebral. It’s visceral. Visceral and all-encompassing. Constant.

“Would you say this to me if I was a man?”

“Would this be happening to me if I was a man?

Reading this piece over before I press Publish, I am struck by how disjointed and rabid it sounds. It’s about a million waving, frantic nerve endings waiting for the next insult.

It’s as if I was one of the African American men at the Woolworth’s lunch counter trying to explain how it felt to have the white store owner refuse to serve me.

I can’t explain. I can just say how angry I was, how hurt. How sexism demeaned me, made me doubt myself, made me weak.

Until it made me strong. Really strong.

So that’s my answer. Feminism then and now. It’s different, don’t you see?

13 Comments on “Lunch Counter

  1. Really love this piece, Jan! It reminds me of how I feel now as an “older woman”–definitely a lower caste position that is ABSOLUTELY INFURIATING!!. And looking back, I realize that I was able to by-pass some of the sexism after my divorce. I too didn’t want to continue with my married name, or go back to my maiden name. I looked for names in nature–names of trees, for example…My sister’s middle name is “Leigh”, as our mother was an actress and thought it would be a good stage name. Only my sister never went into theatre, and I did. So it felt like a legacy from both the women in my family to take that name.

  2. Great piece – I still feel the rage – course be raised by Archie Bunker and Edith didn’t help. My female offspring (and a spouse) noted recently how they put so many expectations on Grandmas to help out and entertain the kids, and not on the Grandpas. Ingrained in so many ways.

  3. My click moment came when as a young married woman I went to the bank and secured a loan all on my own. And my husband was astonished. I asked why? Well, you’re a girl. Pissed me off. We had a good long talk, and he listened–probably why we are still married.

    • How the heck did you pull that off? I’m impressed. One reason is back then, I would never even have thought of doing that. Isn’t that pitiful?

  4. Your piece didn’t sound disjointed to me – the logic is an emotional logic, the strong trait of females. But then I am listening to it through ears that remember the 70’s oh so well. Thanks for writing it.

    • As I reread it, I had the same thought that I expressed above three years ago. In addition, for me it was a white anger – the heat greater than that clear blue of a pure flame. Yes, we are remembering those feelings once again. And as women we need to take those feelings of anger seriously because there is a just cause our response.

  5. I wonder if this is the same for my peers – professional women in their late 30s/early 40s – but I would have to say the most galling sexism for me has been from other and typically older women. Idiotic, sexist comments from men I can easily ignore. Yet women in power who treat the up and coming women differently than our male counterparts is especially frustrating and more difficult to ignore. I don’t know the reason for it.

    • I’ve not experienced that – probably because there have been so few women in positions of power or authority relative to my situation. All of my bosses were men. That said, the disgusting thing about sexism and racism, as well, is the extent to which we absorb those attitudes just by virtue of living in such a society. It can happen to women as well as men.

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