Last night I was at a party. I’m not a ‘crowd’ person; so it was surprising to find myself in the company of, apparently, thousands of souls. Anyway, this party was not one where booze or drugs altered the state of being, but where ordinary people, spoke about their lives in a gentle, compassionate way. Listening to each other’s stories and acknowledging pain with a brief bow of the head, or a pat on the shoulder or arm.
The party was, in the way of dreams, both surreal and sublime.
On that realisation, I found myself standing in a grassy parking lot, watching an older woman – complete with a fetching hat and the kind of handbag mid-century grandmothers used to carry. She turned toward me – and the unknown figure beside me – and wistfully asked: “do you not remember who I am?”
And then I knew and woke up with the shape of Helen Gurley Brown‘s name on my lips.
Like revelation and the birth of ideas, my mind began to perceive the journey that connects the Suffragists and the Prohibitionists to the threads of the sexual revolution and now the #MeToo movement.
They are all about the same thing. Each movement is about the demand of every human to be seen and acknowledged; not just because they are beautiful, intelligent, or born on the right side of the tracks, or because they have money and power, wear nice clothes or go to the ‘best’ schools.
While the Prohibitionist women desired the elimination of spousal abuse through laws that made alcohol illegal, they still did not have the power needed to make such change permanent.
They had a voice and used it. And true to the form of the times, the women were minimised through name-calling and attacks on their person.
Regardless of how I may feel about this period of history and its joys and failures, I cannot ignore that the voices of women are compelling – even when they ring with a painfully held power.
We still have alcohol, we still have abuse and assault, and we know that it’s all so much more complicated than the Prohibitionists believed. I acknowledge them for trying: And I won’t forget that they dared to speak against a tradition and a reality that had gone on for hundreds of years.
Women’s Suffrage – a movement from the mid-1800’s that bore fruit when women in Finland, Iceland, Sweden, some Australian colonies and western US states gained the vote in the late 19th century. Many women died, were cut off from families, thrown in jail, force-fed and subjected to that ever favourite last resort of powerful men – name-calling.
Unfortunately, a great many women did their fair share of name-calling too.
The Sexual Revolution started when I was 8, and in Scotland, I only really saw the flower power and the drugs; I was too young to appreciate the ground-swell of change what was happening. In my teens though, I read Cosmopolitan, edited by Helen Gurley Brown – and later I read her 1960’s book – Sex and the Single Woman. I stopped reading ‘Cosmo” when I saw that every article seemed to be about pleasing a man, and the things that would make me a ‘successful woman’ in a man’s world were the female version of how a man would do it.
It seemed to me that the women of my generation mistook having sexual encounters with the freedom to choose. The reality was that many embraced ‘free love’ through peer pressure, and thereby avoided being called a ‘prude’.
There we go with the name-calling again, and not just by the men. Women, too, had a sobriquet for those who indulged in ‘free love’ – and not a very nice one at that.
On either side of the coin, were the words, ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ and ‘easy’, not to mention the even more despicable-sounding words that have been applied to women across the ages, regardless of their nice-girl-virtue. Who said ‘names can never hurt you’?
As I mentioned, much of this passed me by until I was in my teens. My Mum, ever the anti-elitist, warned me that the sexual revolution was a double-edged sword, whereby women could trade their self-esteem for the illusion of freedom and love. She never mentioned that we would also seek to mask our pain with ‘those little yellow pills’. Or cover our shame with secret visits to the doctor in the hope of termination or something to take the vaginal itch and discharge away. Or give up our right to be taken seriously for a bunch of flowers and a beer at the pub on a Friday or Saturday night.
The sexual revolution was never actually about women at all, except as a newer way to control their bodies and their desires. Women were no longer legally ‘property’, so the men had to somehow get their hands on, or their ‘leg over’ as the case may be. Nice work if you can get it.
The unintended consequence of all this free love? The #MeToo movement, where the sexual-revolution-chickens come home to roost.
In any revolutionary time, many women stand against the unspoken social expectation to ’stay put’, or to follow along with the newest thing without regard to the opinions of others. They take the ‘red pill’, escape the Matrix and take the risk that comes with not following the trends.
Still, which trend are we following here? The one where saying #MeToo is the point or the one where #HumanFirst is the vision?
I am very much heartened by the shift of focus from individual pain to the collective desire for change and the demand of leadership to review established norms of behaviour within organisations.
It’s clear to me that changes in global society will come as the result of a combination of pressures, applied in concert, rather than as the result of a singular action by any one person. It is equally true that it is often an isolated action that becomes the genesis of change. Therein lies the paradox.
If there is one thing that I fear about our times, it is that having said #MeToo, we will cry and cry, fight a little and hope that closure will help us dry our eyes as we take the ‘blue pill’ that brings us back into our former life in the Matrix.
There, we will leave the voting, and the struggle, to others, while congratulating ourselves on winning the battle: still failing to see that we haven’t even begun the war.