31 May 2012

Women Behaving "Badly" (or so some might say)

"When Anthony Met Stanton"
Seneca Falls, New York is just north of the Finger Lakes and about halfway between Rochester and Syracuse.  In the 1840s, it was nearly the western edge of the American Frontier, home to experimental utopian communities, a hotbed of the Second Great Awakening, and a stopover on the Underground Railroad.  Most notably, the “Seneca Falls Convention” of 1848 is considered the birth of the American Women’s Movement.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony met in Seneca Falls in 1851 and together, launched the largest social change in human history, devoting their lives to making change that, sadly, they never enjoyed in their lifetimes (the 19th Amendment – women’s right to vote -  was not ratified until 1920).  

Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship that Changed the World is well-researched and reminds me how lucky I am to live in the age that I do.  Before their efforts, women were denied any sort of public life – they were relegated to “the home sphere.”  Women rarely had education beyond the 8th grade, were not allowed to own ANY of their own property (even personal belongings, like clothing, jewelry, books, housewares, and any and all incomes or inheritances legally belonged entirely to husbands), did not have custody of their children in a divorce, were thought to be “disgusting” if they gave a public address or wore skirts that showed their ankles. 

Today I have freedoms that just 150 years ago would have been unthinkable, and even 60 years ago would have been questionable (seen Mad Men much?).  Is the United States perfect?  Of course not.  Social development is an ongoing process; even from one generation to the next, what is “inappropriate” for one generation might be hardly an issue for the next.  Today, women wear what they want, work in any profession they choose, they can have children or not, within marriage or not.  In the last several months, women’s freedoms have been loudly in the news (and rightly so), but the good news is that we’re loud, we’re proud, and although we can’t take anything for granted, I expect that over time social liberties and equality will expand, not contract.

Vicky Tiel featuring the many
incarnations of the Torrid dress
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve also zoomed through Vicky Tiel’s It’s All About the Dress: What I Learned in Forty Years about Men, Women, Sex, & Fashion.  Vicky Tiel is no Stanton or Anthony; however, Stanton & Anthony (and many other brave women) paved the way for a woman like Tiel.  Her father advises her to never marry a man for “shoes” (essentially, make your own money, do not be dependent…. good feminist advice).  in the 1960s Tiel and her design partner Mia Fonssagrives invented the mini-skirt and the jersey wrap dress.  Tiel created a time-honored rouched dress called The Torrid.  Her designs are standards among the glitterati.  However, I found her continual name-dropping tiresome: her many lovers (i.e. Warren Beatty), her near-lovers (i.e. Woody Allen), and her countless references to Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, blah, blah, blah.  She’ll tell you how to successfully seduce a man, cook awesome food, and give you life advice from “Liz,” Coco Chanel, Goldie Hawn, and others.  She gets married, divorced, jets around the world, Paris, New York, Paris, New York, and finally settles in rural Florida (go figure!).  I’ll be honest: I will probably bake a Dartois, but I will never be anything near the renegade that Vicky Tiel was/is/will be (I simply could not send my child off to boarding school in order to indulge my personal life the way she did, and furthermore, I’m a big fan of undergarments… ‘nuf said).  That’s okay.  One of her recommendations is to “be yourself.”  Can do!

I finished Jane Juska’s A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance yesterday.  Either you’ll like her chutzpah or you won’t (I do).  A single mom to a very challenging son,  she battled mental illness, substance abuse, and weight issues.  At age 66 she retires from a lifetime of teaching high school English and she is finally quite “well” in all respects, but feels that she has a “lot of living to do,” life she has really missed out on in many ways (it’s complicated – read the book). She thinks long and carefully about it, then takes out an ad in the New York Times personal page: “Before I turn 67 – next March – I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like.  If you want to talk first, [Anthony] Trollope works for me.”  She receives ample responses, and is able to be quite selective about the men she chooses to meet.  Her adventure is neither a grand success nor an utter failure.  It is life: glorious moments, tragic moments, and several truly absurd moments.  I appreciated the memoir.  She invites us inside her life and heart in a most profound way. Despite the premise, it's not nearly as racy as you might expect.  It is intimate rather than salacious.  And the connection with Stanton & Anthony?  Once again, this sort of sexual and personal freedom would not be possible without the Women’s Movement.  I think Juska is out to break some serious stereotypes. People have physical desire.  No matter what their age.  She does.  We all do.  Age does not change that.  Kudos to her for reminding us.

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