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The women’s march in my living room

by Cathy Guisewite

February 7, 2017 | 2:18 pm
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I pull the covers over my head so I can enjoy a few more happy, sleepy minutes of denial before I get up. To bask in how I might have contributed to the universe yesterday, embolden myself for what today brings. I scroll down my inner list, starting with the easy ones, the things I surely accomplished:

Did I walk 10,000 steps yesterday? No.

Did I even make it around the block? No.

Did I clean up the kitchen before I went to bed? No.

Brush the dog? No.

Email any members of Congress? No.

Make my voice heard in any way except by whining to friends or yelling at the TV? No.

Denial isn’t working. I was much more proud of myself when I was sound asleep. I sit bolt upright in bed, remembering with horror that I’m supposed to be a role model. It’s been awhile since I spent my days putting things into perspective for others in comic strip form, but I’m at least supposed to be a decent example for the young woman I hear in the living room who’s home for the weekend from college.

I pause, as I do most mornings, to think of the compassionate, stable parents who recently moved out of our country’s nice, big white house and of the bizarre babysitter who’s now in charge. I squeeze my eyes shut and hope for inspiration. Inspiration comes roaring back. The sound of millions of women who rallied past diapers and to-do lists, traveled thousands of miles, to march together all over the world last month. Millions of voices raised to protect what our grandmothers dreamed of, our mothers hoped for, what we earned and our girls will inherit.

I’m reminded that I can make a difference only if I get out of bed. The possibility propels me to my feet, into my sweatsuit, through two will-emboldening cups of coffee, a 26-grain piece of toast, and straight into Plan B.

Today, I declare, I’m beginning my own demonstration.

I march into the living room and boldly position myself between my 24-year-old daughter and the YouTube show she’s streaming on the 50-inch smart TV that takes up half the wall.

I want to show her how change can happen, so she isn’t afraid of everything else that’s happening now. To protect her by empowering her with an example of what one voice can do.

And so I hold this up: the beaming face of Mary Tyler Moore on the cover of a DVD set of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Mary just left us, at the age of 80, four days after the Women’s March on Washington. I want my daughter to know the connection.

“This is how I got here, baby,” I say, gripping the DVDs. “This is the woman who helped me rise up from the doughnut box when I was exactly the age you are today and go on.

“I know things seem impossible right now. People are on opposite sides and neither side can even stand to hear the other speak. But people were on opposite sides when I was your age, too. When I was 24, a young woman could either aspire to be a homemaking Betty Crocker or a militant Betty Friedan. We argued about things you can’t comprehend. Should a woman be allowed to have a job? If she got a job, should she be allowed to wear pants to the office? If she got married before 25, was she betraying the new career possibilities for which women had been fighting for a century? If she wasn’t married by 35, was she an old maid?”

My daughter stares. I haven’t explained this well at all. How is it possible I’ve been such a devoted, hovering mother and haven’t ever really explained how we got from then to now?

“I gained 40 pounds with one Betty’s Triple Chocolate Fudge Cake Mix while trying to digest the other Betty’s ‘Feminine Mystique.’” I point to the box in my hand. “Mary Tyler Moore navigated the middle ground for me with a gentle grace. She was a bridge between worlds for so many of us who felt stuck with a foot — and a fork — on each side.

“I walked through the door Mary Tyler Moore opened. Her show gave me permission to express the vulnerabilities of feeling stuck in the middle, which made it possible for me to create my comic strip. I was criticized, like Mary was, sometimes, for using the incredible public platform I had to portray a female character who was ‘stereotypically female’ instead of voicing a more powerful, strident feminist message. But I didn’t have a powerful, strident feminist message. I had confusion and angst. I had insecurities at a time it was increasingly uncool to voice them. A lot of women did.

“Lots of my comic strips got passed around offices and posted on refrigerators,” I tell her. “But lots more got tucked into diaries and drawers. Women wrote me to say I made them feel they weren’t alone, and they reassured me I wasn’t alone either. We kept each other going, which opened doors for other women, which opened doors for other women, and on and on …”

My daughter, whose assumption that all doors all over the universe are open to her is so deeply ingrained it’s impossible for her to grasp a different reality, stares more blankly.

She’s too happy, I think. I marched in here to arm her with the tools to help her feel safe. Now I see that first I have to help her be more afraid. Does a mother ever get a moment off?

A lot has changed for her generation, but some things only look as if they’ve changed. My generation freed women from soul-suppressing girdles. Her generation proudly buys knee-to-chest Spanx. My generation liberated women from the 10 p.m. curfew and the good-night kiss at the door. Hers lives with the expectation of intimacy before love.

My generation demanded respect as equals in the workplace, and the right to not have to dress like a man to succeed. Her generation wears tiny skirts to business meetings and wrestles with the consequences of the conflicting messages they send with their self-respect perched on 4-inch heels. My generation championed the right of women to be proud of our beautiful, natural curves. And yet almost every single member of my daughter’s generation still sobs in the swimsuit department dressing room.

When I’m not wanting to strangle my daughter for her sense of entitlement, I want to wrap my arms around her for all the still-impossible choices she’ll have to make. Stay home with the baby and give up the chance to really pursue the career she’s studied so long for? Pursue the career and give up the chance to be with her baby full time for those first irreplaceable years? I still wake up in the middle of the night wondering how different my daughter’s life would have been if I’d spent all those hours drawing and coloring with her instead of drawing and coloring at my office. And even if the guilt weren’t there, or the biological urge, or the cultural norm, many women still earn less than men, so it’s often not a choice who will stay home.

Even with all my generation did to make it a better world, I am way more scared for her to navigate life as a grown-up than I was for myself. Our daughters have a universe of cyber-friends, but fewer real ones. They have instant access to information, but sometimes it helps them filter out only what they don’t want to see.

I hold the DVD set high. “You need to see this right now, honey, when so much of what’s been won for women feels threatened. You need to see what one, sometimes quivery, voice did to move millions. How minds and doors got opened by someone who found a way to gently, graciously shift things just enough so that people could imagine a different future. You need to know that every single one of us has the power to question everything.”

My daughter is fully present now. I’ve stirred something in her.

“I know you have questions, and I want to answer them all,” I say. “Ask me anything!”

“What’s a DVD, Mom?” she asks.

I smack Season 1 into the system, and wrap a loving arm around her shoulder so she can’t get up. I click “play” and am grateful, all over again, to have Mary here with me.


by Cathy Guisewite

February 7, 2017 | 2:18 pm
  |     |     |   Start Conversation

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