1973In 1973 my mother bought a navy polyester pantsuit trimmed with bright red piping. Down the front of the tunic top marched gold military-style buttons in a double row. The Nehru collar was already five years out of date. She was wearing the pantsuit the evening her longtime friend Felice dropped by for a visit. Felice's pantsuit was brown, a jacket-and-trouser affair.
From the foyer I could smell the coffee bubbling in the Farberware percolator, and I pictured the brew growing darker with each circuit up the basket stem, each leap against the glass ceiling of the lid.
When the spoons clinked against the saucers, signalling that the Sweet N Low had been stirred, I made my way into the kitchen. At the table sat Felice and my mother, talking about women's liberation.
Forsaking the kinds of questions she usually asked me--how was school, what did I like to do in my spare time these days--Felice fixed me with a smile and asked if I'd read much Betty Friedan. At seventeen, a senior in high school, I was pleased to have graduated from childish conversation to adult discourse. But somewhat sheepishly I had to admit I had not, although, I added, I was making my way through The Female Eunuch, by Germaine Greer.
"Oh, so you are interested in feminism," she said with satisfaction, as though she had half-suspected only women of her generation could appreciate its ideas.
From talk of female eunuchs and feminine mystique, Felice and my mother turned to the subject of the female pantsuit, singing its praises: to them the pantsuit was freedom itself, all wrapped up in a stylish package. "But of course," Felice reminded my mother, "you've got to wear a good girdle. It's even more important with a pantsuit than it is with a dress."
In my recollection of that year, many conversations juxtaposed heady new ideas with the hopelessly mundane. Not only among incipient college students in jeans, like my friends and me, but also among their pantsuit-wearing mothers, and their amazed grandmothers, talk strayed naturally to things you never used to hear about, to female eunuchs and feminine mystique, reflecting dramatic and rapid changes taking place in the culture. So many received ideas were questioned and discarded . . . yet, alas, so many girdles were not. Yes, opportunities abounded for women's minds and even their lives, but female flesh, in Felice's eyes, still had to be constrained within narrow limits. It is by this paradox that I most clearly remember those times.
And what times they were. Although I was not then aware that the first co-ed class would be graduated from Kenyon that spring, I certainly knew that women would don caps and gowns for the first time at Princeton. In January, the Supreme Court had decided Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion. The Senate had approved the Equal Rights Amendment the year before, but before the end of the decade it would die, starved of ratification by a sufficient number of states, including my own. In May a chauvinist braggart named Bobby Riggs defeated Margaret Smith Court in a tennis match that came to be known as the "Mother's Day Massacre," leaving Riggs to boast that no woman could beat a man at his game. Four months later, in an odd but symbolically weighty footnote to an eventful year, champion Billie Jean King defeated Riggs, in straight sets, in a match billed as "The Battle of the Sexes." It was viewed on primetime television by forty million people, who understood that, as King later said, it wasn't about tennis, it was about social change. That year for the first time, women and men earned equal prize money at the U.S. Open.
All this and more took place against a canvas of breathtakingly concentrated change, as event succeeded event in the American political landscape. In the same month that Roe v. Wade was decided, Richard Nixon had his second presidential inauguration; Judge John Sirica tried the Watergate Seven ("the whole things smells worse than a kettle of dead fish," I heard a passenger intone to a bus driver, who grimly nodded); the cease-fire agreement signed in Paris signaled the beginning of the end of the war in Vietnam, and coincided with the termination of the military draft; while one week earlier, the figure most deeply associated with the war, former President Lyndon B. Johnson, died. Thirty-one days that changed the country. New freedoms yes, but also age-old abuses of power, the toppling of regimes, the closing of one era, and the opening of another.
In a year of such great changes, novels such as Marge Piercy's Small Changes and Erica Jong's bestseller Fear of Flying suggested the availability of alternative plots not only for female characters but for women's lives. While other plots than the one that led to marriage, housewifery, and motherhood had always existed in marginal, culturally ignored ways, now they entered the mainstream debate in the popular media, at gatherings of friends and families, in consciousness-raising groups, around kitchen tables, among strangers on buses. Women might choose to marry or not, bear children or not, leave unhappy marriages, live if they wished with other women, entertain fantasies about strangers, pursue an intellectual passion, or devote themselves in large numbers to careers formerly closed or unwelcoming to them.
Although women were earning only fifty-nine cents to the man's dollar that year, I was heading off to Barnard, a women's college, filled with a sense of unfettered opportunities in an expanding future, but also with the knowledge that if you read the fine print, some restrictions applied. Whether you were in the first class of women, or became a first-class woman, you knew that the previous generation had bequeathed you a vision. They had fought battles from the tennis court to the Supreme Court, girded--or girdled?--for combat. But freedom would never be absolute. Beneath the pants, which anyone might wear, would always lurk some version of the girdle.
If by signs and portents we knew the culture was shaking itself into a new shape, not least of all for women, so too by symbols and overheard remarks did the culture let us know that some of the old shapes prevailed, not least of all for women. It's a rich irony that the girdle, in classical times a component of armor and sign of power, had in modern times become an emblem of limitation. It turns out that no evidence exists that any bras were ever burned in the Sixties. But then, as Betty Friedan observed in a recent PBS interview, if any garment had been burned, it should have been the girdle.
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