The other night I was watching "Mad Men" -- a show ostensibly about the machinations of the Madison Avenue advertising industry of the mid-sixties, but in truth more about what the lives of women were like during that era -- when I realized something. The only time in history I could've ever existed was during the past forty years.
It sounds silly, but there was something downright creepy about realizing that everything about who you are has really relied on the fact that you were simply born at the right time, the only time. Here I am, a somewhat overeducated single mother and business owner, starting my life over entirely at age forty. At what other point in history would that have even been conceivable for a woman? In what other age or era could a woman be entirely in charge of her own destiny and freely chart the course of her personal and professional life, divorce without taint or stigma, run a household alone, or own a business and be driven and career-minded without apology?
I know. Creepy, right?
Creepy because it's such a narrow band of time -- a razor-thin strip cut into the enormity of the whole of history -- and the odds of anyone being lucky enough to be here, now, are infinitesimal. And yet, here I am, here we are.
In one of the first episodes of "Mad Men," Betty Draper, stay-at-home wife of the show's protagonist and mother to his two children, is in her very 1960s kitchen with a pregnant friend, both glugging coffee and smoking cigarettes openly and with abandon. There's another nudge-wink moment when their young children enter the room, one girl wholly enveloped in a clear plastic dry cleaner's bag, who then gets reprimanded not for her hazardous choice in playthings, but rather for man-handling the clothing the plastic was protecting. Oh those crazy, carefree, noxious sixties! At any rate, what struck me was that as Betty and her friend gossiped, their conversation became downright grim and their voices hushed when they began discussing -- with a mixture of pity and muted disdain -- the Divorcée moving into the neighborhood, whose mere presence it was feared might bring down property values (video here, embedding was disabled, stupid youtube).
I'm that woman, of course. But then, I'm not. Forty-five years later, no one gives a second thought to my marital status or lack thereof. No one blinks an eye at the idea of me, a woman, owning my own home, running a household as a single mother, owning a business. If not common-place or the norm, these are at the very least not things anyone would tsk-tsk, condemn, or look down upon. No, not in the slightest. It's kind of incredible, the distance women have traveled in just a few decades. Downright miraculous, in fact.
Near the end of that same episode, Betty Draper, plagued with sudden bouts of numbness in her hands that would later be diagnosed as psychosomatic, ie: "hysterical," loses her grip on the family car's steering wheel and careens onto a neighbor's lawn. Watching this for the second time recently, I felt my throat involuntarily tighten. How symbolic that Betty's hands would numb, rendering her functionally impotent, unable to take care of herself in any complete way, denying her power, control, and any possibility of freedom. What woman could be self-sufficient, independent, without use of her hands? It would be impossible.
And it was, back then, the culture organized as it was around maintaining women's lesser status, reinforcing false, proscribed helplessness. But here I am, here we are. We're free in ways someone like Betty Draper couldn't have fully conceived of. So this Memorial Day weekend I'd like to suggest we each take a few moments to also acknowledge the women before us who bravely fought for women's rights, many of whom didn't live long enough to see true liberation simply because they were born at the wrong time. I am so, so grateful for everything they did for us, for making my remarkable life as a woman possible. I am so, so lucky to have been born at the right time.
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