Friday, January 22, 2010

The Susan B. Anthony Bench

Sunday, I spoke at a Unitarian Universalist service in honor of the King Holiday. After the service, some members of the church took me and the fam to lunch. One of the women in the group--I'll call her Pam--identified as a second-wave feminist and she sat next to me because she wanted to talk more about my ideas on race and class.

Because I had mentioned where I'm from, she told me how she used to love going to Louisiana--particularly New Orleans--until Louisianans rejected the ERA. "I haven't been back since!" she said. "I suppose that's wrong." The other women and I shook our heads. "You have every right to protest," one of them assured her.

And then she wanted to talk about something else I'd said. I had mentioned during the Q & A after my paper that when I was younger, I quite often knew something was "wrong," but didn't have the words to describe institutionalized racism and sexism. Over lunch, Pam told me she knew exactly what I meant.

She didn't have the words to describe how she felt after a childhood of seeing her widowed mother work so hard only to be passed over for raises and promotions because she wasn't a traditional "head-of-household."

She didn't have the words to describe how she felt when, while working in the office of a Texas senator, she saw him laugh at a female constituent who had come to talk to him.

"Do you know what she wanted?" he asked incredulously, laughing the whole while.

"What?" Pam said.

"Support for an Equal Rights Amendment."

She was mystified, she told me. "I asked him why was that so funny. And he waved me off and said 'You women have it better now!'."

And she didn't have the words to explain how she'd felt after one particular shopping trip. Her husband had been overseas on some military endeavor and she'd gone to a furniture store. There, she'd seen a little wooden bench that she'd loved--but it cost $250. She was going to have to buy it on credit. She approached the store manager and asked for the credit application.

And he told her that she could not make a contract without her husband's approval.

"Here I was, running the house, taking care of everything--I had charge accounts at the drugstore and other places, but he was telling me it was against the law for me to get a bench on my own?"

"Give me the papers," she told him. "I'll take them home for my husband to sign."

She forged his signature of course. And just to make sure I understood the significance, she spelled it out like this: "I had to break the law to buy a bench."*

She calls it her Susan B. Anthony bench, because shortly thereafter, she became involved in the feminist movement. That is what gave her the words to name the oppression and discrimination she'd seen.

She hasn't told her children what happened. Before she dies (and we talked a bit about death and social change, too), she's going to write out the story, so that after her death, the bench and the story can be passed to her daughter who can then pass it to her daughter.

"So they don't forget," she said. "I don't want them to forget, even though they don't remember."
*I have to admit that I thought by the 1960s, laws like that were a thing of the past.


Jay said...

I was born in 1960 and I remember when the credit laws changed - mid-1970s.

I love that - "I don't want them to forget, even though they don't remember".

Thank you.

Quercki said...

It's still hard to buy a car as a married woman without both signatures.

Melissa McEwan said...

"So they don't forget," she said. "I don't want them to forget, even though they don't remember."

This totally made me blub.

SKM said...

This is just gorgeous, as usual!

Those credit laws are why my mother is so proud of her gleaming credit score and her credit cards today. She's told us all about how she couldn't get credit in her own name for many years of her adulthood. We'll never forget.

"I had to break the law to buy a bench"--I love this line!

My word verification for this window is "rebell", btw--fitting!

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