I think it began with a pantsuit, that first adolescent taste of feminism. With buttoned-down breast pockets and wide leg bottoms. Kind of like a safari suit, but the kind that means business with a typewriter and not the business end of a shotgun. My Aunt Priscilla, a special-ed teacher living alone in a Santa Fe apartment, was flourishing at what seemed to me, the perfect life. A room of one’s own packed with books and magazines, within walking distance of downtown and, always, the ingredients for grilled cheese sandwiches in the refrigerator. That’s what I wanted for myself. That. And the pantsuits.
In the late 60s, early 70s, women in pants were considered “radicalized,” at least in my neck of the woods, and watching my aunt with her short, black hair, red lipstick and pantsuits striding around town with me in tow, well, it was pretty thrilling. People stared. Scowled. And meanly whispered. I don’t think Priscilla considered herself a radical, but she did consider herself educated and bookish. And educated people wore pants – okay, maybe that was just my Nancy Drew spirit connecting the dots. And maybe that’s why I wanted to wear them so badly. Smarty pants! Yes, please. On a teacher’s salary, she couldn’t afford opera tickets, so we’d tailgate outside the Santa Fe opera, the orchestra and aria rising up into the starry sky. I got to wear jeans on those nights so the cold metal hood of her Dodge Dart didn’t chill my skinny thighs.
My mother’s feminism looked a bit different. Short wool skirts, knee high leather boots, big hair and that silver Mazda RX-7 that made my dad shake his head and buckle up. Yet, every day she went to work and bossed people around, then came home and bossed my brothers and me around. Weekly, she’d go to the salon and get her nails done. You can bet during negotiations and confrontations, if she started tapping that painted index nail against her desk or the dining room table, impatiently waiting for a lame excuse…well, you were done for. Never set that nail tapping! Later in her career, running a hospital, she fired a doctor whose response to the bad news was to pull a gun on her. Hooking her Coach bag into the crook of her elbow after a long day of managed care, she said, “make my day, asshole” and walked out the door, heels clicking all the way to her car. Hospital security snagged the guy. My mom went home and made spaghetti.
My Aunt Fabiola’s Upper East Side feminism dressed in long maxi-skirts, cashmere and pearls, but then switched to pantsuits when she opened Women Books, the first feminist bookstore in New York City. Once, she spent the summer with us in Santa Fe. And brought her three-year-old son, my cousin Kim (named for a Korean poet), who was going through a most disturbing phase. He hated pants. Honestly, it blew my mind…to be allowed to wear pants instead of skirts and then choosing not to. Made no sense. So my aunts and cousins and I would go to the mall, or grocery store or plaza with pantless Kim. I have never spent so much public time with a naked penis in all my life. Even now, forty years later, when my cousin, Lenore, and I talk about that summer, all we remember is Kim’s erect penis standing in the soup aisle of Piggly Wiggly. Years of therapy, people. Years. (And because these are real names, let me just clarify that Kim is now a successful attorney who wears pants. Every. Single. Day. His two daughters marched in Washington, D.C. on January 21st. So maybe early pant wearing isn’t as important as I once assumed.)
My Aunt Eleanor (named for Eleanor Roosevelt) was the youngest of my dad’s sisters and came of age in the 70s, so her feminism didn’t wear a bra or shave her legs. She did quite a bit of marching, too, and met her future husband, Alfredo (hipster beard, bolo tie), taking refuge in a church after a serious tear gassing. He went on to become the national chair of Planned Parenthood. She became a social worker and children’s advocate. A poster of Cesar Chavez hung over their grad student dining room table. Eleanor used to sing me to sleep with her chanting. “Boycott lettuce, boycott grapes, boycott wine that Gallo makes.” A bit of Janis Joplin on the side. I like chanting. But I also like bras. And, I Could Not Wait to shave my legs! So maybe that’s why I grew up understanding that that’s what feminism means, at least in my life– freedom to choose.
My dad, himself a feminist (tailored suits, French cuffs), always reinforced that; he was, after all, the deciding vote when Title 9 got put to the test in New Mexico. In high school, I wanted to run for class president, but my homeroom teacher, Mr. Muterspaugh said no. Boys only. At the time, my dad was chair of the State Board of Education, so I knew that running home crying about the unfairness of it all would set some dominoes a-falling that would take on a life of their own and the fur would most certainly fly. So…of course, I ran home crying. Bottom line, I got to put my name on the ballot. And lost. Fair and square.
When I opened Little Fish Studio five years ago, I was in such a yoga groove I pretty much wore only yoga clothes until a wise friend of mine, a marketing director for her company, pulled me aside and said, “You’re a business owner now. Dress like it. When you leave the yoga studio for meetings, or appointments or even the grocery store, put on some pants for Godsake.” Finally. A mandate.
Growing up in my family made me a lazy feminist because their commitment to the greater good was so complete, I got to just focus on myself. I’m more than a little embarrassed by that. What I’ve realized in the past year is that we are living in dangerous and noble times (to steal from poet, Mary Oliver) and while it would be easier to just curl up and return to that warm and fuzzy cocoon where I could take my feminism for granted because the fight seemed to be over and it appeared we were all safe, I know, in fact, it’s time to stand up. Speak up.
Growing up in my family has also taught me to Fight Like A Girl. Fortunately, I know just what to wear.