My grandmother was nineteen when she got married, thirty when she got the right to vote. Three years later, my mother was born. Twenty-six years later, I came into the world.
By the time I turned twenty, women still could not get a credit card without their husband’s permission. I’m guessing that single women simply couldn’t establish credit on their own. My friend Sally, a professor at UCLA, was running downstairs between classes to use the Women’s bathroom—the Faculty bathroom on the floor where she taught classes had urinals. Faculty bathrooms with urinals is a not so subtle message.
A woman had to prove she was crazy to terminate a pregnancy. Newspapers still divided help wanted ads into Help Wanted Men and Help Wanted Women. A listing for a college educated, bi-lingual secretary paid less than a janitor. The secretary was filed under Help Wanted Women; the janitor under Help Wanted Men.The accepted wisdom was that men would be supporting a family, so deserved more pay. It was also accepted wisdom that hiring a single mother as a secretary was a smart move because she would be more compliant—she had a family to support and so would be afraid to talk back. Temporary employment agencies carried names like Kelly Girl and American Girl.
I was 13 when Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” I can’t honestly say what I remember about it, other than a sense of hope for the future and belief that my country valued the dignity at the base of being human. I also remember the cover of Life magazine, just a few months before—Myrlie Evers comforting her young son, weeping for his slain father.
The years that followed the speech were gruesome. Civil rights workers—black and white, men and women—were murdered for trying to register blacks to vote, their murderers set free by juries of their peers. Fire hoses were aimed at peaceful marchers; attack dogs set upon them. The North proved no better with riots in Watts and Detroit, hate-filled marches in Chicago.
It seemed by the next decade that some things had been settled: women had a right to choose; the right to vote was sacred, as sacred as the American flag; a precedent had been established that ensured human rights, regardless of color or gender, a precedent that laid the groundwork for ensuring rights regardless of sexual orientation. It was a precedent that human rights were more important than States’ rights.
To say that the events of the last few years have been seriously south of disheartening is an understatement. Given that it is a minority of people who are driving the effort to turn back the clock to an hour fraught with such brutality, it is particularly unnerving to watch events unfold.
Two important anniversaries will happen this week: the passage of the 19th Amendment, the one that enshrined my right to vote, and the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King, Jr., gave us his dream of what America can be.
His dream, his notion, of America is the same as mine. Our founders set in motion an idea, recorded in a Constitution, that enshrined a commitment to honoring the inherent dignity in a person. Back then, it was primarily applied to white, property-owning men. But an idea like that cannot be contained. It can only grow.
That was what was important about the Sixties to me. By the time the decade came to an end, we were just 25 years past a war that had horrified us with the Holocaust. During that same war, black American soldiers had to ride in cars behind German prisoners of war—those who had fought for the country were second class to those who we were fighting against.
Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t put him back.
Change does not come easily to humans. But the nature of life is change. Snakes shed their skin because they keep growing—imagine what would happen if they didn’t—or couldn’t—shed their skin.
Despite the attempt to turn back the hour to a brutal, unjust time, I am hopeful. I am hopeful because we cannot thrive as a nation, as a people, if we do not adapt to change. The generation coming up has already shed the skin of prejudices to which older generations thought they were entitled. If older generations won’t shed that skin—well, imagine what would happen to a snake that refused to shed the skin it had outgrown.
Huzzah for this coming week of anniversaries. Let us celebrate their shedding light into dark corners. Let us fill our hearts with the power of human dignity these anniversaries commemorate to shatter the mean-spirited enshrinement of power by those who refuse to change.