Quindlen: Remembrance of Things Past

There is now only a single woman on the court. Imagine the world if homes, businesses, schools, had one woman for every eight men.

— 

In the glow of modern progress, the stories I tell my children about my girlhood sound as ancient as the Parthenon, beginning with my impossible (and improbable) dream of being an altar girl. The classified ads divided by sex, the working women forced out of their jobs by pregnancy, the family businesses passed unthinkingly to sons-in-law while the daughters stood by: the witnesses to those artifacts are going gray and growing old.

One of the most haunting reminders of those bad old days is on my desk, in a book to be published this spring titled “The Girls Who Went Away.” I knew instantly who they were: the girls who disappeared, allegedly to visit distant relatives or take summer jobs in faraway beach towns, when they were actually in homes for unwed mothers giving birth and then giving up their children. They came back with dead eyes and bad reputations, even though, like some of those in Ann Fessler’s book, they may have gotten pregnant the first time out. And they came back riddled with pain and rage and an unspeakable sense of loss. “I’d have an abortion any day of the week, before I would ever have another adoption—or lose a kid in the woods—which is basically what it is,” recalled one woman bitterly.

That’s what a pregnant 16-year-old might well do today: have the abortion. Or she might have the baby and raise it with her family’s help, or give it up for adoption after handpicking the adoptive parents and drawing up a contract allowing her to visit the child from time to time. It’s a whole new world, in which female sexual behavior is no longer a moral felony. But those of us of a certain age remember those other girls, who were expected to serve a life sentence. Their parents called them whores and threw them out of the house, or simply pressed their lips tight and pretended nothing had happened while their daughters died inside. In “The Girls Who Went Away,” one recalled, “It was the beginning of it being invisible.”

The number of us who remember being invisible is dwindling. Coretta Scott King remembered when a black woman was seen in some quarters only as a hired domestic, Betty Friedan when a white woman was often treated like a major appliance or a decorative home accent. But both of them are now gone. Sandra Day O’Connor, who with little fanfare stepped down from the high court recently, remembers when a lawyer could tell you, without a hint of apology, that his firm never had and likely never would hire a woman associate.

O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court justice, was never known as a feminist firebrand. But she had what I think of as transformative experience, something that can’t help but suffuse your life and your mind. She carried within her the memory of what it was like to be reflexively devalued despite being smart and capable. I think it’s probably a good thing for a judge to have faced down that sort of organized systemic injustice. One argument is that it’s not supposed to matter, that judges are simply there to consider the statute as written, as though the law were algebra and its subject numbers. But jurisprudence is not math, and judges are not automatons but people who have been undoubtedly and sometimes mysteriously marked by what they remember, or choose to forget.

By Anna Quindlen, Newsweek

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~ by anick on November 25, 2006.

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