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FIRST PERSON Quota of One

Am I a victim of sexism? Well, now that I think about it. . .
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PAY HO ATTENTION TO WHAT MY brother might have told you. I do not see sexism lurking behind every innocuous gesture. For instance, I cheerfully overlook a man my father’s age calling me “honey” or “little lady” or asking for my husband before explaining what’s wrong with the car. I suffer no knee-jerk reaction when a neighbor offers me a wink or a compliment disguised as a wisecrack. And remember back when Clayton Williams said he felt uncomfortable running against a woman? Well, I wasn’t in-sulled. In fact, I sort of understood. I suspect my own son would feel uncomfortable racing his bike hell-for-leather, say, or playing one-on-one basketball with a woman. I know for sure he would if she were winning. I grew up with those incidentals. They’re inconveniences, nothing to hack at my self-esteem or impede my progress, at least in any obvious way.

No, the things that do that are more subtle. They gnaw around the back of my brain somewhere, until finally they pop through, and then I get angry. But I don’t show it, because anger isn’t ladylike, so I cry instead.

Here’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. I know this man who says he likes and respects women, and I believe he does, intellectually. But he has this little laugh he uses whenever his wife says something he considers erroneous. At first, you might think the chuckle benign, like the encouraging tee-hee a parent offers a child who has charmingly mispronounced a four-syllable word, but it’s certainly condescending as hell. He does this with all the women in his personal life: mother, daughter, sister, daughter-in-law, wife. But not with his female business associates or with men.

Once, when I called him on it, well, he laughed. “You’re really getting strident, you know. You sound like one of those male-bashers,” he said. Then he laughed again. I’ve heard his wife object to this dismissive treatment only once. When braced by wine at a party, she said, “Why do you react as though I’m stupid? Why can’t you simply say that you disagree?”

The guy’s still laughing at the women in his life. And he still has no idea he’s sexist. What gets me even more, though, is that his wife doesn’t either. She makes no connection whatsoever between that dismissive laugh and sexism. She finds it irritating, maybe even unkind, but not sexist, I get annoyed, too, at my much older friend who has her own laugh, this at the end of every declarative sentence. Her laugh says, “You don’t have to take what I just said seriously. If I’m wrong, let’s just forget it.” She’s one of the smartest people I know, but she can’t make a statement without nervous qualification.

This woman’s contemporaries were the only defenders I heard of Clayton Williams’s infamous bad weather/rape joke. “I’ve heard that joke all my life. He didn’t mean anything by it,” they said. Well, let’s not beat a dead horse; let’s instead consider just this: I never heard any male or any female under 50 defend Williams’s gaffe.

Only older women.

They’ve heard it all their lives.

So have I, and maybe years ago it wouldn’t have bothered me either.

1959. I was 20, marrying and graduating from college at the same time, Given a form asking me how I wanted my name to read on my diploma, I carefully wrote my first, middle, and maiden names. “You have to have your married name,” I was told. ’”But I earned this under my maiden name,” I said. “I want it to say who I was then.” I lost, but I remember that exchange as my first flicker of consciousness-raising. It didn’t take. A year later, I was a 21-year-old school teacher, listening to colleagues discuss a proposed pay raise. Said I: “Well, it would be all right with me if they paid men teachers more than women. After all, they have families to support.” I swear to God, that’s exactly what I said, and, you know, nobody disagreed, not even the two or three single mothers present.

But back to the name business. “You can’t win,” the head of a civic organization told me recently. “We list contributors or send invitations to Mrs. Branford Wills, and she calls me mad. ’I’ve worked hard to be Nan Wills,’ she’ll say. So next time, we list Mary Pointer, who calls indignant that we’ve deviated from the traditional Mrs. Hubert Pointer.” Another acquaintance, a recent widow in her 60s, grows sad when she receives mail addressed to Mrs. Jane Doe. “I’m proud of being Mrs. John Doe. I didn’t stop being Mrs. John Doe when John died,” she says. If she, after 40 years as Mrs. John Doe, wants to remain Mrs. John Doe, she should. But when, I wondered, did this woman stop being Jane? Why does remaining Jane show lack of pride in John?



I’M A LIFESTYLE COLUMNIST; I’M SUPPOSED TO be a woman. It’s okay, even preferable, for a woman to write about relationships, families, the emotions and tribulations of making it through the day. “Well, women editors and reporters probably have a different story, but, no, I really can’t say I’ve experienced sexism at work,” I’ve told groups I’ve addressed during the Q & A sessions. Then, last fall, I read Anna Quindlen’s New York Times piece in which she wrote of editors rejecting her column because, they explained, they already carried Ellen Goodman.

“There’s not only a quota,” wrote Quind-len, “there’s a quota of one.” And I remember the editors who’ve said they’d run my column if they didn’t already carry Erma Bombeck, and finally I see sexism in the response. Bombeck and I write nothing alike, by the way. She’s a humorist with a to-the-point directness. I can write funny but just as frequently take a serious vein. Yet because we both can write funny, we must be alike. On the other hand, Katie Sherrod, who frequently writes of women’s issues on my newspaper’s op-ed page, is often introduced as Fort Worth’s Ellen Goodman. And I remember Ellen Goodman once telling me how people call her “the thinking woman’s Erma Bombeck,” insulting both Bombeck and Goodman. Does anyone feel it necessary to compare Russell Baker to Tom Wicker? Or George Will to Dave Barry to William Safire to Art Buch-wald to William Raspberry to dozens of other male columnists? Ah. If you’re a woman, and you write for a newspaper, you’re either Erma Bombeck or Ellen Goodman. And we already have one of each, thank you.



IF I COULD BE ANYONE, I THINK, I’D BE MY daughter. If we’re me sowing generation, she and her peers represent the great reapers, And yet, only two years ago on her sophisticated, big-city campus, fraternities decorated party vans with obscenities and vulgarities directed at women students, many of whom cheerfully hopped inside for rides to the parties. The signs have disappeared, but the young women may now be greeted at the fraternity houses by pictures of nekkid wimmin hanging on the walls, and, yearly, female students dress as bunnies to attend the annual Playboy Classic. Oh, well, that’s for charity, they respond. Sometimes I feel they could be still standing in the middle of the Fifties.

Of course, sometimes I feel I’m still standing in the Fifties, too. For instance, when beset by financial worries, my most persistent thought is “maybe I should marry again. That would solve everything.” I hire neighborhood boys to do my yard work, instead of assigning it to my daughter along with household chores. If there’s war, I’d rather hear the war news from sonorous male tones, and if you tell me to speak to the doctor, minister, mechanic, or lawyer present, I’ll automatically look for a man-not only, I’m afraid, because I’m playing a practical game of odds, but because I’m still counting on a nice fatherly figure to fill those roles. And you can bet there’s a Suzanne of “Designing Women” who frequently bursts from my body. “I don’t care what they say,” Suzanne declares. “Men are the ones who’re supposed to kill bugs.”

Not long ago, I gave my mother a tape recorder and a stack of blank tapes. “Talk about your childhood, your college days. Tell us about Daddy as a young man, about yourself as a wife, as a young mother,” I sug-gested. “And what you think about, all about you.” Immediately, my mother, the epitome of the gentlewoman, pushed the recorder aside. “No, thanks,” she said. “I can’t imagine anything more dull.”

This makes me sad. but a few nights later,at the ballet, I’m leafing through the programwhen a certain patron’s name-Ms. BettyRenfro-catches my eye, and I smile withpride. Not because of the Ms. business.Titles mean nothing to me. I’d gladly doaway with Ms., Mrs., and Mr., had I mydruthers. But I like the Betty Renfro. And Idon’t think my father would have felt slightedin the least to see his wife of 53 years usingher own name.

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