Stepping Forward

waitressThe summer before my senior year in college I worked as a waitress. I’d spent the three previous summers as an au pair, and had worked in my college library during the school year, but this was, in some ways, my first job in the World. The restaurant was a roadside family joint; the owner was the cook, and I was (at 20) the youngest person there. This was a while ago–the mid-70s–and the world was different. I got pinched on the butt and had an arm snaked around my waist; I got fairly adept at parrying suggestive comments by customers (although the guy who kept hitting on my while his wife and three kids sat eating meatloaf sort of boggled me). I was not adorable at that age: I was overweight and insecure and no one’s idea of delicious young womanhood, and yet these guys hit on me because I was an apparently unattached woman.

At the end of the summer I made gingerbread men for each of my co-workers as a way of saying Goodbye. Joe, the cook/owner, was amused: I’d iced his with an apron and chef’s toque. “But where’s my pecker?” he asked.

I thought quickly. “Under the apron.” He laughed, and might have followed up with an equally unsuitable comment, except my order was up and I had to get it to my customer. Thank God.

All summer I’d fielded a good deal of innuendo–mild, but still the sort of stuff that no good HR department would let stand now. And I fielded this. Still, I remember feeling uncomfortable–and determined not to let Joe, or anyone else, know that he’d made me feel uncomfortable. Because that would mean that I couldn’t take it, that I was a traitor to my generation, a traitor to womens’ liberation. Yadda yadda yadda.

I am a product of the tail-end of the cultural revolution of the 60s. Facilitated by the pill, which allowed for what Erica Jong picturesquely termed the “zipless fuck,” the idea was that without fear of pregnancy a woman could now have sex the way a man did–casually, as the mood struck. As a woman who came of age in the late 60s, I’m here to tell you: the message I got was that in order to attain equality in other playing fields, I should be having sex this way. This is, for my money, a lousy basis for a sexual game plan. So: no more slut-shaming, right? Except that the slut-shaming just went underground. Above the surface of cultural messaging it was “sex is good! you should be having sex!”  Below that surface the message was still “if you have sex outside of marriage–especially if you have sex without being overwhelmed and defenseless against a tide of passion–you are a hissing, a by-word, a slut.” Damned if you do, etc.

This political season I’ve heard a lot of comments made by politicians and politicos that are shockingly sexist and sexual… and wouldn’t have occasioned a blink when I was 20. Much of this is unmistakably awful. But sometimes at first hearing my thought is “well, that’s not so bad.” And then, “of course it is. It’s utterly vile.” When I was in my 20s I would have let them go by because most of the people around me would. I thought that if such things bothered me it was my fault. I was squeamish or fussy or insufficiently liberated. Something.

Don’t let anyone tell you there hasn’t been progress in the last mumble decades. Not enough, not fast enough. But if you remember the old days when a woman not only put up with abusive or insulting or sexist language, but felt there was something wrong with them if they felt abused or insulted, you know that every woman who stands up now and says No is a step forward.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


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