Why, What-If, and Cultural Change

carolyn & jim - Version 2

The most frightening stories are those that might come true.

Recently I found myself suddenly remembering the Handmaidens’ Tale by Margaret Atwood. It’s set in the near future, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a world that is suffering from mysterious environmental damage, and has been taken over by a fundamentalist religious dictatorship. Women’s rights vanish overnight, and the “handmaiden” at the center of the tale remembers yet can’t image her former life, back when she was free to read, work, and drive.

In other times and other lands, of course, sudden and violent changes in culture and freedom happen all the time. We all read books about Nazi Germany and listen nightly to news about terrible things in the mid-east.

But, of course, it can’t happen here, and it can’t happen to us.

Yet, radical cultural change has already occurred, at least gradually.

I was born in 1951. In the 50‘s women had to wear skirts to school and work. The job section of the newspaper was divided into “male” and “female. ” You couldn’t legally get birth control unless you were married. Abortions were illegal. Premarital sex carried potentially heavy penalties. If I had gotten pregnant, I would’ve had to leave high school. I’m doubt my family would have sent me away, but they would have been ashamed and horrified. I couldn’t imagine myself doing that to them.

And then came the 60’s. I could wear blue jeans to my college classes! I protested the Viet Nam war, and smoked marijuana. I became a Democrat. It occurred to me that I was in college to find a job, and to heck with a husband.

When I decided to lose my virginity, I was able to go to Planned Parenthood and get a prescription for the pill.

Now I don’t usually spend any time thinking about ‘What if?”

But, what if? What if things hadn’t changed and I hadn’t had access to reliable birth control? Would I have stayed a virgin forever? Would I have gotten pregnant and married one of those losers I dated before I met my husband? Would I have gotten an illegal abortion? Girls died from them. They lost their fertility. In reality, I probably would have confided in my mother. She probably would have quit the job she loved, in order to help me raise my child. What if?

But it didn’t happen. I went to Planned Parenthood and got a prescription for the pill. (Thanks be to god, all my accidental pregnancies happened after I got married and opted for less dependable methods. )

During the 70‘s positive changes accelerated. After I switched my college major from from sociology to business, I got a job with the federal government. I was one of the first women to be hired as a bank examiner, and one of the very few who then hung onto the job after having children. This didn’t happen because of my tenacity, or talent; it happened because the world changed for the better; and my work made accommodations for me. Later on, my husband was grateful because it let him do what he wanted. He quit his job and raised our children while I worked full time.

I owe a lot to the cultural changes of the last 50 years.

But most of all I credit those changes with saving my mother. She was a generous, energetic, and gregarious woman, who needed work, and an active life, like she needed air. She relished raising her 4 children, but as they grew up, she dreaded her future. She was trapped in a loveless marriage with a man who didn’t want to do anything but drink and watch TV. But in the 50’s and the early 60’s, women just didn’t end their marriages simply due to personal unhappiness.

But in the 70‘s my mother got a new job, had an affair, fell in love, and asked my father for a divorce. She asked him for a divorce the day after my own wedding.

No one disapproved.

My mother-in-law saw her six months later, and could not believe the change. She said. “The woman looks 10 years younger. ”

My mother went on to marry her lover, and they both spent their next 20 years in love and barely believing in their own good luck.

So this is a happy story, a grateful pagan to cultural change and liberation.

But I actually started thinking about all this in an effort to understand the opponents of planned parenthood. Why would a rational person who opposed abortion want to defund Planned Parenthood? It’s an organization that, by providing contraceptives, undoubtedly prevents far more abortions than it performs. And the tissue that it donates to science could lead to a scientific break though that might save my life or the life of someone I love.

Why? Why? Because, I answered myself, the folks who are really against Planned Parenthood are also against contraception. Because, I answered myself, they want to take us back to the 50‘s. They want to take us back to when only married women could obtain reliable birth control, to when good girls just didn’t, and to when a woman’s hope for a good life rested solely upon finding the right husband and keeping him happy.

Why? Why, I asked, why would anyone want to go back to those times?!

And then I thought about my father.

My father was a sorry, befuddled man who never understood why his life had taken such a harsh turn. He didn’t realize how unhappy my mother was, or know how to fix it. I suspect he would be diagnosed with Aspergers if he were around today. He was a good engineer and a good man who self-medicated with alcohol because he couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. He couldn’t figure out why no one liked him. But he thought he was following the rules. He thought he had an OK marriage. He would have been much happier if the rules hadn’t changed underneath his feet. Cultural change was not his friend, and to this day, I can’t honestly separate my mother’s joy from my father’s pain. Or escape my own guilt at clearly siding with my mother.

So perhaps I should be able to understand why some people aren’t celebrating all these changes.

In a tsunami, the ocean recedes before it comes roaring back to destroy everything in its path. Folks fight fiercely to regain what they’ve lost. Recent years have been rocked by massive cultural change, even if those of us who are living in it, and benefiting from it remember, but can’t really imagine the past. And that’s why the specter of ‘The Handmaidens’ Tale’ suddenly popped up in my brain. It’s because the most frightening stories are those that might come true.

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