The F Word

On the days that writing a blog every day seems daunting—which truth be told is pretty much every day—I think about my dad and my grandfather who were journalists. Not only did they have to write every day, they had to write multiple articles that made sense from beginning to end every single day. Not only  made sense but had facts and accurate quotes. And they couldn’t call anyone names (except for once my grandfather wrote an op-ed column that said only this: Jane Fonda is an idiot. She had just gone to Hanoi to sit on the tank. I was very young at the time and had no opinion about this then).

I started my college career as a journalist—I started writing for the Western Front fall quarter of my freshman year, and for a while I found the whole experience exhilarating.  Journalism classes met in an old crickety house on the edge of campus and were taught by rumpled old men in questionable tweed jackets. One professor was the son of Lincoln Steffens, famous muckraker. There were not a lot of women in the program, not a single female professor in the time I was there (a good three years).

We only got two credits for a quarter’s stint on the campus paper, though the time commitment warranted far more than that. The paper came out twice a week and we met constantly it seemed—two nights a week to write headlines. I loved writing headlines—the section editors would give us the space and we had a formula for how many characters the headline could be. I excelled at writing headlines with active verbs and punchy nouns and that skill garnered me a little respect among the scruffy editors—male upperclassmen all. Everyone seemed to smoke and back then no one cared. Ashtrays overflowed with butts and the smoke hung low in the living-room turned newsroom.

Twice a week we had to show up at the print shop on the other end of campus to work on putting the paper together, literally. The section editors were responsible for pasting up their pages, but always needed help cutting and waxing the pages for paste up. I loved the waxing machine, and having grown up the daughter of a newspaper publisher, I knew my way around the layout tables. Exacto knives, blue pencils, the mockup sheets.

And of course we had to write stories. As much as I loved the atmosphere of the department and the headline writing and the paste up process, I wasn’t a big fan of writing the stories. I didn’t really like interviewing people. I was shy for one thing. And I didn’t really have a nose for news. I did great in classes where the local newspaper writer would give us the details and we’d pound out a story in class. I aced those, but I just didn’t seem to have a knack for sussing out the story, and I seriously lacked confidence when it came to calling people and asking for information.

I found my niche in the sports and op-ed pages, finally.  While I could give a damn about student fees and faculty senate stories, I did have a thing for the women’s basketball team (shocking, I know) and I knew my way around the gym. I made a small career out of covering the track and field team and putting together features on the women’s basketball players and coaches. Some dude had beat me out on covering the actual women’s games, a fact that chapped my ass to no end. The track coach once told me that he was impressed with my stories, surprised that I understood and wrote about the events as well as I did. I wasn’t exactly John Reed or Louise Bryant (the movie Reds came out my freshman year and I so wanted to be a journalist covering the Russian revolution), but I wrote good copy. I published humorous op-ed pieces, ala Dave Barry though not anywhere as funny (my mother often told me I’d be the next Erma Bombeck). Eventually, I became sports editor and one summer I was assistant editor. Lots of work for two credits. I suspected the real world wouldn’t treat us much better.

By the time my senior year rolled around, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to make a living as a journalist. My father had been out of the business for a few years by that time and my grandfather had died, though he had been successful as a writer, then editor and owner of a large suburban weekly. At one point I thought maybe if I could drink more and take up smoking, I’d be able to cut it in the newsroom, so I went out and bought a pack of Camel Unfiltereds and a bottle of Jim Beam. I sat on my little 8×8 foot apartment deck and smoked and drank like I’d seen the guys in the newsroom do. All I felt was sick and not long after on an election night it became clear to me when we were all (all of us Western Front reporters) were supposed to go downtown and cover the local, state, and federal elections. I just couldn’t see myself in that role—asking the pressing questions, taking notes, paying that close of attention. I froze at the thought. As much as I loved my name in the byline, I panicked under the pressure. So, I dropped that last 400 level reporting class the next day, just a few credits shy of completing my major and went to the Humanities building to switch to English, with an emphasis in writing.

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            As I think back on this choice, I realize that I didn’t then have a really clear reason for leaving journalism, but it’s becoming clearer to me now. I didn’t have any role models. There wasn’t a single female reporter, professor, mentor, or local professional to whom I could point and say, “She’s who I want to be like.” I remember only one or two other young women in the program, one a photographer and one, slightly older than me who I didn’t ever get to know. I just didn’t ever see myself reflected back to me anywhere in that world. I couldn’t imagine a future there because I couldn’t see anyone like me. So, I joined the relatively cushy ranks of the English department to finish out my college career. I found enough mentors there that I continued on to graduate school and into teaching English composition. I could see myself as an English professor, as a novel writer, as a reader of great fiction and poetry and creative non-fiction. I had role models, finally.

I’m thinking about this all now because I just finished a paper on Karen Horney (pronounced Horn-eye), the founder of Feminine Psychology. She started out as a Freudian in the early part of the 20th century but soon broke ranks with Freud in part because of his limited view of what comprises human nature (sex and aggression and penis envy). As part of this paper writing adventure, I had to find a relevant online video to review and I ended up with this one: The Changing Face of Feminist Psychology. This video traces the struggles female psychologists faced as recently as the 1980s in getting jobs, being taken seriously, being admitted to graduate school. Even though Karen Horney published her work on Feminine Psychology as early as the 1930s, it took another 50 years for women to advance in the field. And then, even as they began to make inroads as part of feminism’s second wave, the 1980s rolled around and everyone declared feminism dead or over with or moot.

But feminism is not dead. As long as we have daughters, we need to keep making sure they know that they can be whatever they want to be, that they can choose whatever career they want, and they will only know those careers are available to them if we make sure our faces are there to reflect back to them. We need to make sure we are the ones writing the editorials explaining perhaps why Jane Fonda went to Hanoi to sit on that tank. That perhaps, as one half of the world’s population, we can have a voice as well whether in the papers, online, in the classroom, the boardroom. Our daughters must see us out there to know that our voices and theirs matter.

Imagine

John Lennon said it best:  Imagine no religion. It’s easy if you try . . . no hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine.  I try to imagine what life might be like for me had I not been subjected to fundamentalist christianity between the ages of 5 and 21.  Those 17 years more than any in my life shaped me irrevocably. What happened during those years color what I do still, more than 25 years after I decided I could no longer subscribe to the tenets of christianity.
Last night, I sat with a group of women, all writers, all of us contributors to Beyond Belief: Women in Extreme Religion, an anthology of stories about women’s experiences getting into, staying in, and getting out of fundamentalist religions of many stripes: Mormonism, Judaism, The Moonies, Catholicism, among others.
Each of us read an excerpt from our story, and as we went around the room, a deep sadness overcame me (that and a not irrational fear that an angry god might smite us for talking smack about him). Sad about the potential wasted, the time wasted, the energy wasted—all the ways in which we’d been shamed, subjugated, stigmatized, separated in the name of god. Imagine growing up female and never feeling shame about being a girl, a woman. Never having to hide: our bodies behind burkas, our brains and intelligence behind our bodies. Imagine life as a woman without the imposition of religious constraints.
What could we have achieved, each of us, I wondered, had we been free to follow our natural impulses?  If we had been encouraged to embrace our places in the world rather than forced to shut ourselves off from the world, shut ourselves down, hide our true selves because our religions taught us what we felt was wrong—our loves, our bodies, our desires, our thirst for knowledge. We all have managed to overcome the limits our religions  imposed upon us, but at what cost, I wondered?
What might I have accomplished if my energies all those years had been channeled toward, say, academics instead of directed constantly at worrying about going to hell? What if instead of having to be vigilant against every carnal thought, I could have spent those years, oh, I don’t know, learning to play the drums or enjoying each moment, guilt-free instead of feeling pressured to proselytize so my god would smile upon me, so my god would not cast me into the fiery pits of hell. Imagine.
 The red thread of sex ran through most of our stories, which was a little surprising, given our diversity as a group—each of us spent so much time and effort struggling to come to terms with our bodies, our sex, our sensuality. Our natural way of being in the world.  Why, I wondered is religion so preoccupied with sex? Why is so much devotion to not-sex?  We can see how well suppressing those natural urges and biological imperatives has worked out for the Catholics, after all. 
But, back to religion and wasted time. Oh, sure, I am what I am because of my experiences, and I’ve got lots of rich material thanks to years of being repressed and, frankly, terrified at times that my basic humanity was enough to condemn me to an eternity of damnation. But what else might I have been? What else might that energy have cultivated had it not had to be engaged in a religious jihad against my very own nature? 
Imagine.