A few days ago, I heard an acquaintance say she hadn’t known of the widespread abuse of women until she read about Harvey Weinstein. This is hard to believe. But we all live in one kind of bubble or another and the facts are truly hideous.
I thought of this last week when I saw a one-time screening here in Santa
Fe of David Stenn’s documentary, Girl 27. I thought the title must refer to the “girl”‘s age. In fact, Patricia Douglas was “Girl 27” on a long list of young extras who were invited to an MGM party in Hollywood, in 1937, under the guise of a casting shoot for a movie.
How exciting! What young wanna-be star could resist it?
The “girls” arrived at a hotel in Hollywood, were costumed as cute western cowgirls and loosed on a big group of MGM agents—the men who sold the movies. The men were told by Sam Goldwin, “You can have anything you want.”
Liquor flowed. Confused, expecting to be auditioned for a role in a movie, 17-year-old Patricia Douglas refused a drink, saying, “I don’t drink.” Two of the men seated with her at a table forced liquor down her throat, one of them holding her nose—a mixture of Scotch and champagne. Barely able to walk, she stumbled outside to throw up. One of the men followed her, dragged her into the bushes and raped her—”My first time,” the now elderly recluse told Stenn, leaving her with memories she had to keep blocked from consciousness for decades.
It took Stenn two years to persuade her to talk. She hung up on him time after time. She didn’t want to remember. She’d never told her daughter or her grandchildren. Four brief marriages, none of them happy, and a life damaged beyond repair finally persuaded her to tell Stenn the story. She’d gone to court in 1937, he learned, hoping for justice and her mother’s support, but found neither. The case was thrown out and erased from history, along with Patrician Douglas.
Not surprisingly, Stenn found at least one other case, Eloise Spann, also raped at that same MGM party. Her story was even more tragic. A few years later, she hung herself.
One “girl” had sensed the danger and told an MGM executive, “Get me out of here,” which he did. But there was no available public transportation, and most of the “girls” were too young and too hopeful to recognize that they were being offered up as sacrifices.
“Anything you want…”
We are still in the thick of it, and not only in Hollywood. The hidden destruction of women’s lives goes on.
But watch out! For every revelation, like Stenn’s brave “Girl 27″—which he financed himself and which is available, years later, on Netflix—there is a half-buried response, and it’s not encouraging. As a smart man friend remarked, “Well, you know, all these cases are different. You can’t paint with a broad brush.” He was urging moderation, discrimination.
The details differ, yes, but the core truth is always the same. As Patricia Douglas’ rapist told her, “I want to destroy you.” And he nearly succeeded.
So the backlash will begin, or is already beginning. You’ll hear it in those measured, intelligent comments. And The New York Times, as so often leading the way, called its lead editorial on July 29, “The Racism Behind Women’s Suffrage,” warning against the “commemorations that will unfold all across the United States around the centennial of the 19th Amendment,” two years from now.
I wish. It may well pass in near silence.
The Times editorial calls out Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “the campaign’s principle philosopher” (a title Stanton, who worked with Susan B. Anthony, would never have claimed) as “a classic liberal racist” who feared that extending the vote to black men would degrade white women. Stanton can, of course, be roundly criticized for sharing in her period’s racism but it might be worth including the context: determined to get the vote for white women, Stanton refused to take the risk of extending the franchise to African-American men.
And since, as far as I know, this is The Times‘ only reference to the anniversary of suffrage, it’s negativity raises a question: why now? And where is the context?
And, in a criticism that goes far back, the editorial states that the Amendment “covered the needs of middle-class white women quite nicely” while ignoring the needs of African-American women in the South. It is perhaps absurd to assume that the Amendment could have been passed had these women been included, and equally absurd to posit that extending suffrage to one group of women had no effect on others. A successful change shows us all that it can be done.
“Middle-class white women” have long been an easy target for the patriarchy. When Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, reviews attempted to discredit it as applying only to white middle-class women. But the book was revolutionary in recognizing that “the problem that has no name” is not alleviated by class status, money, or professionalism.
In certain situations, all young women are exposed to assault and rape, as they have always been. Patricia Douglas and Eloise Spann, whose search for justice was nullified and whose stories were erased, stand for all of us.
“I don’t want them to think I’m a dirty woman,” an ancient Patricia Douglas told David Stenn.
Good luck, Sisters. The backlash when it comes will soil a lot of us.