These days there are reasons for women to feel discouraged. The spectacle before us on the political stage is dismaying: some of our sisters are supporting a misogynist, bowing to the ancient rule that any man is better than any woman, and others are indulging in a sort of double-speak about the only woman candidate qualified and enduring enough to have made it this far. For those of us who have worked for decades in the ranks to make this happen, the lackluster support our daughters and granddaughters are offering is a repetition of the old tune. We don’t, when the chips are down, support each other.
I’m taking my last turn at being discouraged, though, partly because of the women I watched last weekend on a public beach in southern California.
This state has, miraculously, welcomed natives of many other regions and countries, welcomed them not without the inevitable difficulties, but with resplendent results. In what other big US city do you find a neighborhood called “Little Bangladesh?”
One of the results was displayed on the crowded beach.
A young Latin woman (I’m guessing here) in a chrome-yellow bikini was playing paddle ball with a large, well-built young man. This young woman was beautiful enough with her waving long dark hair and perfect body to arrest attention, but she was not courting attention with her beauty. She was not courting attention at all. She was simply playing a game with consummate skill.
The young man, also an athlete, fired off many balls that, in earlier times, a comely woman partner might have ducked, laughing.
The woman in the chrome-yellow bikini returned them all.
He couldn’t fire a ball beyond her, or over her, and he seemed to be used to being engaged in competition with an equal. Perhaps he was even enjoying it.
His father and grandfather never had this opportunity.
The woman in the chrome-yellow bikini moved with an assurance and a lack of self-consciousness that seem to me revolutionary. If she can move like this playing paddle ball, surely she can act with equal skill, grace, and assurance in a board room, a corporate office, or an artist’s studio.
And then, in the midst of a point, she suddenly flung down her paddle and ran into the ocean.
She didn’t excuse herself or offer a reason. She simply ran into the waves.
And he, her able partner, looked after her not with bewilderment or astonishment but with simple acceptance.
This is what she does. This is what he has come to accept and expect, if not admire.
Again, his father and grandfather would never have had the opportunity for learning this experience provides.
When she came back, dripping wet and beautiful, she took up her paddle and gave him a light whack on the rear end. Affectionate, teasing, perhaps a tiny bit condescending, once the attitude many men had toward their women.
We have Title IX to thank for this woman’s physical competence—even if no one credits it—and her access to the equal athletic opportunities it provides for girls.
We have the chrome-yellow bikini’s mother to thank for her attitude, and her mother’s friends who talked and modeled other ways, other opportunities, other challenges than those her grandmother would have advocated—“Marry a good man and be taken care of for life,”—all that.
She may very well marry a good man, if that is what she wants, or a good woman, or not marry at all, have children, not have children, adopt—but whatever path she chooses, she will not expect to be supported and validated for life by another human being, lover, husband or child.
And that is revolutionary.
It is also the seed of the vast uneasiness disrupting our country today. The Trumpster’s campaign is the last desperate effort of the stereotypical male to wrest back control from the spirit of the new age—the spirit of the feminine, not in its old lace and pearls manifestation (and there was some power there)—but in the image of the woman in the chrome-yellow bikini dashing into the surf.
This image is not inalterably tied to youth. On the same beach, I saw a beautiful older woman sitting on the sand with her legs curled under her, wearing folds of tissue-like gray material and a jaunty Panama hat, perfectly groomed, her purple toenails gleaming in bronze sandals.
She wasn’t moving, physically, as she talked to another woman, but clearly she could move, and decisively, if she felt called upon to do so. And she no longer needed the potent reinforcers of her power symbolized by a bikini and long hair.
The beach is a liberator as the subject of my next book, Doris Duke, knew. In an earlier era, she only found physical and emotional freedom battling the surf off Hawaii and Newport in the somewhat reduced bathing suits of the last century.
Now, the beach is not the only liberator. The girls and women who embody the spirit of the new age are popping up everywhere.
At the hamburger stand near the beach, a young woman arriving with her friends wore a sweatshirt boldly printed with a line from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Tho she be small, she is fierce.”
Yes, this young woman was small, physically, but she was taking up the space we afford to a large spirit, a spirit that knows the good uses of fierceness. And has read her Shakespeare.
Only the bubble of privilege prevents some of us from embodying this spirit of the age. Privilege seems to offer enormous possibilities and rewards, but they are illusory. Death, disinheritance, divorce, a sudden change in status, the glass ceiling—all can bring down dreams. And meanwhile, we live at a certain remove from the rest of the world, swimming off private beaches, attending private clubs, shielding ourselves from reality as most people know it.
The inherent strength of the feminine is not dependent to any great degree on outside circumstances, but to develop it, we have to venture out.
That spirit is available to us now, if we accept the challenge.
Even without the bikini and the long hair.