Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Shifts in a Movement
by Ruth Pennebaker

I began to hear about the feminist movement thirty-three years ago when I was in college in Lubbock. My friend Sharon, who had up till then seemed pretty normal, had gone to the first meeting of Texas Tech feminists. She told me that women were oppressed by rigid sex roles, meager expectations about careers and crushingly unrealistic expectations about good looks.

I was nineteen, wore mini-skirts, slept in brush rollers, and applied makeup with a shovel. Now that Sharon mentioned it, I felt oppressed. My roommate LaNelle, who already suspected I was some kind of dangerous radical because I slept all the time and never went to class or church, hinted darkly that Sharon and I were both troublemakers and malcontents who would come to no good.

Maybe so. But we did come to feminism. At the time, it was so easy and exhilarating and right. Women could be just like men – aggressive and tough and professionally successful – if we slung off the yoke of cultural conditioning and asserted ourselves. We were young and the feminist movement was young, and life seemed so simple that you could explain it on a bumper sticker. As Gloria Steinem said, "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle."

Well, so it has proven a little more complicated than that. The feminist movement has succeeded, failed, succeeded, fell short, crested and fragmented, some of us fishes still liked bicycles, bumper stickers proved to be a bit limiting when you were hammering out a philosophy of life, and by the way, what were you going to do once you had children? And whose bright idea was it that we wanted to be like men, anyway?

For a few years, some feminist thinkers argued that women were, by nature, different from men – more nurturing and caring. Now, more recently, headlines, articles and best-selling books proclaim that women and girls are capable of meanness and backbiting. This is, I suppose, breaking news for anyone who has grown up on a distant galaxy known by its natives as La-La Land and has spent a lifetime ignoring repeated we-come-in-peace signals from Planet Earth. (Women are distressingly, annoyingly human and imperfect, when you get right down to it. Got that?)

The most recent dust-up in the feminist-cultural wars was supposed to be a new movie called Crush. Depending on the reviews you read, Crush was either a) a warm, feel-good comedy about women’s friendships; or b) a strident, feel-suicidal farce about this whole women-can-be-mean phenomenon. How could I miss a movie with a build-up like that? I couldn’t, and I did not think my friend Pat could, either, so I dragged her along with me.

So much for reviews, although I should warn you that the b)’s had it. Crush is the story of two women friends who successfully wreck a third friend’s romance with a younger man "for her own good." Minutes later, a truck runs over the ex-boyfriend and kills him. (Subtle plot development, I should add, is not one of this movie’s assets.) But then everything smooths out, because the third woman turns up pregnant with the dead boyfriend’s baby and she forgives her friends because they were – after all -- only trying to help.

In other words, women might be jealous, quasi-homicidal harpies, but we are a forgiving bunch. Think All About Eve with all the bile and none of the wit. It was the worst movie I had seen since Titanic, and I didn’t even get to watch the ship sink.

"Wasn’t that great?" Pat said. "I loved it. You didn’t like it? What was wrong with it?"

Just about everything, I said.

Pat told me I was hyper-critical and I told her she was not critical enough. We glared at each other for a few seconds.

"You’re kidding – aren’t you?" she said. "Didn’t you really like the movie?"

"No way," I said. "It was swill."

We glared a little more.

Then we forgot about the movie and went to dinner, where we talked and laughed a lot and drank some wine. Pat and I have been friends now for 25 years, and we share the kind of history that makes both of us realize we will always be friends – assuming, that is, that neither of us try to sabotage the other’s significant other and he gets run over by a tractor-trailer.

O, sisterhood, where art thou? Not on the movie screen, since Thelma and Louise. But, here, in the real world of feminism, fishes and bicycles -- even after all these years of unexpected complexities, disappointments, triumphs and bad movies – when I am with my friends, why is it that I always feel so much more hopeful?
AustinMama, Ruth Pennebaker, a contributing columnist to The Dallas Morning News, has published essays and articles in The New York Times' "Hers" column, the Washington Post, Parents, Redbook, McCall's, Cooking Light and other nationwide publications. She's also written for public television and radio, KERA Channel 13 and 90.1 in Dallas, including Channel 13's statewide production of Voters' Revenge.  Both Sides Now, Ms. Pennebaker's third young-adult novel, was published in June 2000. Her second novel, Conditions of Love, was honored as a Blue Ribbon title by the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, was a selection of the Teen Book of the Month Club, and was a finalist for the Book Publishers of Texas Award for the Best Book for Children and Young People given by the Texas Institute of Letters. Her first young-adult novel, Don't Think Twice, which has been reissued in paperback, was chosen as one of the American Library Association's Best Books for Young Adults.  Ms. Pennebaker has been a featured author three different times at the Texas Book Festival. A collection of her columns for the Dallas Morning News will be published in 2002, and she is now working on an adult novel, Trading Up.  Her work can be found in the new book Red Boots and Attitude, a collection of stories celebrating sassy and inspiring Texas women writers.  She lives in Austin with her mad-scientist husband, two adolescent children, and a neutered cat.