Happy 88th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage: The Do-Over

Last night I took down a number of what I think of as “internet angry guy” posts that I’d put up over a few weeks, posts that are the equivalent of me being like my mom and shouting at the television–something that worries me about her only because she never had high blood pressure until, well, the last 7 years. I took these down because I realized in the most recent one I hadn’t really done what I wanted to on the topic of the anniversary of women’s suffrage, which happened on the same day as the Democratic Convention kickoff and the beautiful speech Michelle Obama gave. I’d watched it in the home of my friend Cathy Ciepiela, with my friend Anston Bosman–Cathy had rushed her partner Burl to the hospital for stitches, as he’d cut himself while preparing our dinner, and Anston and I found ourselves a bit like the kids left alone with the TV. We were watching the execrable coverage of the convention on CNEC 7, with wannabe Joe Scarboroughs and Keith Olbermanns talking over–actually talking over–the speeches, so that you couldn’t hear them, and we were enraged.

Why did they think I was watching to hear them, I wondered aloud to Anston, who agreed, and we changed the channel, to PBS. There, we found them interviewing Jimmy Carter, despite what looked to be a blood bruise in his left eye. It was so unphotogenic it seemed strange to see, in the television. When real life appears there, it looks weird now.

Jimmy Carter gave a context for this convention, and then the next speech began and the coverage, sensibly, moved to it. Michelle Obama came on and delivered a powerful, elegant statement about how she feels about her husband, her family and her country, and I was moved. But I was still angry about the idiocy before, and inarticulate about it, and so I wrote the “listicle”, as my laptop was open on my lap (Anston and I were both online) and then I hit publish.

That didn’t come close to doing justice to the way I feel about how 89 years ago, the women in my life wouldn’t have been able to vote. It said nothing about how important these women are to me, whether it’s my literary heroes, my colleagues, my friends, my mom, my aunts, my grandmothers, my sister or my nieces. My great-grandmother Blanche would have smacked me with the pistol she used to keep in her apron. And then made me do it over. So here I am.

I think about my late friend Sarah Pettit a lot these days. I even had a dream about her over the summer, and I never dream about the dead. In the dream, she was talking to me, I remember. I was in Greece, and I woke up and felt very much as if I had spent time with her. At this remove I don’t remember what she said to me. Something she might do, if our situations were reversed. I am alternately very superstitious and then not. I didn’t think, Oh, I’ve been visited by her. I thought, Oh, I wonder what she represents to me psychologically, and the details of the conversation faded.

But until now, I haven’t really taken in what a visit from her would mean.

Sarah was my ex’s room-mate’s girlfriend when I met her at the first OutWrite conference in San Francisco, a conference I’d helped organize, and she told me that when she met me I was too slick: the motorcycle, the leather jacket, the hair. So she didn’t trust me right away with my ex, who she cared for deeply. She was an intensely loyal friend, once she decided she liked you, and she did get past my slick surface, she liked me, and when I moved to New York, she hired me at the startup of a little magazine called Out, as the assistant editor. That job was more like 7 jobs, and most of what I did was mediate between her and Michael Goff, the editor in chief and publisher–I explained them to each other–between making press kits and maintaining the subscription database and negotiating a cover exclusive with Rupert Everett’s people. In other words, whatever needed to get done. When I left, it was to go to graduate school, to Iowa. Don’t let me catch you in an office job again, she said to me, with a bit of a grin.

If she’d had her way, she’d have spent her days writing poems and stories. But she was also far too good at what she did instead, and she was so good at it, she ended up eventually at Newsweek, where she stayed until she died, far too young, from Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.

Sarah was always talking about her head exploding, it was something of a theme. The head popping off, the head exploding from anger at the stupidity of others. She had beautiful wavy chestnut hair (she’d hate this description) and it would fly up when she was angry in this way, and she’d spin her eyes around and make a noise. She had a range of angry modes, and some were funny and some were not funny at all, for a second. But it was good that she was angry in all these ways, I think, because women aren’t really allowed anger in our culture, still—they’re still asked to always be nice, even when someone is taking away their rights.

To my unconscious, if I had to guess, Sarah is the guardian of my righteous outrage. She’s the one who told me to go off and write, to walk away from glossy magazine editing and to go be a writer and struggle for what I loved. To point out what was wrong when it was wrong, to yell when you need to yell and to be whole to yourself. So I think it’s better for me to honor this historical day belatedly with this remembrance of her, and accept this as my apology for my earlier anniversary post. In Sarah’s memory, I’d ask you to do something today or this week that you haven’t normally done, to support the women in your life in their journey–which is still not over–to be full partners in American life. I have no idea what that means to you and it’s always a good idea, as a man or a woman, to think about it. There’s a lot to go around. Sarah, for example, was mistreated by her doctor for depression and was repeatedly told her symptoms were “in her head”. That she was imagining it. By the time people really knew what was wrong with her health, it was very late to treat her for it. Women are frequently victimized this way by the medical profession in general– drugs, for example, are tested on men, not on women, whose physiologies are dramatically different, and women are still considered too “emotional”. Women are also marginalized way, way too often by gay men, who should be better about this, but who too frequently fail to make the connection between sexism and homophobia. Nothing makes me angrier than a gay man who tells me he doesn’t have lesbian friends and acts weird about it. The people who do that seem like partial humans to me, like something is missing in them.

I don’t know how they live like that and I don’t want to know. I just want them to fix it.

And in the meantime, I am tired of my internet angryman lists, for example, so I’m going to try and not make this blog into an angry letter to the editor of the world.

I’m also going to keep teaching my mom relaxation techniques. I’ll never get her to not be angry about what’s wrong in the world. But I want her to survive it.

So, here’s to the women in our lives. Long may they thrive.

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4 thoughts on “Happy 88th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage: The Do-Over

  1. heather says:

    I feel the love, Mr. Chee. Most of us could benefit from an anger-to-love converter.

    Would that be make-up sex? a super surge protector strip that blocks rage and emits warm cookie smell? R-E-S-P-E-C-T?

    Somehow it always involves effort.

    Many blessings to you.

  2. j3black says:

    I agree with you, which is not unusual. Most of the people who raised me were women. Since I believe that nurture is at least as powerful as nature, I see those women in me. My mother, grandmother, sister, teachers, bosses. I couldn’t function without what they’ve taught me. Their wisdom is integral to my being. My father and a few other men are in the mix, too. I’m man, but I’m also woman. This is how I’ve always lived; I don’t know any other way. I’m grateful to them for making me whole.

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