Seventy-eight million of us baby boomers who grew up in United States during the 1970s remember this slogan as an iconographic hallmark from the feminist movement, an unofficial benchmark signifying that women were emancipated and free (if you considered smoking and wearing pants the epitome of freedom). And while it might make us feel good forty years later to think we’ve come a long way, baby, I can’t say with any real confidence that we have. It’s true; I am a female American and have inherited certain privileges built upon the bloodshed, sweat and toil of my ancestors. I am free to speak my mind, to vote, to marry for love, to own land and, alas, to smoke and wear pants. And few would argue that in the 3.6 million years since we started walking on two legs (according to possibly our first ancestor, an Australopithecus called Lucy) that in some significant ways we have made progress. For example: men are less likely to club us in the back of the head, drag us back to the cave and mount us without permission; most of us don’t find it necessary to take a bow and arrow to a local city park to hunt and spear the wildlife for lunch; you hardly ever hear about a woman being burned at the stake for having a “gut feeling” or “following her inner voice”; and ritually cutting out women’s clitorises is now illegal in the US (which I suspect is largely thanks to Eleanor Roosevelt’s major contribution in writing our declaration of human rights). The question becomes, then what is freedom? And what is the cost?
Plato would say the world revealed by our senses is not the real world at all and that freedom is our inalienable right. Yet due to my socialization, experiences and gender imprinting, like so many I saw freedom through the eyes of a victim and emancipation as something that came with a price.
One such occasion that helped shape this point of view occurred when I was sixteen, when my father had thrown me down a flight of cement stairs and beaten me senseless because I had lied to him about where I had been. My parents were divorced, and two days later when I came to I saw my mother at my bedside. Instead of protecting me, she advised me that everything would be ok if I would just follow the rules. The fact that my father had molested me, beat me, psychologically tormented, and verbally abused me was not on the docket that day; rather, one woman urged a younger one that if she wanted someday to be free she had to play the game. Sadly, her detached manner conveyed there was nothing she could do about that or for me.
Her attempts to assuage my contempt for this man and my unfortunate circumstances (years of enduring “It’s my way or the highway,” “You’re a whore just like your mother,” and “The only reason I would ever send you to school is so you can find a man who is going somewhere,” —oh, yes, and the ultimate annihilation; “All men will ever want from you is to “f%^&” you,”) were unsuccessful. I decided I had been pummeled, groped and mistreated quite enough, and as soon as she left I called the police.
I told the woman on the other end of the line that my father had beaten me quite severely and asked her if I had to stay in his house or if I was free to leave (a legitimate question, as I was still a minor at 16). I can still remember the tone of her voice; “Honey, if that man beat you, get yourself out of there… you don’t have to stay.” I thanked her and hung up.
In demonstration of my protest I took her advice and headed towards my bedroom, trying to gather up a few things I thought I might need. I could feel the heat in my belly rise into my heart, momentarily intoxicated by the delusion that in minutes I would no longer be a prisoner. Yet as I closed the front door behind me I was stricken with the terror and uncertainty of what might lie before me. The reality was that while I was free, I had nowhere to go.
Several months passed as I slept in closets, cars and sometimes not at all, accepting that this was the price one paid for freedom. It took several years before I realized I had not gained freedom, that I had simply traded one prison for another. That I had only temporarily settled for “a room with a view.” Perhaps Sigmund Freud was right that the idea of civilization was created in an attempt to control or cover up for our dark inner urges, from which he deduced freedom therefore cannot exist because we are not, nor have we ever been, free to express our true selves without consequence.
On the other hand, some of our more scientific types, while they wouldn’t dare sneeze at the significance of our psychological drives and urges as a measure for evolution, are more inclined to gauge progress in quantum terms rather than increments of socialized behaviors. Like Rebecca Costa, a well-known sociologist, who supports the view that while we know some things for sure we know even less for certain. In her latest book, The Watchman’s Rattle, Rebecca states that while we have indeed come from “somewhere” and are surely moving towards “something,” we are actually on the brink of an evolutionary marker that suggests the next leap we make will be in terms of human consciousness, a broader scope of progress and change that eclipses our current understanding.
The truth is, I am ultimately optimistic, and in light of everything I can see that we have made significant measurable progress. I like to imagine that someday we will live in a world where we no longer need to fight for such things as freedom, dignity and peace. Nor measure people in terms of how far they have come (or call women baby). And while I probably won’t live to see this Utopia, I will push towards it anyway, just in case I’m wrong and our suffering is the price we must pay for that ultimate freedom!