Winner of the 2014 Piscataqua Press Novel Contest
The four women met in the fall of 1972, the year Ms. magazine began publication, the year the United States carried out the heaviest bombing of the Vietnam War, and over 100,000 demonstrators protested across the country. It was also the year Alix calculated that she and Sam had had fifty-six serious fights, of which fifty-one involved unwashed dishes, dirty socks, and vacuuming. Five involved three-month-old Davey.
That year, eleven Israeli athletes were murdered by terrorists at the Munich Olympics; Title IX passed, allowing girls and young women access to school team sports; and Vivian’s boss at IBM agreed to train her for advanced technical work—if she made it worth his while.
It was the year Gemma graduated from New York University, only to learn her father had saved thousands of dollars for her future wedding while refusing to help with college tuition. Gemma applied to law school.
Millions of American women held a nationwide strike to demand full social, economic, and political equality that year, and LIFE magazine rejected Emily’s photo essay of women and their children protesting the war, saying it was not politically relevant.
The Introduction to the Consciousness Raising workshop was held September 2 at the Women’s Center on Prospect Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Twenty years later, they would argue about this. Gemma, who thought she remembered everything anybody said or did, pronounced it was at the YWCA on Mass Ave. Vivian who pretended haziness about such details, waved away the issue. Even Alix, who wrote everything down, said it had to be later, because she remembered it was cold. But Emily knew. Emily had the photos.
September 2, 1972
Vivian tugged on her jeans, looked in the mirror, and then peeled them off. They made her feel fat. She held up a long paisley skirt. No. Too hippie-like. She tossed it on the bed. What the fuck did a person wear to a consciousness-raising meeting?
“Mom-ee. Mom-ee,” two-year-old Katie chanted as she bounced on the bed, surrounded by Vivian’s rejected outfits.
“Careful there, sweetie.” Vivian watched as Katie lost her balance and fell giggling onto the pillows, her blond curls darkened by sweat. “Stay in the middle of the bed. No time for head bumps today.”
Vivian held up a peasant blouse, shook her head, and added it to the pile on the bed. “This would be a whole lot easier if it weren’t ninety-five effing degrees,” she told Katie, twisting her blond hair off her neck.
She dug a tank top out of a drawer. “I want to look serious, but not too uptight. I want to dress like a real feminist.” She studied her closet. “Not that I’m not,” she assured Katie, grabbing her denim overalls. Living alone, she tended to keep up constant chatter with Katie. Vivian pulled on her tank top and buttoned the overalls.
Katie wasn’t paying attention. She lay on her stomach over the skirt, kicking her short legs and hiding her head under the blouse. She slid off the bed and toddled into the next room. “Book. Book. Book.”
Vivian looked at her watch. She just had time to get dressed, feed them both lunch, and get Katie upstairs for her landlady to babysit.
As Sonny and Chercame on the radio, Vivian swooped Katie off her feet and danced her around, singing, “‘I got you, babe.’” Katie screeched with giggles. Vivian continued to sing along to the radio, dipping and swinging. “‘I got you, I won’t let go.’” Vivian’s voice soared over Katie’s squeals as she twirled them. She kissed her sweaty face. “Okay, babe, too hot. No more dancing.” She lowered her to the floor.
Katie resumed her chant. “Book. Book.”
Vivian had thought about bringing her to the women’s meeting, but she would tear the place apart. That past week Vivian had lost her regular sitter and had taken Katie to work with her. She loved it, traveling from office to office where the secretaries ate her up while Vivian did the repairs.
“Are you crazy?” her boss had yelled at her yesterday, when she returned to the main office. Actually, to be precise, he had yelled at her breasts. “Do you know the liability issues of bringing that kid along?”
She shrugged. “It’s working out fine.”
“You might be the best repairman I have, but customers don’t like it. I get calls after you show up. ‘Why did you send me that broad? I thought you were sending me a repairman?’ I tell them to call me after you’ve finished the work and see if they still have a problem.”
“And do they?”
“I went out on a limb giving you this job. And I could fire you like that.” He snapped his fingers.
She had stared with cold calmness into his sweaty face, but even now fear still flickered inside her. She could count on two things—she was sexy and she could fix anything with moving parts—but so far neither of those traits was doing much to pay the bills. No matter what it took, she intended to prove to all who’d doubted her that she didn’t need a husband to offer Katie the world.
She did need this job.
Vivian dodged the panhandlers, avoided the bald men wearing saffron robes and singing “Hare Krishna,” and focused on not catching the heel of her sandals in the brick sidewalks as she raced through the square. She almost collided with a woman who had stopped to lift her camera, parting the foot traffic like a rock in a streambed and just as oblivious.
The woman’s black braid swayed, brushing the waistband of her jeans as she bent and twisted to snap pictures from various angles of the house with Women’s Center painted in multicolored letters over the doorway. She moved like a dancer, not one wasted movement, smooth and fluid. She lowered her camera, noticed Vivian staring, smiled a hesitant half smile, and then trudged up the wooden steps.
The air in the front room was cooler, but Vivian still felt uncomfortably warm and twisted her hair into a pile on her head and clipped it in place. Posters covered the walls. Make Love Not War. A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle. Ha. She would get that one and hang it over Katie’s crib.
This past spring, when she’d heard about the opening in the Boston office of IBM, she’d put in for the transfer, packed up Katie, and arrived from California not knowing a soul. She’d been as frantic to leave Berkeley as she’d once been desperate to get there. Some people, like her brother, might describe her as impulsive. She preferred free spirit.
Continuing to wander the periphery, pretending to study the posters, she inhaled deeply, patchouli oil and sandalwood, mixed with floral shampoos. A women’s place. It reeked of safety and comfort despite worn, obviously cast-off couches and rugs scattered on the painted wood floor. Woman’s Herstory Is a World to Be Fought For.
She adjusted her tank top and wished she didn’t feel like a ninth grader in a new school, desperate to be accepted and having no idea what to expect. Her friends in California, working with draft resisters and organizing antiwar protests, had sneered at the idea that women needed liberation and dismissed the movement. But then again, that crowd was mostly men.
The room filled, bright with tie-dyes and paisley, the energy palpable, the noise level rising with excited chatter. In one corner, a woman bounced, trying to soothe her fussy baby in a front pack. Auburn hair frizzed around her face. Vivian moved on to the next poster. What if They Gave a War and Nobody Came? Most of the women looked to be in their early to mid-twenties, around her age, so that was good. The woman with the braid sat on the couch fiddling with her camera and looking at her watch, prompting Vivian to look at hers. The meeting was already starting twenty minutes late and she’d promised the sitter she’d be home by five.
She’d reached the fliers and announcements. Rape Crisis Center Forming. Our Bodies, Ourselves study group meets Thursdays at six p.m.The baby in the corner began to cry. Vivian gave the mom a sympathetic smile, glad a baby was there; she’d worried that having a toddler at twenty-two disqualified her from being a feminist.
“Hi everyone. Let’s get started.” A woman with earrings dangling to her shoulders clapped her hands. The thirty or so women settled, sitting in the chairs, on the floor, squeezing onto the couch.
Vivian found a spot on the wall to lean against.
“Consciousness-raising is simply telling the truth about our own lives.” The woman’s clear, booming voice commanded attention. “For too long women have been defined by men and only in relation to the men in their lives.”
“Right on, sister,” one woman shouted, and raised a clenched fist.
A small dark-haired woman next to Vivian rolled her eyes at this fervor. The woman was so skinny, she was all angles and edges.
“How often have you played dumb?” the leader continued. “Or purposely lost a game to a man?”
“Or pretended to have an orgasm?” someone blurted, and everyone laughed and nodded.
“Telling the truth about our feelings and experiences is a powerful tool for change,” the leader went on. “As the poet Muriel Rukeyser asked: ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?’” She paused for effect. “‘The world would split open.’”
The tiny woman next to her sighed audibly and shifted her weight.
“So now, let’s divide up into groups of ten, do introductions, tell the truth and”—she paused again—“change the world.”
The room erupted in voices and laughter as everyone separated into small groups. With a surge of excitement, Vivian joined a circle of eight women sitting on the floor.
Faces shiny with sweat and offering shy smiles, they glanced at one another, waiting for someone to jump in. Snatches of introductions from other circles of women floated by: I’m Sue, I’m Barbara, I’m Joan. Vivian stared at the scratches in the painted floor and pulled on a loose thread of her overalls, hoping someone else would begin. She hadn’t decided which truth to tell about herself.
“I’ll start,” said the woman with the baby.
Brave woman. Vivian smiled encouragement.
“I’m Alix.” She took the baby out of the front pack as she spoke. “And this is Davey.” He was all baby sweat and smiles now that he was free. “I’m new to Cambridge. New to this whole feminism thing.” She laughed. “I was a dance major in college. But having a baby has given me a whole new perspective on the need for women’s liberation.” She laid down a blanket and put the baby on his back. “Does anyone mind if I do a diaper change?” Alix looked at the woman to her right, indicating she should talk next.
“I’m Sarah,” the woman whispered. Everyone leaned forward to hear her.
From another circle a woman hooted a laugh. Vivian glanced over, curious about what was so funny. The whispering woman’s blond hair curtained her face as she stared at the floor. Another woman—Vivian missed her name—rambled on about a women’s study class she was taking. The facilitators circled the room, leaning in, offering a comment here or there.
Aware of silence around her, Vivian brought her attention back to the circle of women now staring expectantly at her, waiting for her to speak.
“I’m Vivian.” She paused, scrambling to think of what to tell. “And I also just moved here. From California. I’m a single mom. I’m the only woman repairman in—”
“Person,” interrupted the tiny, frowning woman with the black hair. “Sorry, I’m Gemma, by the way. You said repairman, it should be repairperson.”
“Yeah, well, person or not, I’m the only woman,” Vivian continued. “And my boss wants me to blow him.”
A few nervous giggles surfaced.
“Done?” the woman who’d corrected Vivian asked, not smiling. “Well, like I said, I’m Gemma.” She clicked her pen in and out, in and out, as she spoke. “I just moved here from New York and started law school.” She clicked her pen again. They waited. She shrugged. “It’s not a welcoming place for a woman.” She turned to her right.
“My name is Kathy.” The next woman grinned, exposing the whitest teeth Vivian had ever seen. “I’m a teacher here in Boston and am just so excited to be part of all this. I mean is this exciting or what?” She waved her arm to include the whole room and then nodded at the woman with the camera, signaling her to introduce herself. “That’s all for now.”
“I’m Emily, I want to—”
“What is he doing here?” a willowy woman with a high-pitched voice interrupted. She stood outside the circle and pointed at the baby. “He can’t be here.”
Alix looked perplexed. “Davey?”
“Yes.” The woman nodded vigorously. “No males allowed. He’s got to leave now!”
Vivian watched with wonder as Alix finished pinning the diaper, and then in one swift movement scooped up Davey, his blanket, the diaper bag, and stood.
“You are not serious,” Vivian said. Her hair fell from its clip.
“I’m one of the organizers.” The woman pointed again at Davey. “This is a male-free space.”
“Sorry.” Alix stepped away, clearly wishing to evaporate but of course, now everyone in the room stared at her.
“No. Don’t go.” Gemma stood up, all five feet of her, looking fierce. “The baby is what? Three months old?”
Vivian also stood. “This is ridiculous.”
“The rule is no males.” The woman faced Vivian. “For safety reasons.”
“That kid can barely hold up his own head, never mind anything else,” Vivian said, trying to lighten the tension. Only the camerawoman, Emily, laughed.
“It’s the principle,” the woman insisted. “Some women don’t feel safe around males and we respect that.”
Alix pushed past them, looking close to tears. “It’s okay, really.”
“It’s idiotic,” Gemma pronounced, and strode after her. Emily grabbed her camera and followed right behind.
Vivian watched them leave and then looked back at the woman. She nodded, her expression righteous. Oh, what the hell. Vivian turned and hurried after them.
Out on the sidewalk, they all helped Alix gather herself back together. Vivian held the baby while Alix reattached the baby carrier.
“I really am sorry,” she said. Beads of sweat dotted her nose. Emily and Gemma folded stuff back into the diaper bag as Alix got Davey secure in the pack again. She wiped at her sweat. “This is so embarrassing.”
“That was totally bizarre.” Vivian reclipped her hair off her neck, hoping for some air. God, it was hot.
Emily lifted her braid and pulled at her sweaty T-shirt, blowing down the front. The sun glinted off her handful of rings. “If that’s what this women’s lib stuff is about, I’m done.”
“I am sorry you all left—”
“Stop saying you’re sorry.” Vivian cut her off and fanned herself with an announcement of a rally for abortion rights. “It’s making me fucking nuts.”
“Coffee?” Gemma asked, shouldering the diaper bag. They walked toward Mass Ave. “What’s in this thing?” Gemma switched the bag to her other shoulder. “Must weigh twice as much as the baby does.”
“You don’t have kids yet, I guess.” Vivian really didn’t want to get coffee and make awkward conversation, but she didn’t want to seem unfriendly.
“Stop,” Emily said, and pulled out her camera. “I want to take a picture.”
“Now?” Vivian patted her hair, tucked in a loose strand, readjusted her tank top, and watched as Emily snapped picture after picture, circling around them. They stood slightly apart from one another. Alix’s hands cupped Davey’s rump, her hair frizzing in the heat to a red-brown nimbus. Gemma half turned to follow the camera and looked slightly off balance. They all plastered on smiles, self-conscious and hesitant.
“Okay.” Emily took one last photo.
“I need a drink,” Vivian said as they continued walking.
“It’s three o’clock in the afternoon.” Gemma tripped on an uneven piece of sidewalk. Emily grabbed her arm to steady her.
In the dimly lit pub on Mass Ave, Vivian went to the bar and ordered four iced Irish coffees with whipped cream and then settled with the others into a booth. Cigarette burns scarred the table. She shifted to avoid a tear in the plastic seat from digging into her thigh.
“So.” She cracked open a peanut from the plastic bowl on the table. “What’s a women’s consciousness-raising group supposed to do?”
Alix shrugged. Davey emitted little baby snores from low in the front pack. Alix wore that look of a mother content to be anywhere and do anything as long as the baby was asleep. “Just talk, I guess.”
“We’re supposed to,” Gemma began, waving her hand and almost upsetting the tray the waitress carried. She paused while the waitress set down their drinks and then continued. “We’re supposed to talk about what it means to be a woman.”
“As opposed to what?” Vivian spooned up some whipped cream. “Elephants?”
“Let’s do it.” Alix’s bangles clinked as she reached for the peanuts. “Just the four of us.”
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