It’s a scary word and always has been, but I don’t know why. Most men fear it because one day they got together and decided it means something else entirely. It scares them, perhaps because they feel threatened, and for a moment I am glad. I am glad they feel the threat I feel every night walking to my car alone, or on afternoons when a letter carrier knocks on my door unexpectedly and my heart lurches, because for that moment, I am in danger. For that moment, I am reminded I am a woman. And the moment when I say the word, they get to feel like me.
The creaking Volvo rumbles and roars as I try to pick up bits and pieces of the conversation happening between the men seated in front of me. One of them belongs to me and the other does not.
“Honey, could you speak up please? I can’t make out what you’re saying up there,” I say with invitation as I dry my sweating palms on my skirt pleats.
“We’re just talking about Grandma, babe,” my husband says over his shoulder without letting his eyes leave the road or his hands leave the wheel.
“About that comment she made about the pill,” his brother laughs. “She’s hysterical.” He slaps his knee and faces forward in his seat.
I lean forward to become part of the conversation. “Did you know it wasn’t even invented until the 1960s?” I speak loudly so I am heard over the motor’s gravelly voice, but I can’t help but feel that I’m yelling when I shouldn’t be.
“Birth control?” my husband asks.
“Yeah. It was really the beginning of the feminist revolution. Sexual awakening and all that.”
“Well that makes sense,” my brother-in-law chimes in. “Before that, women were too afraid of getting pregnant. They used to be driven by morality I guess.”
I clench and unclench my jaw. “We still are. And it takes two people to get pregnant by the way.”
“I never said it didn’t. Stop putting words in my mouth.”
I sit back in my seat and decide to leave this battle for another day. A road trip to my in-laws’ house for Thanksgiving is neither the time nor the place to get in a family argument.
“Wait, James is right,” my husband says. “Back in the good old days, women weren’t as promiscuous because they had the consequence of pregnancy, but once the pill pretty much gave them free reign, it turned into free love and that whole movement in the 60s. Isn’t that what lead to AIDS?”
“Oh my god,” I grumble.
“What?” James challenges. “No, say what you have to say.”
“I don’t want to have this argument.”
“Roy and I are just trying to have a discussion with you. It’s not an argument.”
“Fine,” I consent. “You can’t really think the creation of the pill lead to the outbreak of a worldwide epidemic.”
“Whoa, now I never said that,” Roy says, taking both hands off the wheel and back-pedaling like his life depends on it. “I never said they were causally related, just that the correlation cannot be ignored as it all began in the same decade and in the same population.” His experience in academia is apparent; it’s as if he is making a presentation before his peers and has just realized his mistake. The vernacular shifts and the verbosity shows through his best intentions.
“The pill let women claim their sexuality for the first time,” I say. I feel myself climbing on the soapbox, but I can’t help it and I don’t want to. “In the centuries prior, women weren’t seen as having sexual desires but as wives whose primary role was to produce children. People found the idea of a woman enjoying herself ghastly. Even sinful. Suddenly, women were almost granted permission to enter into sex for no other reason than to have a good time, just like men had been doing for a thousand years. No strings attached.”
I step down from the box feeling good about myself, but it isn’t over.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Roy says. “The pill caused women to be more promiscuous.”
“Promiscuity existed long before the pill did.”
“Yeah Roy, what about prostitutes?” James says to this brother, thinking he’s agreeing with my point. “They’re as promiscuous as it gets.”
“You both keep forgetting there are two halves to this.”
“Who, men?” James balks.
“You never alluded that men became more promiscuous when the invention of the condom came about, which was around the sixteenth century by the way.” I slump back against the vinyl bench seat with a thump, resisting the urge to cross my arms and let my bottom lip protrude. I want to ask why they aren’t listening to me, but what I ask instead is, “Why does this have to be ‘us versus them?’ Aren’t we on the same side here?”
“With bra burners?” James laughs.
I sigh. It’s clear I am getting nowhere, and I notice Roy has fallen strangely silent. “Why are we even talking about this?” I ask.
“You brought it up, Anna.” James jabs the air with an index finger.
Only I didn’t. But instead I say, “You’re right. I don’t know why I did. See, this is why I didn’t want to talk about it.”
“We can talk about this stuff while keeping a level head. You’re the one who turned it into a fight about your rights.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.”
I’m left in the backseat of an old Volvo driven and directed by two stubborn men. A woman who, in an argument about feminism, is the one apologizing.
The irony doesn't escape me. Instead, it brings prickling tears to my eyes, hot and stinging, and again I try to hide what I am. I let one tear after another fall down my face and pray they don’t turn around in their seats. They never do. If they see me, I will appear weak; if they know they will laugh. I am being too emotional, I am overreacting.
I make excuses for myself, but most painful are the excuses I make for them.
Written by: HG Reed
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal