Years ago, when I was reading the Little House books, I remember being disappointed in Ma because of her dislike of Native Americans. Indians, as we all called them at the time. “Savages” as Ma thought them. I was in love with the idea of Indians. My first TV crush was Jay Silverheels as Tonto in The Lone Ranger. Laura Ingalls was in love with the romance of the Indian too. Ma was horrified.
I remember thinking long and hard on this question of Ma and the Indians, and I finally came up with an answer I could live with. It was because Ma was trying to hold onto what she knew as familiar and safe, to make a home she could live in when all around her was wilderness. She brought what she knew of civilization with her and insisted that she and hers live in it, no matter the depth of the big woods or the breadth of the great prairies. And the American Indian represented everything that she fought to keep at bay. Her family would not go native.
The American West is full of stories of fur traders and buffalo hunters, cowboys and Indians, gunslingers and Marshalls – all of them sometimes counted as among those who tamed said West. But everyone knows that the wild is never tamed by the wild. The wild is tamed by the women.
It was women who insisted on building churches, and schools. It was women who crusaded against brothels and demon rum. It was women who brought their men to heel, built towns with courthouses, insisted on four walls and a roof over their heads, and raised their children on God, cleanliness and sidewalks.
So it was the world over, I learned later. Africa and India both became little Britains, stuck in Victorian times even as their native land left Victoria far behind. And it was women, I hear, who effected this stagnation. Women who insisted on tea times and tennis lawns. Top hats and cutaway coats and going out in the midday sun. Women, it has often been said, even by the liberals of today, have been the true glue of what we think of as Western civilization.
Women, unfortunately, who have too often, in an effort to preserve what they think they need, fought ferociously for segregation at all costs. At all levels, it must be said. Religion, class, race. Anything that might bring disruption. Anything that threatens the sanctity of home. Anything that could leave women, with their children, alone in the world.
And that, I think, is at the heart of it.
And I can’t say I blame them. Here’s why.
How long has it been since women could live comfortably on their own? Since women could earn an income enough to keep her, perhaps her parents, perhaps even her children, alone? Since she could even have children out of wedlock without having to give up school, work, her place in society?
Men have held them back, you say. Yes, they have, but held them back from what? Jobs? What jobs were there until late in the 19th century? Education? What education was available for anyone not destined to go into the church? Family planning? Never heard of it. Birth control pills, although approved in 1960, were not available to unmarried couples until 1972. Roe vs. Wade was one year later.
What choices did my mother have? My grandmother? I am 78 years old. What choices did I have before Roe vs. Wade? Even as a rather impulsive and adventurous young woman, I never visualized my future without a man in it until perhaps 20 years ago? I know, I know. There are plenty of women my age and older who did find careers, who became successful writers and lawyers, archaeologists and journalists. I’ve read them and admired them. But I never knew any of them. Not in my family. There were two of us, girls, in a house full of boys. I do not recall either of my parents having any ambition for us other than marriage. I have since explained my early affinity for Ayn Rand because she wrote books in which a woman could have sex without having to get pregnant, married, or die. I had dreams, of course, but no idea of how to pursue them. Alone, I felt untethered. Bruited about by forces I did not know how to control. Which is likely why I told my boyfriend at the time that we should get married fast “before I changed my mind.” A husband meant, to my mind, four walls and a roof over my head. Security. From where I could do anything.
My son was born three years later.
The educated women of the liberal democracies are the very first of their kind. They can be sexually active without fear of pregnancy. They can bear children if and when they wish, married or not. They can aspire to the arts, the business world, politics – each and every niche of human endeavor – all possible for women. But that is only for those who can see the possibility in themselves and visualize a path toward it.
The women wearing MAGA hats and yelling their ignorance into TV cameras? They see, they visualize no such thing. They see only chaos and a world they cannot imagine for themselves.
And today, when only yesterday women were breaking glass ceilings the world over, does anything feel stable to you? Do you still believe that the future is still bright enough for shades? You will likely never wear a MAGA hat or trade the truth for pernicious lies, but do you never feel the need to wrap a smaller world around yourself? To keep the world of uncertainty and change away from your door?
Then do not despise those women whose mouths are full of vitriol. The book-banners. The science deniers. You haven’t yet learned their fear. Hope that you never will.