The history of feminism from suffragettes to millineals is about the women and men who established the measures of women’s rights, civil rights and living toward equality and freedom to choose their politics and their sexuality. Fifty years after the Civil Rights Bill, there is the challenge to reduce those rights, not just a whisper but a roar in forty state bills in process that would limit not just abortion, but birth control in some cases, and as such reducing the power for women to choose the use of their bodies. The barefoot frontrunners are the women who have led and continue to provide the measures of equality as a reality in daily life. They step out on unpaved roads and byways to claim equality and dignity for humanity. As Nelson Mandela, Nobel Laureate stated, “Freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression. ”
Barefoot Frontrunners is about women’s rights, civil rights as lived through, and makes the claim that the future of humanity depends on carrying forward the goals of feminism. Embedded in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination due to race, country of origin or sex became unlawful. But further, the civil rights act provided the affirmative action plan with preferential access to jobs and education. Politics was personal, in as much as it was the living day to day in this period of chaos and change that took policy to reality. A transition for women born in 1940 who came of age at the time of the Civil Rights Act. Their intimate stories of sexual and political change convey a view of the pattern that is in process world wide. Significantly, Birth control and women’s right to choose also became accessible to women in 1964, and provided the other side of the equation by which women found their path to freedom and equality.
Barefoot Frontunners argues that the sustainable future the planet needs and wants begins with feminism. Feminism, humanity and sustainability are wedded in what will have that transformation take place. Collaboration and cooperation is the future that is sustainable whether we talk about the weather or the economy, and the women of the world are moving toward that in whatever measures are available to them. Malala Yousafzai, Gabby Gifford are referenced in this work because they both reflect and inspire the spirit of modern feminism by their own steps, they represent the power of their presence in the world.
Barefoot Frontrunners seeks to establish the debt owed by all women to those who have come before us, the gains they have made, the ground they have established as they lived through and brought forward the measures of equality we work with today. The history of how the rights, privileges and legal changes came to be is a history unknown to many women today, and it is important to recognize and carry forward the goals of feminism.
Barefoot Frontrunners sounds the alarm that those rights and privileges achieved primarily by having the birth control and choices available to women in how they have children and when although legal for over 50 years, there are grounds for concern about the serious challenges in state legislation to reduce those rights. The so called War on Women is evidenced and provided in daily the work of the GOP congress is to reduce women’s rights and reduce the power women have shown in their impact on the changes underway. Politically and economically, there is a committed effort to take women back not forward to a future of their choosing. The context for modern feminism is to carry forward the work of the previous generations to achieve equality and dignity, and to encourage and support education and choice for women around the world who strive to achieve that for themselves.
The women age 70 who were interviewed tell their story of living through the sociopolitical changes of their lives 1940-2014, where much of the transformation to sexual and political freedom took place. These women responded to an email invitation to share their story: how they found themselves consistently had much to do with finding each other from Seneca Falls in 1848 through the fifty years, it has been about a few women who opened the conceptual doors to freedom for many. The barefoot frontrunners interviews, for instance, came through a woman’s circle that has met for over 35 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. The group meets on the 3rd Thursday of the month and is hosted by one of 4 women who have been the hosts for this length of time. There are women who have come only once or a few occasions over these years, and some who have become regulars, but most have attended no more than three times. The population is mixed in education, income, marital status and age and race. There was a large response of over 50 requests by women to participate in this research for barefoot frontrunners.
Every woman interviewed brought up the value of women friends and women’s groups. The past fifty years of personal and political passage with economic and legal ground established provided the path to equality as a concept and a context through which the range of choices for these women in day to day was their individual process.
Born in 1940, when it was illegal to have a book on family planning by Margaret Sanger in a book store, each new freedom with each change in the culture and in the world around them reflected in the laws provided both opportunity and challenges. What they chose an how they chose provided new dilemmas and new responsibilities for them. They were the frontrunners, leading themselves down unknown trails often trial and error being the means to take on the new roles that resulted in the home and workplace. These women were the barefoot frontrunners, in as much as there was the breaking from the known to the unknown of new identities and responsibilities. It is safe to say that those who responded were interested and motivated to tell their stories because they were happy with their passage. Easily several hundred women received the email offer to be interviewed for this research, consistently the ones who participated reported the positive end of the spectrum: good health, vitality, enthusiastic about their current life and optimistic about the future. Those who self selected participation would seem to reflect a positive deviance sampling,
We will talk specifically about the fact that for many women coming through the years of change, there was little or no direct experience with those who led the issues and practices of feminism. In fact, for some there was a total lack of identification and a sense of strong alienation to the images they saw on television or read about in the newspapers to the strident representatives of feminism and social change of the 60’s.
Let’s start with the interview with Carol in the same woman’s group for over 33 years, as well as what she calls now her Palm Springs golf group. Jean brought up the women who sustained her after her husband’s passing with annual trips abroad. Mother’s groups of decades was commonly reported long after there were no children in the lives of the women who participated. There were many reports and descriptions of how women have relied on each other through periods of transition and changes. Consistently through the stories they told, the comfort and creative aspect of being with other women to face life’s changes was a familiar theme of the women who came forward for an interview. Sexuality, vitality and enthusiasm for their lives was the consistent finding of these women who elected to respond happy to tell their stories and pleased with the outcome of their journey to the modern context of feminism.
The conditions for change always included alliance with other women in the reports that were given. For women, growing up in the family of origin, there were changes in location, marital status or career that set up the need for change. Often the dynamic was unexpected and nor welcomed. In the face of a crisis and chaos, new choices were presented and with that, shifts in identity and lifestyle. A disruption to the status quo provoked discomfort and painful departures from the expectations assumed to be what the future was to be.
Each woman provided a description of their process, and the changes that came as a result. The path for women born in the 1940’s who passed through the counter culture social revolution of the late 60’s and early 70’s, the choices and options available to them were part of those shifts. While these women were living their lives, change was underway. President Kennedy in 1961 brought together a group of women who were educated and experienced from the campaign that elected him to take on the role he offered them to change history for women. They were the Commission on the Status of Women, and they came up with what they termed “injuries of sex” to women at home and at the work place. When these women could not get a response to the need for change within the government as a Commission, they left the government and became the powerful source of change within the Woman’s Movement that stirred the nation to recognition of the need for social change.
In 1964, two significant game changers occurred as well. First, the 1964 Civil Rights Act prompted granting women more preference in entry to college and jobs through Affirmative Action. Birth Control in 1964 and Roe VS Wade in 1973 granted choice and access where none existed before. For the women who told their stories for barefoot frontrunners, their experience of the changes around them were mixed. Each of their histories relative to the changes underway were shades of recognition and access to college entry, womens studies, and new views of what was available to them in their lives. They married, had children, divorced, many crossed the country to get to Northern California. California was the mecca for those who aspired to the the counter culture presented on television and the magazines as the New Society.
Many of those interviewed said explicitly ” I didn’t want a life like my mother,” and yet they had no roadmap for the new choices, the new responsibilities they would encounter. The transition was trial and error to some extent, and there were many women who looked askance at their sisters and mothers and daughters and decided they wanted no part of the revision of the roles for women. Tension between the women who chose the path of uncertainty inherent in this new conception of living life, and those who stayed with the traditional was real and expressed in leaving behind family members who no longer spoke as reported by some of the women.
As Anne, 72, described it: I didn’t want my mother’s life or to be like my mother, but I had no idea how to do my life otherwise. And every time I failed at some part of my life-my marriage or my kids or my kid’s school, or a job and money, I compared my life with my mother’s and felt a failure.” It was the peers, the women who were making an effort to go back to school, advocate and support change who found comfort with each other in moments of loss and confusion as reported by the women interviewed.
Jane, 71, spoke of it as “the consistent challenge to be a free woman to make my own decisions, to deal with my mistakes. It was hard to learn how not to feel like a failure when I fell short of where I thought I should be. It was hard to get back on track sometimes when I really didn’t know where I was going.”
“Counter culture Explosion” is how the period of the late 60’s are described by Sylvia born in 1941. She, like others, found the life she could not have dreamed possible and as she navigated her way through college, graduate school, the work she wanted as an artist she was fulfilled. The women friends with whom she shared her intimate fears and passions were her consistent support system. “Family is just not something I’m good at,” Sylvia says. Today, her broken relationship with her family in the midwest and her daughter are the only regrets she has in having taken her life full on defining her own terms. “My friends are my family,” she says and the sense of loss that she still carries that is evident.
CURRENT RELATIONSHIP STATUS
Of the sample of 100, serial monogamous relationships were reported by most of the women: 6 never married, 18 married once, 29 married twice, 4 married three times; 19 currently divorced with no partner, 21 living with other than partner, 3 widowed.
THE WOMEN AND THEIR CHOICES
Phyllis, 72, worked 32 years for a government agency. She has a pension and her social security. Her retirement allows for travel with her golfing buddies on a regular basis to Palm Springs. She is well set, more so than her male friends with whom she has lived in a serial monogamy situations, never married. Active in her younger years in Women’s Liberation, she now has a Ladies golfing group who plan getaways three times a year that gives her a life design that works for her. Still she feels the empty place where “something might have been” that she can’t actually describe, but still has a longing for. It might be the ‘road not traveled blues’ that she describes in not having had a family or a marriage, but overall she sees she is in a stronger position than her women friends who married, many of whom are single now either as widows or as divorced.
Patricia, 71, in her interview also relies on her friends for company in her life travels. She was told as a freshmen when she came to study law in college that the courtroom was not the place for women, and was encouraged to choose anthropology instead as an undergraduate. There is still the sense of bitterness as she tells this story, even though in the end over time she got her Ph.D in Psychology. She views her work as a means to encourage people to choose what works for them and has been successful in her work as a coach. The mother of three children, she expresses strongly that her only regret is her choices in terms of the men she married. She is single by choice, and happy about it. She meets monthly, and has done so for 34 years with a group of professional women with whom she feels consistent support and intimate contact through the years. As she describes her life, she expresses enthusiasm for the fact that just in recent years she is much more confident about herself than she has ever been in her life previously, lives with a boyfriend of 12 years.
Catherine, 71, a retired Stanford Ph.D in Electrical Engineering still has lunch every week with Alice with whom she worked in Cupertino in 1996. She was the only woman in her physics lab and struggled for two years behind the overt preference the professors gave to the rest of the male students. This was 1975, and the belief that men were the primary support for families she feels is why the professors openly gave preferential treatments to men, a frustrating part of her academic history. After a severe and painful setback academically relative to the “second class” status she endured in her physics department, she took leave and some time for herself with her sisters in Santa Barbara. Once she had recovered and was well again emotionally and physically, she returned and did complete her Ph.D which to this day she feels was one of her biggest accomplishments.
She has officially retired from her lab work position that resulted from completing her doctorate, and is satisfied with the career that left her comfortable and well set for her retirement. Although she is looking for another job because even with retirement and social security, she finds it hard to live the life she wants within the confines of a budget. She lives alone, never married and no longer looking for a partner.
Anna, 74, in her interview reveals what many women saw in entering a new path emerging for women. With a family of 4 children, she entered Laney College and explored a new world she had never considered at Esalen in studies with Claudio Naranjo, becoming a follower of his work and community. She found her place in that communal living in the 70’s and is still resides with that group. Claudio Naranjo, known for his work with MDA in rehabilitating people to get past their fears and limitations had a powerfully positive effect on Anna. Although her experience in the 70’s was a long time ago, she feels the presence of the impact of those days on her today she shares. The group changed significantly when Claudio Naranjo left the group she reports. She is quite happy with her life and has just begun a new relationship with a new boyfriend after being single for seven years.
With few exceptions, the women interviewed stressed their ongoing interest and enthusiasm for sex. It would be interesting to study the level of interests of women prior to the sexual liberation shifts in attitudes of the 70’s to see if the interest in sexuality is the same or different. But for most of the women over 70, even if currently inactive, sexual experience, good experiences of intimacy and a trust with a valued partner were all acknowledged as very important. For those single, they specifically spoke of their desire to find that special relationship in a partner relationship, not necessarily to be married. In this group, those in a relationship, married or cohabiting made it clear they were there by choice and not obligation.
Sarah 74 spoke of her days of exploring her sexuality as a young woman, leaving one lover for another and the marriage she entered into only 14 years ago. Her husband now has Alzheimers and she said in a confidential tone that these are the sweetest days of their lives together. “He lives in the moment, and this has resulted in our having the best sex we’ve had in all our years together.”
Dianne 72 as well as four others mentioned the fact that because of their partner’s medication, sex as they knew it was no longer an option. Dianne said that she and her husband just “don’t go there” and have pretty much forgotten about that part of their lives, and continue to enjoy each other in different ways. They have a Sunday social group that they have been part of for years, enjoy the Berkeley Rep matinees and are happy with how their lives have evolved.
THE ROADS CHOSEN
It seemed that for these women and the many who reported their lives similarly, they were at varying levels of awareness of the changes that were underway for them in the 60’s. They had the benefit of choice in childbearing and marriage after 1964, having experienced the world without choice in their earliest years. They made changes in life partners, had children and navigated the waters of choice with ups and downs, wins and losses not without significant doubt and worry about their lives outside the script of their parents’ lives. Measuring their success was a variable that changed over the years. Only one reported real regret in choices that she made, and that was the men she had married.
Significant was the fact that these women were self sufficient only by how they chose to live their lives, having scaled down with social security being the principle means of support. Alternative senior groups around Berkeley and Oakland accounted by some the means to live life as well as they did due to shared expenses. Only three reported a pension that allowed more choice in lifestyle. For sure, those who were cohabitating or married , or widowed. Very few did not mention the need for extra income that they met by making small amounts of money through creative ventures, like house sitting, dog sitting, driving and shopping for others, or other services in the community for which they were paid. The women who chose to be interviewed would seem to represent the positive deviance of the aging unmarried or widowed woman challenged and active in determining the means to maintain their lifestyles. They were all in good health, two having recovered from breast cancer years before. They presented an enthusiasm for their lives, and enjoyed the opportunity to talk about their lives.
The power of relationship was consistent in all the reports made by these women in telling their stories. Through their women friends and groups, church groups, travel groups and interest groups, the paths they described sustained them emotionally and physically. Most had shifted careers as they shifted identities over the course of their lifetimes. Only two reported the issues of sexism deeply in bedded in some workplaces.
THE POWER OF CONNECTION
Over the sewing circles of the 30’s or currently, or in more current times, the women who gather to work together at for instance Hackermoms in Berkeley, there is evidence that women have always come together to inspire, conspire, and encourage each other’s desires. Their shared interpretations of how they want to live and the choices that are available to define their life’s course have been a source of reference for most. Women, as opposed to men, seem more flexible in terms of willingness to be led and to lead others to to life choices and identity. The thread throughout their lives and the lives of women throughout history is connecting, with each other and in the process expanding the notion of who we are as women.
We know demographically that women live longer than men, or have in the past but there are indications that women are gathering along with their increased participation in the work force, the medical problems seen as a result of work and stress. But the skill of connecting and socializing are emphasized as one of the reason for women’s longevity exceeding men’s.
It is a well known fact, that senior women have better skills for maintaining and creating connection and community than men, attributed to their roles based on competition and isolation and independence that have often been their orientation on the job. The women interviewed for Barefoot Frontrunners by virtue of the self selection brought chose to participate, and represented the choice of connection and community in their responses.
For the women who lived through the fifty years since the Civil Rights Act, it began often with breaking the rules that had been unselected in their growing up, and finding the right path. Discomfort, confusion and pain were definitely accounted for in their process. Being good, being pretty, not being bold or bossy, waiting for one’s turn-all of these social skills needed to be reconsidered and that process was often accounted for in the interviews. Often these women, as barefoot frontrunners, had to rely on their intuition and inspiration rather than social approval or access. It could be said that the response to pain in the world is from those experiences of marginalization and intimidation many women experienced in the workplace or academic environment. Affirmative Action got them in the doors on jobs and college campuses, but the process of individuation they encountered was difficult and painful as reported by some. The Barefoot Frontrunner’s response to the pain in the world is to take the step out and towards a place lacking support, guidance or protection. The indignities and injuries of the world are made visible by those who see and feel the inequity and exclusion because of their own experiences. By simple acts of courage over the years of change and transition in the 70’s and 80’s, these women interviewed through small and large acts witnessed and participated within their lifetime, a full shift in what it is to be a woman. By how these women have lived their lives, their daughters and granddaughters have the power to determine the choices brought forward to them. Born of a social revolution and civil rights bill in the 60’s, those rights and legal principles are the law of the land but under severe challenge now in congress. How will this generation respond?
The women’s movement, the Anti War movement, the civil rights movement stimulated the polarity of views that allowed for social change and change in how women were perceived and how they perceived themselves. . The civil rights act of 1964, Affirmative Action all created the opening through which many women passed to get the education, the job and the life of their choosing.
Fifty years of civil rights and women’s rights has brought change in western civilization. It’s a bell that cannot be unrung. It is the promise for all civilization as we learn over and over again that all women, all people deserve the life of dignity and choice. And that all societies who take into account the value of equality for true prosperity and growth will be the future. Economies that account for the underpaid woman or man doing the same job are the future. An ecology that brings sustainability to the resources we share as a planet we share-that is our future, that is the context of modern feminism.