Remembrance Of Things Past

In the glow of modern progress, the stories I tell my children about my girlhood sound as ancient as the Parthenon, beginning with my impossible (and improbable) dream of being an altar girl. The classified ads divided by sex, the working women forced out of their jobs by pregnancy, the family businesses passed unthinkingly to sons-in-law while the daughters stood by: the witnesses to those artifacts are going gray and growing old.

One of the most haunting reminders of those bad old days is on my desk, in a book to be published this spring titled "The Girls Who Went Away." I knew instantly who they were: the girls who disappeared, allegedly to visit distant relatives or take summer jobs in faraway beach towns, when they were actually in homes for unwed mothers giving birth and then giving up their children. They came back with dead eyes and bad reputations, even though, like some of those in Ann Fessler's book, they may have gotten pregnant the first time out. And they came back riddled with pain and rage and an unspeakable sense of loss. "I'd have an abortion any day of the week, before I would ever have another adoption--or lose a kid in the woods--which is basically what it is," recalled one woman bitterly.

That's what a pregnant 16-year-old might well do today: have the abortion. Or she might have the baby and raise it with her family's help, or give it up for adoption after handpicking the adoptive parents and drawing up a contract allowing her to visit the child from time to time. It's a whole new world, in which female sexual behavior is no longer a moral felony. But those of us of a certain age remember those other girls, who were expected to serve a life sentence. Their parents called them whores and threw them out of the house, or simply pressed their lips tight and pretended nothing had happened while their daughters died inside. In "The Girls Who Went Away," one recalled, "It was the beginning of it being invisible."

The number of us who remember being invisible is dwindling. Coretta Scott King remembered when a black woman was seen in some quarters only as a hired domestic, Betty Friedan when a white woman was often treated like a major appliance or a decorative home accent. But both of them are now gone. Sandra Day O'Connor, who with little fanfare stepped down from the high court recently, remembers when a lawyer could tell you, without a hint of apology, that his firm never had and likely never would hire a woman associate.

O'Connor, the first female Supreme Court justice, was never known as a feminist firebrand. But she had what I think of as transformative experience, something that can't help but suffuse your life and your mind. She carried within her the memory of what it was like to be reflexively devalued despite being smart and capable. I think it's probably a good thing for a judge to have faced down that sort of organized systemic injustice. One argument is that it's not supposed to matter, that judges are simply there to consider the statute as written, as though the law were algebra and its subject numbers. But jurisprudence is not math, and judges are not automatons but people who have been undoubtedly and sometimes mysteriously marked by what they remember, or choose to forget.

The justice who nominally replaced O'Connor, Samuel Alito, was questioned closely during his confirmation hearings about his membership in a group that opposed the admission of women to Princeton, his alma mater. Justice Alito appeared to recall little of the controversy. But I do. I remember the condescending andinsulting way women were discussed when various Ivy League institutions considered granting the honor of their Y-chromosome diplomas, the questions about whether Yale women could be permitted to use the pool at the Yale Club. One Princeton alum told The New York Times in those days, "Girls are being sent to Princeton less to educate them than to pacify, placate and amuse the boys." It was certainly an education, to witness the resentment and outrage that erupts when the invisible insist on being seen, even acknowledged.

That was a long time ago. In the light of progress the shadows fade, yet how vivid they still sometimes seem. There is now only a single woman on the Supreme Court. Imagine the world if homes, businesses, schools, had only one woman for every eight men. It would be an odd sort of world, wouldn't it? Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg surely can remember well when abortion was often a do-it-yourself affair, when an accidental pregnancy sometimes meant an exile into a hidden and unacknowledged hell. I suppose the landscape seems very different to her than it did when she was one of the lawyers arguing before the high court that it was impermissible to force pregnant teachers to give up their jobs because of the ridiculous presumption that expectant mothers are unable to work. Yet today she finds herself where she has so often been in the past: the only woman among a coterie of men. Not quite invisible. Not quite.