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Brave Voices and Bold Acts

WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH / An Essay by Karen Finley.

March 17, 1999

So, this is Women's History Month, and gee, am I excited! I don't think I've been so excited since I proved my equal rights stature by paying for half of my abortion--just like he asked--when I was the ripe age of 19.

When we ask for equality, this is what we get.

I don't want to be rhetorical. I don't need to say how lucky I am that I wasn't born when my grandmother was, when women couldn't vote, get credit or dream of being president. But these days we do have the vote.

Here are some changes I'd like to see on the ballot:

All "Sesame Street" characters will be female. It's time for Big Bird to have a sex change.

The White House will become the Pink House.

Victoria's Secret will be renamed Victor's Secret.

All game shows will be hosted by women, and the letters on "Wheel of Fortune" will be turned by a pretty-faced, cleanshaven hunk.

Telling a woman to smile so she looks better will be outlawed.

All last names ending with son, such as Johnson, Jackson and Wilson, will become matriarchal--Marysdaughter, Annsdaughter and Hazelsdaughter.

Growing up, I was unaware of my influences. I only realize them in retrospect. I think back to a hot day in 1966, in the Primate Hall of Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. It was hot. The smell of the caged animals stayed on our clothes. We were in the basement near the restroom, where my mother sat on the bottom step of the stairs nursing her youngest baby. This was before nursing was fashionable. Her other five children, I being the eldest at age 10, clamored about as two well-dressed women took a look at my mother and said, "I guess the animals are down here too."

My mother said something gutsy--just like she'd done the week before when she threw out a dinner guest for making a racist remark.

Woman of influence: my mother.

*

When I organized my classmates to change the dress code that banned pants for girls in 1968, it might have had something to do with bell-bottoms. Normally, we'd walked down the halls of Nichols Junior High in size 20, thrift-shop, too-big, old-lady, down-to-our-calves dresses, so it was a victory when we, as pubescent girls, came to school dressed in our tie-dyed, patched jeans. And just in time for next month's protest against the war, where we made the front page of the Chicago Tribune: "Kids Walk Out of School to Protest Vietnam."

Woman of influence: Angela Davis.

*

There weren't many famous female artists when I was a girl, so I made the men women--men who had women's names. Joan Miro, Jean Dubuffet.

Woman of influence: None, just wishful thinking.

*

In 1979, I saw Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The installation was made of tables with place settings, and each plate was dedicated to a historical female figure with an artistic interpretation of her genitalia. When I hosted a cocktail party in front of the museum, guests brought a different kind of dish. Each plate was dedicated to a famous male figure and featured an interpretation of his penis.

Woman of influence: Yoko Ono.

*

I have a 5-year-old daughter. Whenever I travel to perform, lecture, exhibit art or appear before the Supreme Court, the question is the same: "Who's taking care of your daughter?"

I sometimes respond, "She's leashed to the radiator."

When I was living in New York, and my neighbor found out I was doing a theatrical run in New York City for the summer, he scolded, "Oh, you won't be traveling. That's good for your daughter." My response: "I bet you wouldn't say that to a father."

It is insulting to me that I support my daughter, yet a man is never made to feel guilty for supporting his family.

Woman of influence: Betty Friedan.

*

New York City's Grand Central Station is being revamped. On the ceiling is an advertisement with famous male leaders, presidents and historical figures. Martha Stewart is the only woman pictured. That very night I see her interviewed by Charlie Rose. I'm left with the impression that what is wrong with America is that we don't know how to stack wood or insist on home-grown tomatoes.

Woman of influence: I don't need her influence, but hers is the only kind that's safe--women's decision-making kept within the confines of the home.

*

That is why Hillary Rodham Clinton finally has influence, because she has problems to solve in her own home--her husband. In fact, Bill gave Hillary a wonderful gift--to be pitied. Only then could she be accepted by the American people because Hillary was loathed before Monica. She didn't have any real women's problems worth putting on the cover of Ladies' Home Journal.

She isn't as fat and doesn't look older than her husband, like Barbara Bush.

She doesn't care about designer clothes and isn't as anorexic or as mean to her kids as Nancy Reagan.

She isn't a drug addict or an alcoholic and doesn't have a good woman's disease such as breast cancer like Betty Ford. Why, everyone loves Betty!

Hillary is good, but she'll never be as good as Rosalynn Carter. Rosalynn is mousy. Hillary will never be mousy.

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