Whatever the theories may be of woman’s dependence on man, in the supreme moments of her life, he cannot bear her burdens. Alone she goes to the gates of death to give life to every man that is born into the world; no one can share her fears, no one can mitigate her pangs; and if her sorrow is greater than she can bear, alone she passes beyond the gates into the vast unknown.
–Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “The Solitude of Self”
My fifth-grade teacher was both a pillar of the community and a force of nature. She was in her late fifties when my cohort passed through her class, with decades of teaching under her belt. She was a descendant of one of the “pioneering families” of our county, and though fifth grade was the year in the California schools when we focused on the history of the United States, our social studies unit ended up being quite occidentocentric and California-heavy. No dioramas, thankfully, nor any trips to visit one of Junipero Serra’s missions – that was fourth grade. But a long unit focusing on the Oregon Trail — including playing the game beforethe age of computers, when the teacher would read scenarios out of the booklet, and ask us our course of action, and then roll the dice and see what happened to us. (I lost my wagon and all my goods in an ill-advised river-crossing, and then died of dysentery, as one does.) She read to us from adventure books that had been her own as a child, stories about pioneering California children. She read to us the extremely problematic Ishi, Last of His Tribe. (I’d be very interested to know the story behind getting the Ishi story as straight history/anthropology out of the K-12 curriculum.)
We had a regular music unit, including choral singing. She worked with us, directing the acting andplaying the piano, to stage a musical for the school and our parents. We also rehearsed and performed a Shakespeare play in full costume (sewn by our mothers – the assumption in the 1970s being that all mothers had a sewing machine at home and could sew, or knew someone who did), went with her in small groups to the symphony, did a major research paper from the encyclopedia and gave an oral report in costume/character.
Hers was a class with a great deal of “enrichment.” But it was not a relaxed or easy class. She was exacting, and sometimes she snapped at us, and sometimes she flat-out scared us.
One scare came when we were on a rainy-day schedule (meaning we couldn’t go outside for morning recess or lunch recess or afternoon recess), so we went to lunch and then back to our homeroom for free reading or free drawing or free play. In the bustle and hum of the busy classroom, as our teacher sat at her desk doing grading and once in a while looked around the room to affirm that all was well, a couple of girls in the class had decided to rummage in a storage closet in one corner of the room. They started pulling out items of clothing and some accessories – a hat, maybe, and a purse – and holding them up and laughing. Finally the teacher saw them, and she fairly roared, “Get out of that closet. Put those things down. Those belonged to my daughter,” and as she said that last part, her voice cracked.
The whole class was stunned into silence and fear at the sight of this supremely commanding woman losing command of both her temper and her emotions. It was very awkward and confusing.
I told my parents about it that night, and my mother informed me that my teacher’s daughter had died as a teenager. There were a few years of difference in age between my mom and my teacher’s daughter, but they had been in school together.
That made everything even more scary. “What did she die of?” I wanted to know.
“Her appendix burst, and the doctors couldn’t stop infection from spreading, and she died.”
“Oh,” I said.
And then for the rest of my childhood, and through my teenage years, and even into adulthood I was terrified that my appendix might burst and doctors would be helpless to stop an infection and I too would die. I’m not really sure when I stopped worrying about suffering that particular fate, but at some point it receded among my pressing concerns – I think I associated it (perhaps correctly) with something more likely to happen to children and adolescents than to adults.
I hadn’t thought about my teacher’s deceased daughter in years and years. And then last spring, when I was teaching an advanced seminar on U.S. History since 1970, and recalling my own perspective on the ’70s, I thought of my education, and my teachers, and my intimidating 5thgrade teacher, and her daughter. And I understood.
“Mom,” I said, the next time my folks came over to the house, “Mrs. _____’s daughter didn’t die of appendicitis; she died of a botched abortion, didn’t she.”
“Yeah,” my mom said. “It was so sad. She was so popular and pretty, one of the smart girls, planning on going to college. We all knew what happened, but you just didn’t talk about those things. ‘A burst appendix’ was something you could say instead.”
This popular and pretty college-bound girl whose mother was a pillar of the community had tried to end an unwanted pregnancy without proper medical care and had developed sepsis and died.
This is less likely to happen in California today than it was in the 1960s, thanks to the widespread availability of various forms of pregnancy prevention, the legality of abortion, and the presence of women’s health providers like Planned Parenthood in various communities up and down the state. Of course no medical procedure is ever 100% safe, and there are occasional complications from abortions performed by trained practitioners in appropriate settings. So it probably still happens more often than you would expect statistically in rural communities, or in religiously conservative families where young women living at home might be afraid of what their parents or their church or God himself might think of them. States with more successful anti-women’s-health advocacy groups – call them what they are, the anti-women’s-life lobby — that have been able to impose restrictions on the availability of women’s healthcare have higher mortality rates not just for abortion but for maternal deaths due to lack of prenatal care and complications of childbirth.
If I am not mistaken, Texas leads the nation in the maternal death rate – a small price for those anti-healthcare advocates to pay for the ability to re-assert and strengthen government control over women’s bodies. If more childbearing women have to die of eclampsia, peripartum cardiomyopathy, hemorrhaging, puerperal fever, and other preventable or treatable ailments because they haven’t received adequate prenatal care, it’s all worth it to anti-women’s-health advocates if they can keep as many women as possible from having access to birth control pills to prevent pregnancy or, much more rarely, medical procedures to terminate pregnancy.
Meanwhile, this week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings saw the current nominee to the Supreme Court describe birth control pills and/or “morning after” pills as “abortion-inducing drugs,” a favorite term of religious groups and right-wing activists opposed to women’s health. Yet Viagra remains a “medically necessary” drug. At this point I’m surprised they don’t just sell it over-the-counter in Pez dispensers.
Speaking of consumer capitalism, I am re-reading Christopher Lasch’s 1965 work of cultural criticism, The New Radicalism in America [1889-1963]: The Intellectual as a Social Type. Lasch begins his declension narrative with back-to-back chapters on feminism and feminists, remarking on their “fury” against the institution of matrimony and “their sweeping assault on the male sex,” their “envy of men.” Here’s a characteristic observation along that vein: “Even when the envy of men did not reach the point of hostility—and it is possible to exaggerate the Lesbian and castrating aspects of the feminist revolt—the envy nevertheless remained.” Gee, I wonder why. To be honest, I envy anyone who can write something like that in 1965 and still be taken seriously in 2018. (If you’re wondering how I’m using Lasch, it’s as a primary source to represent a certain type of status anxiety and anxieties about masculinity among academic men – hence the worries about Lesbianism and castration.)
So, with the benefit of hindsight, Lasch argues, we can see that all this anger was really misdirected, that the anger of these middle-class women with intellectual ambitions was misplaced. Instead of railing against the patriarchy, they should have recognized that the real problem was mass culture and the sterility of bourgeois life (56-63). It’s not about gender, it’s not about unequal opportunity, he argues. It’s not sex; it’s class.
Had he had the term to hand in 1965, Lasch might have written that those feminists with their “Lesbian and castrating” agenda, missed an opportunity to find solidarity with men because they were lost in “identity politics.” Meanwhile, because Randolph Bourne expressed envy once for the vitality and freedom of a woman of his acquaintance, we can say that in general men envied women just as women envied men. Again he all but sums it up this way: it’s not sex; it’s class. That sense of alienation seeping into American intellectual life had everything to do with the prison-house of consumer culture, Lasch argues in the book, and not, say, the opening up of intellectual life and ambitions to women to begin with.
And that brings me back to my teacher’s daughter.
I know now how my teacher’s daughter died, but I don’t know why. Was she too ashamed to talk to her parents and admit that she had been sexually active? Her parents could very easily have found somephysician in the area or in San Francisco who could have helped her terminate her pregnancy. Was she afraid that if she told her parents, they would not help her and she would become a mother before she graduated high school, all those great plans for college and career set aside because of one misjudgment – or perhaps even one instance of being assaulted – on a date?
I don’t know. And I don’t know for sure why my teacher had some of her daughter’s personal items stashed in a storage closet in our fifth-grade classroom. I can guess, and the only guess that makes sense to me is overwhelming grief, wanting to have something of her daughter’s near – not visible, but near – because she missed her and all that she might have done and become.
Foregrounding the health of women and the concerns of women is not a distraction from “the real problem” of class. Instead, it gets to the heart of issues of class – who has the resources to live a full and flourishing life, and who does not.
In America, sex is a class issue, race is a class issue, and they far outweigh in political importance the ennui or castration anxiety of white men who are worried that their critical genius and visionary politics might go under-appreciated by the hoi polloi.
In America, and all over the world, making sure that women have the resources and ability to see to their own health is very much a matter of life and death. That means Roe v. Wade, decided in 1973, is crucially important. And so is Griswold v. Connecticut, decided in 1965, the year that Christopher Lasch’s book came out and somewhere around the time my fifth-grade teacher’s daughter died of “appendicitis.”