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Humor in the Heartland

Article by Betti Bernardi, appeared in issue Fighting Back; published in 1999; filed under Social commentary; tagged conditioning, humor, internalized sexism, rural, small-town america.
Tales of a small-town feminist

Imagine the jolt to my feminist sensibilities when I arrived, ready to serve, at the local Taste of the County dinner event and was presented with a plastic apron that had housewife emblazoned under my name. Shame heaped upon humiliation when I noticed—slack-jawed—that a potted plant, needle and thread, and recipe box (!) illustrated the damnable word. I, if the truth had been sought, have no visible gardening skills, find no personal satisfaction at the sewing machine, and sprint from any connection to the culinary arts. My cookbooks are in my library, for heaven's sake! Don't get me wrong, I harbor no disdain for those who are so skilled. I writhed, rather, under the assumption.

Knowing that the Cowbelles, the auxiliary for the local cattlemen's association, were part of the planning process, and also knowing that "housewife" would seem like a high compliment to them, and not wanting to hurt feminine feelings or the creative mind who had so proudly and artistically originated the source of my disgrace, I put the thing on. Rest assured, I made certain that the hundreds of diners met my gaze—not my apron—pupil to pupil, then directed them to the local trout I was serving up. When I got home, after much ribbing from my liberated partner-in-life, I modeled the apron for our 20-year-old son.

He was incredulous and indignant. My one consolation—we had raised him well. And then, we laughed. A lot. And, yes, a sense of humor is the key to survival for the ardent feminist in small-town America.

Let me back up a bit to my prerural life and, I am willing to admit, my period of blissful ignorance. I was raised in a large Western city where I was truly unaware of gender inequities. Blame it on youth. Blame it on blindness. Blame it on the fact that I made my own decisions rather than having the happenstance of gender make them for me. However, I did notice that I was one of only two females in the advanced math and science classes I took in high school. Blame it on the fact that I believed, at the time, that it was choicethat left the classes so lopsided. Blame it on the truth that my "good" educational system left female writings, wisdom, and intelligence out of my academic life. And, being robbed of exposure to feminist thought, I was clueless as I navigated purposefully through the system. After all, I was taking the classes that I wanted to take. As Kate Millett wrote in Sexual Politics, "It is interesting that many women do not recognize themselves as discriminated against; no better proof could be found of the totality of their conditioning."

Hard reality began to nudge my consciousness in college. Scholarships and mindless work paid my tuition while talented and sometimes dim-witted male athletes were getting a free ride and help on tests! It was, however, only a nudge—my conditioning must have been fully operative.

Continuing to live in the city, I earned my degree while raising two young sons in tandem with my partner-in-life. Once, during a behavioral-science seminar, our professor led a discussion as to whether or not any of us, as women, felt the impact of inequality on our lives. I stated, emphatically, "No."

Why such a fervent answer? Because I had a life outside of my home, family, and children. I made certain that I participated in things that had nothing to do with any of them. In addition to school, I taught adult education classes and trained volunteer staff for the program. By virtue of such activities, I built friendships and experiences that rounded out my days, fulfilled me in ways my family could not, and kept me in touch with what was important to me. It worked well in the city. I was a fully participating member of my community and chose how to live my life. I did not question my abilities, nor my value.

Believe me, the burden of sexism did become apparent—later.

Deciding that open space and physical freedom would appeal to our outdoorsy bent and benefit our young sons, we made the move from the city to rural America. One comment from a teaching colleague should have been fair warning. As I was leaving, she asked, "Are you really going to bury yourself in a small town?" At the time I thought it was merely an odd point of view.

It wasn't until I moved to the first of the three rural communities in which I have resided that I noticed blatant sexism. I mean, I was initiated in a hustle of male-oriented small-town bustle!

Let me clue you in to what happens out here in the isolated regions of America. Painful though it may be, I am telling you this by way of the path experience paves—I am not making anything up.

Allow me to take you back to my first experience with rural living. After renting for seven years in the city, we decided to purchase our first home in our new community. We were no longer going to rent, and felt the real pleasure of taking on "grown-up" responsibilities. During the loan closing, all information, questions, and so on were directed to my husband. Yes, even the answers to those questions I asked. I was aghast. My partner-in-life watched my amazement with wry amusement. The bank vice president told him, eyeball to eyeball, that they would prepare the cashier's check with a withdrawal from "our" account at the bank. Later, the same VP presented me with the check to sign—the account was in my name—with downcast eyes and a clearly uncomfortable demeanor. This man could not fathom that the savings account was in my name only. Let me be clear: This was not some old codger; he belonged to my own generation. And, for the first time, I felt invisible. The anger rose like bile, but laughter at such ignorance—the treatment was so surreal—was soothing balm on the experience.

Soon after the high time at the bank, a group of articulate and active women told me that, of course, all important local decisions were made at one of a few elite and, yes, all-male coffee clubs. You know the type…well, maybe you don't. Anyway, the boys—consisting of some prominent businessmen and local politicos as well as other selected male buddies—meet with the same "in" group on the same day at the same time—year after year after year. These groups, my friends said, had formed the core of public policy for time immemorial. Three towns later, it's the same story. Surprised? Not anymore. Appalled? Yes! My sense of justice and equity die hard; I'll never get used to the way any self-selected group presumes to sidestep inclusive decision-making.

Once, when we were fortunate enough to have groundbreaking Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan speak at a Democratic dinner/fundraiser, the evening was diminished by a silly auction run by a local politician not known for his enlightenment. Although Jordan, the obvious draw of the evening, received a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd for her articulate and intelligent presentation, the organizers had not seen fit to alter the evening's agenda in order to focus on her. Business as usual.

Another telling incident was when my own personal Renaissance man, at my request, ordered tickets to hear Gloria Steinem speak at a university in the nearest large city. He is most willing to accompany me on such soul-feeding trips—aware of just how much I need them. It was unbelievably spiritual to be in the company of countless women and, yes, a smattering of males, of like mind. It was remarkable to hear the soft-spoken Steinem speak with eloquence and truth, the power coming from her intellect rather than from her delivery. I was inspired; I was enriched. I walked on air.

Upon returning home, I shared the experience with local female friends. Although these were not friends with whom I'd shared feminist thoughts, they did represent a broad range of age and professional experience. Sexist attitudes, or perhaps lack of awareness, I discovered, may not be an exclusively male bastion. Their comments were strange—"Did she pound her fist on the podium?" and "Isn't she a man-hater?"—ad nauseam. Yes, I was surprised this time. I had never had such an opinion of Gloria Steinem, and had always admired her courage and ability to articulate her beliefs and well-studied theories. Was I living independently on another planet? No, I remembered, I lived in small-town America.

In all three communities, never more than two elected officials at any given time have been female. Generally, as far as the eye can see, positions of authority are held by white males. Some of them are about as insightful as the adolescent at your fast-food counter, (not unlike some of the elected officials in Washington) but, nevertheless, they make decisions that affect all of us—sometimes solely by virtue of their belief that election granted them divine-right rule on our behalf. While exploring the dynamics of women and politics in one community, our only female city councilor described her early years in office. "I was brought up to believe that you listened to everyone, waited your turn and people would then hear you. Well, that first year, I had a long wait!" We laughed, a lot. Humor, you know, gets us through.

Sometimes, however, there's no comic relief available—like when a certain county official commented that an abused woman seeking refuge from a violent mate could use her husband's credit card and get a hotel at night if she needed shelter. A couple of years later, a county sheriff was voted in despite pre-election publicity indicating that he had been charged, in the past, with domestic violence. How did it happen? And what is it about the local culture that makes these boys think their behavior will fly? (To the community's credit, however, the numbskull credit-card philosopher was voted out of office.)

As often as I want to scream and yell about some of what goes on in my town, in order to be sociable (after all, I belong to this community), it becomes necessary to modify my behavior from time to time. Harsh reality dictates that getting along with the powers that be is an essential ingredient when negotiating for organizations and people that I care about. I, and countless other women, have sat in grim silence at public functions when a tasteless or insensitive remark is made. We may privately express our disdain and laugh at the perpetrator. We do not, however, create discomfort for the offender in public. Admittedly, the perfect retort becomes clearly evident two hours later, and within the safe haven of our private lives, we let off steam by laughing—a lot. So, in situations like that, sometimes my self-respect is put on the back burner for the greater good. It has never been easy for me—I am, by nature, outspoken and passionate and liberal.

But any successful relationship requires that trust and respect be built. That certainly holds true when building relationships with the power base in small-town America. Please remember, it may take a long time. A different point of view is not so immediately dismissed as people get to know each other. Humor and banter increase understanding, if not agreement. And that's ok with me. Humor levels the playing field and encourages discussion. Eventually, those of narrow focus might take notice of work that is done with dedication and commitment. Understanding is built when people can disagree with dignity, when those with differing points of view can like each other and, then, can laugh about those differences. And truthfully, some of the gender discrepancies come from ignorance. So education becomes the goal. If we do not laugh at sexist jokes, or if we poke fun at the attitudes that produce them, and one man gets it, equality nudges forward.

Feminists—I know they are here. In all three towns I have managed to find a few like-minded women. Together, we have found humor in some of the standard inequities we face. In the seemingly vast wasteland void of progressive thought and gender equity, it's comforting to know they're out there—somewhere. As time goes by, I have become acquainted with numerous, humorous, silent feminists. We come together, working on projects that promote awareness of women's issues.

Lately, there seem to be more and more of us. I am seeing a rise in activity from local women's groups. For the first time, the national political scene has stimulated renewed activity in the local chapter of NOW, which, for all intents and purposes, had been woefully disorganized and inactive. A recent newsletter issues a plea for broader involvement at the local level. Our women's resource center has been visibly active and energized in the last year. Its membership has increased greatly and it has a newsletter with a myriad of recreational and social opportunities slated, as well as informative presentations for the benefit of local women. And, though their wine and cheese parties and fundraisers effectively exclude local single mothers, poor women, and women of color, it is a beginning. The local League of Women Voters, always functioning, but with only a skeleton crew of dedicated members, has recently injected new energies into programs of wider interest to women in the community, changing meeting times and format to meet the needs of working women. (Perhaps we have Newt and his boys to thank for the revitalization! Generally speaking, when an issue becomes heated, and it seems that rights gained will disappear, there is a resurgence of feminist activity.)

But there's still a long way to go. A conversation with the director of my local Planned Parenthood illustrated the invisibility of local feminists. Most of her support, from both men and women, is quietly garnered. Privately, many do support Planned Parenthood and choice for women. But women's groups fail to make their support public out of fear of the still-controversial nature of family planning services. Likewise, it's bad business for companies whose donations to the organization are made public.

Rural women need to find better ways in which to stand together and support critical feminist issues. Fear of reprisal and, perhaps, of just being misunderstood seems to drive the inability to encourage the dialogue. And yet, without the dialogue, how will we ever move forward?

The bottom line is that there is hope for the future. Eighteen years of bearing witness to such inexplicable behavior, and I am still the same. Except now I am a much more focused feminist. Actually, small-town living has illustrated perfectly for me what feminists have been saying all along. It has been the textbook I never had in school—illuminating gender inequities in a way that school never could.

And, to those women of vision who find themselves functioning in a small community, a sense of humor helps! Balancing a sense of humor and a sense of outrage becomes a survival mechanism. Whenever two of us meet for good discussion, it verifies our purpose. And I persevere. And I laugh, a lot.

Betti Bernardi is a freelance writer who lives harmoniously with three enlightened males.

Comments

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We are out here.

I am a rural feminist to. I grew up in this community, and my family has lived here for fifty years or more.
I want folks to know, not to judge a woman by her geography.
I understand exactly what you're saying, I do not speak out about feminist issues frequently, because I cannot just change my social circle and stay in the same city.
Hard to argue when you know you will be seeing these folks daily or weekly for te rest of your life, and some of them remember when you still wore pampers.