What do you see out of your window today?

Women's History

A story by Jean McGavin



Debutante circa 1970 Girls bake cookies, boys build furniture. That was the way of things in my home growing up. That also meant that girls spend time with mom and boys spend time with dad. That was so unfair! Even as a little girl I knew it was a man's world and I wanted in! I wanted to build furniture so that I could spend time with my dad. He worked long hours and so his time at home was minimal. I never had hours of cutting and sanding and painting that my brothers got with those accompanying hours of chit chat, wisdom, insights and life lessons from my father. And, I suppose, my brothers missed out on those same sort of hours with my mother, the difference being that my mother was around all the time so that all of us had the opportunity for many hours with our mother. On the other hand, raising, cooking and cleaning for 7 children kept her pretty busy and with little energy for those quiet thoughtful conversations, and even less time or energy for playing with us. So, my sisters and I are very good bakers. We all bake yummy cookies, cakes, breads and pies. My brothers know how to build things, tinker with machines, mow lawns, paint. And I had a hankering for all of that. I was thrilled when my father taught me how to take apart the shower drain clogged with his daughters’ long hair. Be sure to close the drain before you remove the screws so they don’t go down the drain. I clung to these pearls of tinkering wisdom. I learned how to use a screwdriver and a wrench and pliers and as many simple tools as I could. Then when my father took up flying lessons, I jumped at every opportunity to fly with him. He taught me to take off, to co-pilot keeping the control yoke steady while watching the altitude and horizon indicator to keep the wings rotating on the horizon steady. We flew over the mountains, we flew along the beach watching the swimmers and sun worshippers while we zipped aloft above even the seagulls. These were precious hours with my father. He was hard pressed to get others to accompany him on these trips and I was always eager. The other kids were older and busy with basket ball or away at college. All I wanted to do was fly. I announced that I wanted to get my pilot’s license. Because of the expense, I offered to forego my expected social debut - which in the late 60s was anathema to me. I wanted a skunk for a pet and I wanted to learn to fly. Neither of these would come to pass. My sisters had made their debut at the Holly Ball in Arlington, Virginia. This cotillion was seen as an honor but the shine had worn off of it by the time I was of age. What had been a presentation of high prestige, by invitation only to the best families, and with parents jockeying to get their daughters an invitation to be one of the 40 or so debutants, had diminished to only about a dozen in 1970. As an aspiring hippy, pilot, skunk owner and feminist, I felt this spectacle humiliating and demeaning of women in general. It felt like an anachronistic horse show wherein girls of good breeding were paraded around and presented to society as eligible for marriage to men also of good breeding. I asked if they were going to lift up my lips to check my teeth. I told my parents that in no uncertain terms was I interested in this and that I wanted to learn to fly instead. I was shocked to learn that in spite of my protests, and in spite of what I yearned for, payments were made, my mother had accepted an invitation for me, and that I would be subjected to this humiliating spectacle for my own good. My mother said that she thought it was an important introduction to society. My father said that I would learn poise in social gatherings. Were it not for my determination to learn about neither society nor poise, they might have been correct. I did my best to treat the entire process as a joke. Instead of having my own coming out party at the country club, I had a small gathering of my other hippy friends for a formal dinner at my parents’ home doing our best to mock the formality, the event and the concept. At the end of the evening, we returned chairs lent to us for the large crowd, to my neighbor who I had known since I was a baby. My neighbor then gave this debutant a congratulatory kiss complete with probing tongue while standing smack in front of my stunned boyfriend. As a naive and good girl, I was also stunned and I staggered away ashamed and shocked and never breathed a word of this to my parents or to any other authority. Somehow, in my mind, I was the one who had done wrong in that situation, not my neighbor. Such is the burden of the damaged female. I was in high school when women’s liberation burst into public awareness. Prior to 1970 girls were not allowed to wear pants to school. Even little girls on the playground had to wear skirts. We protested and won the right to wear pants to school. We felt we had won a great victory. We could wear what we wanted. We could be equals in wearing the pants to school. In reality, this sort of victory placated the rabble rousing females while maintaining the status quo of unequal wages, inequality in the board rooms, un-prosecuted domestic abuse and date rape. Like most women, I have experienced all of those inequalities. I wanted to be a part of the women’s movement. I wanted to be a part of the change. I did not want to be a part of the status quo of gender politics. And here I was, a debutante, involved in this institution that so clearly perpetuated women as objects, complete with my neighbor's tongue stuffed into my mouth. I didn’t have the courage to tell my parents I would not participate in their Cotillion and so I passively aggressively participated. I did not buy a new ball gown but wore instead the gown my older sister had worn 2 years earlier. I did not go to the beauty parlour and have my waist length hair tied up on top of my head. I wore it long and loose and my boyfriend/escort came looking decidedly like Rasputin with shoulder length hair and beard. We drank as much as we could to get through the evening. I played my part in the problem, while wanting to play a part in the solution. I was humiliated by my own lack of courage and by participating in this farce. I would have so much preferred to learn to fly.

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 baking,carpentry,cotillion,debutante,hippies,pilot,sexual assault
  Arlington, VA
Jun 18 1970


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