Sent back in time by today’s headlines

05/27/2010 12:00 AM |

In my head, I’m back in the early ’60s. Two unconnected news items took me there, and I’ve been stuck ever since. The first was the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court; the second was the 50th anniversary of the Pill’s becoming legal. It’s not logic but feelings that trigger remembrance. Those times were special. We had gone from the quiet, well-behaved ’50s to the tumult of that next decade. However we characterize them, each period also featured a great deal of quiet formation that the labels don’t catch.

The ’60s were also a personally formative time for me. In the ’50s I started married life and had children; in the ’60s I took on the business of being a single mother. Looking back, I was greatly influenced by becoming a public school parent and by the women’s movement. For me they are very much entwined.

My generation of women was probably among the last that was raised to be seen and not heard. Becoming a public school parent, I encountered a political arena in which it was appropriate to make noise for my children’s sake. Whatever one’s reason for getting into the way the world works and trying to affect it, the bottom line — the politics, the pressure points and the big money — all turn out to be essentially the same. What I learned for the sake of my children changed me into an organizer and activist, and taught me to ask questions. But first I had to start.

The recent nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court took me back to those times because she is so clearly a New York City public school product. Her father’s activities, especially with the United Parents Association, sealed it for me. Because during that time parents’ associations fostered the political liberation of women, teaching and training women of all colors and backgrounds how to set and accomplish their goals.

Every fall the UPA held workshops for parents who were chosen for specific tasks: for example, doing the newspaper and publicity, being treasurer, creating the programs that the parents’ associations offer throughout the year. In short, everything parents (usually mothers) needed to know about making their group effective. If specific issues came up, the UPA would advise you or connect you with people who had dealt with the same problems. Nowadays we call that networking.

Reflecting on ’60s ferment, I realize that other organizations were doing the same kind of training, notably tenant activists and groups involved in other housing issues. The process was the same: teaching people how to build a group and keep it together. Saul Alinsky wrote, “organizing is teaching,” and I think of that as a practical liberation. A tenant organizer told my group that if the landlord’s agent came to see any of us, trying to split us from the group by offering to buy us out, all we had to say was, “I’m busy now. I have to bake a cake.” Her advice taught us how to say no without feeling we had to explain and without complicating the issue by saying anything that challenged the traditional feminine stereotype.

Which brings me to the second trigger for my journey back in time: the 50th anniversary of the Pill’s legalization. That meant contraception became available to young unmarried women and the women’s movement could express itself in down-to-earth ways. I learned about one way when I discovered my daughters were pasting referrals to women’s health clinics in their school’s bathroom stalls. It made a huge impression on this ’50s product for whom family planning was unavailable until after marriage. As Gretchen and Susan made their own connections to the women’s movement, I learned from them, and we were able to explore women’s changing roles together.

There’s more to “liberation” than contraception, but being able to control when you have children is still central to it. For me, it was a matter of learning to see the ways my perceptions had been skewed by the givens I was raised with, and learning to ask questions — a constant process. Asking questions and challenging one’s basic understandings is an unsettling process, but the ’60s provided a setting for becoming comfortable with that bumpy way of life.

Ms. Amussen, of Greenport, is a freelance writer and a copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: damussen@timesreview.com.