Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell
[p.4]In the struggle for the advancement of any cause, no one is a more popular target than the fence-sitter. Even so, the position of the mug-wump, while never a comfortable one, may frequently be valid. (“Mug-wump,” incidentally, was a nineteenth-century coinage for the person who sat with “mug” on one side of the fence and “wump” on the other) Being a fence-sitter is especially difficult in Utah, for surely no state in the Union has quite as many armed camps as we do, complete with dividing fences.
Of course, the fact is that the fence-sitter, in most cases, doesn’t really sit. It only seems that way to disparaging partisans on either side. What she really does is hop wildly from side to side, depending on the particular issue being attacked or advanced. Besides getting winded, a woman who adopts this life-style can end up with deep frown-lines, identity crisis, and terminal paranoia.
The greatest danger, however, is neither anxiety nor paranoia, nor even indecision. It’s the risk you run of being branded traitor by both sides.
[p.5]Pardon me for being personal, but take my case. (And surely there’s a pro bono lawyer somewhere who will!) After I went to Mexico City in 1975 for the International Women’s Year (IWY) Tribune, along with thirty-five other Utah women, I wrote a simple, straight-forward feature article about the trip for the Salt Lake Tribune. I quoted some of the tour members on their impressions, gave one or two innocuous personal reactions, and had a lot to say about the pyramids and the colorful turbans of the African delegates. (Admittedly a pretty blah account, but then I wasn’t much of a feminist in 1975. On the other hand, there are those who say I’m not much of a feminist now, which is my point exactly!)
The day after the article appeared, one friend of long standing called another friend of even longer standing to report that the women in her neighborhood were sounding the alarm. They feared my church membership might be in jeopardy because I had written about the conference. (Bear in mind that this was two years before the Utah IWY skirmish.) The next time I went to dinner at a friend’s home, I felt like Angela Davis at a Kennecott Stockholders’ meeting. Fire one from the right! The following fall I went to a conference of the Women Historians of the Midwest in Minnesota. Two other Utahns went also, one a Latter-day Saint woman I knew quite well, who thought, spoke and dressed pretty much as I did. (The term she herself used for the dress style was “Mormon Dowdy.”) The other Utahn was a lean University of Utah faculty member who wore levis, braids, and occasionally just jogging shorts and a T-shirt.
Two days into the conference, the jogger was taken aside by her Eastern feminist friends and asked what in the world she could possibly find to talk about with those two Mormon women she’d been seen with. This time I felt like Carrie Nation in a singles’ bar and an axeless Carrie at that. Fire one from the left! At least I’m not alone in experiencing this kind of schizophrenic jolt. Two Salt Lake City women who are in the very forefront of the feminist movement in the state (and thus considered foaming radicals by a good share of the local citizenry) went to a women’s conference in San Francisco, where they were openly sneered at in a meeting as “overdressed, elitist grandmothers.”
Or take Houston. I went to the National IWY Conference in [p.6]Houston with a high heart and a predisposition in favor of most of the propositions—claiming just a couple of exemptions. I hadn’t been off the plane five minutes—still standing inside the railings waiting for my baggage to swirl off the conveyor belt when a woman in bib overalls and lineman’s boots came up to tell us about a “Know Yourself” anatomy workshop and self-help clinic that some women were hosting that afternoon in a downtown hotel suite. I gathered that it was a B.Y.O.S. affair—Bring Your Own Speculum. Devout coward that I am, I was so unnerved I was ready to take the next Greyhound back to Utah, stitching in a protective drawstring around the bottom of my long skirt as I went.
But of course I stayed in Houston. And when I attended (because I had an assignment to do so) the “Pro-Family” rally being held across town in the Astrodome as part of the Thumb-Your- Nose-at-IWY campaign, I stepped out of the taxi to see a huge sign lettered (please forgive me, but this was my dose of “welcome-to-reality” medicine): ‘‘We Don’t Need Kikes and Dykes.” Another read: “Five Million Dollars from the J-E-W-S spells I.W.Y.” I was sick to my stomach and sick at heart. The two hours spent inside the building didn’t improve my spirits. Constantly in my line of vision was a sign four feet by four feet which read, RIGHTEOUSNESS EXALTETH MISSISSIPPI.” I went out looking for a place to buy some bib overalls or a speculum—or both.
Even my women’s book club seems confused about which side it’s on. I joined the club in hopes of building a good feminist library—and I thoroughly enjoyed my first year, reading great books by Elizabeth Janeway, Doris Lessing, and Marilyn French. Then one day I got a book I hadn’t meant to order. (You know the kind of deadline arrangements the book clubs have: if you don’t return the little postcard in time, you get the entire contents of the now-defunct West Boot, Montana, Public Library in the next mail.)
But I flipped casually through this unordered book, keeping an open mind. After all, if this was something the other club members felt strongly about, who was I to demur? Suddenly, amid some breath-takingly explicit photographs, I read an account of a campfire session the author had presided over in company with an encounter group she had formed. Only instead of telling ghost stories or singing ‘‘Tell Me Why,” this group was, and I quote, “invoking the spirit of Mother Orgasm.” [p.7]I slammed the book shut and ran down the street after the mail carrier’s jeep, heaving the book in its back window as it rounded the turn.
Lately, however, the book club has been sending me sheaves of propaganda for such items as “Eighteen Things You Can Make Out of Shell Macaroni Besides Food” and “Macrame Your Way Through the Menopause.” Their identity crisis must be even bigger than mine—but then, they’re younger. Let me return to the Houston experience for one last example. When we flew home, virtually all the Utahns, whether pro, can, or supposedly neutral press, came in the same plane. The anti- group took over the front of the cabin (non-smoking area, you see), the pro- the rear half. Appropriately enough, I sat in the middle of the plane.
Before long, a woman in the front got up and began passing a box of chocolates around among her sister delegates. When she came to the midway point, she paused, smiled graciously, and offered me a chocolate. (I abstained.) Then she went back to her seat.
When she had left, a woman across the aisle, by her own definition a militant feminist, asked me, “Why did she offer you a chocolate but none of us?” I thought about the question a moment. Then I looked her in the eye and said, “I’m a double agent.”
I feel that way a lot.
But in my best moments, I know the feeling is misguided. It may seem as if Utah women are divided into two armed camps, with battle lines not only drawn but set in our famous granite. It may appear that the No-Woman’s-Land in the middle is vast and unpopulated. But I don’t believe it.
From feminists themselves among the most radical, I have time and again heard an urgency about values such as growth, family stability, the needs of children, and how the institution of marriage can best be nurtured-all values that “non-feminists” claim as their priorities. From women who loudly assert that they are not for “women’s liberation,” I have repeatedly heard fervent opposition to inequity on the basis of sex, rigidity of roles, and people living other people’s lives for them-all values that are dear to feminists.
I am not saying anything so simplistic as “We all want the same things.” By and large, I believe we do all want many of [p.8]the same things. But as long as women have the wisdom to distinguish between the means and the end, and to insist that the end does not justify the means, we will have arguments about the means, about how to achieve those goals we share. But do we have to have double agents? Obviously, no person of integrity can talk out of both sides of her mouth, supporting one stand on an issue at one moment and another later, according to expediency. But must we buy our issues by the gross, in a Saran-wrapped “please-do-not-remove-individual-popsicles” package? Is it possible for women who have alliances and allegiances in both camps to feel doubly supportive instead of doubly disloyal?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. I can say that I agree with Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” And surely it’s clear from what I’ve said so far that I find myself, at different times, on the left, the right, and in the middle. But I may not be a good example of fence-jumping: frequently I lack the courage, nerves, and judgment to clear the hurdles with grace. But I intend to keep jumping. In the meantime, I think I’ll go see what the book club has sent me this month.