Three Books That Tilted My World: #1 Our Bodies, Ourselves


In the early 1970’s the book Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women’s Health Collective appeared in our house. Or, more specifically, in my older sister’s bedroom. I think it was a gift from my mother, perhaps given to my sister with the chapter about birth control in mind.

But that wasn’t the chapter that drew me in.

Flipping through it one day when my sister was out of the house, I came across “In Amerika, They Call Us Dykes.” I vaguely remember a disclaimer about the authors of this section having separate control of the chapter’s content, an explanation of the letter “k” in Amerika, and perhaps an apology for the lack of women of color (some things sadly stay constant), but what stands out in my memory is the existence of the chapter at all. The word dyke and even lesbian were new to me. I read and re-read the text and stared at the photos dozens of times over the next few years.

I told myself I was reading out of curiosity, not unlike my perusal of the book of Diane Arbus photos in my brother’s bedroom. But that book I paged through a few times with my siblings. Our Bodies, Ourselves I slipped into my own bedroom. I read it with the door locked.

The corduroy-clad, vest-wearing dykes thrilled me with their defiance of the mainstream: their lack of dependence on men, their radical co-ops and open relationships. Their redefining of love. These were not the butch/femme couples of the fifties (at least, that’s not how I remember the black-and-white photos), nor the high-heeled, lipstick lesbians of the 80s and 90s, or the commitment-ceremony, civilly-unionized, legally-married couples of the 2000s and 10s. These were dykes. One photo offered three friends goofing around, one women’s hand cupping another woman’s breast. Another featured a rascally woman in a loose jacket and lopsided hat. Dykes. Dykes. Dykes.

I wanted to be one.

Except, at age 13, I wasn’t able to say this anyone yet, not even myself.

Much of this had to do with the undiagnosed Crohn’s disease that was inhabiting my body and playing havoc with my hormones — muting them, in fact. Ten years hence, a diagnosis and surgery would correct that and the attraction I felt towards women would quickly evolve beyond my tempered imaginings. By my mid-twenties, I was out to myself and my friends, and a few years later, out to pretty much anyone in the world who wanted to know. I was, by 29, a writer expounding on lesbian-feminist topics, adding my own voice to the lesbian liberation struggle.

Next Time: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking


When Ladies Turned Into Women Then Back Again

women's roomWhen I was a teenager, my mother kept a copy of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room on her bedside table. Over the years, I read parts of it though I retain no clear memories of what I read. (And I might be confusing its story with The Fear of Flying, which was also on my mother’s bookshelf.)

That said—and note to self, buy a copy and read it—what I do remember distinctly was the cover, the formal red letters of LADIES’ blotted out by the strong black-markered, hand-printed WOMEN’S. I liked that cover.

As a girl, the word “ladies” suggested to me a forced properness, as in walk like a lady (small steps), eat like a lady (small bites, slowly), it’s not lady-like to cross your legs (I still do) and worst of all, “Smile, little lady.”

As second-wave feminism arrived in the 1970s, as I read my sister’s copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and attended ERA rallies with my mother, I welcomed the arrival of women as a replacement for ladies. To me, it felt more powerful,  competent, and independent. (Weren’t ladies married to lords, anyway?) The word “woman” (as in “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar) also seemed more inclusive than lady, which felt tainted by class connotations. When I came out in the mid-1980s, I celebrated women’s power and womyn’s space and greeted a group of female people with the words, “Hello, Women.”

Fast forward thirty years and women is out and ladies is back. Ballparks, bowling alleys, and night clubs still host ladies’ nights. Even my liberal cohousing neighbors organize ladies’ nights. Emails at work often begin with Hello Ladies! when addressed to a group of females. To me, a group of knowledgeable, professional women is powerful. To others, perhaps, it is scary because it challenges the status quo. Is that why so many women choose lady as a self-descriptor? To show she is not  rocking the patriarchal boat?

Does word choice still matter? The women in my department (many in their 20s and 30s) are sharp, innovative, hard-working, and accomplished. Does it change anything if they address themselves as ladies instead of women? How does age, race, class, and transgender issues comes into play here?

Has lady been reclaimed and empowered as the word girl (grrrl, girlz) has been? (Or has it? More about girls vs. women in a future post.)

What do you think?