Just as world strife was churning into what would become World War II, Louise Dickinson Rich left an upper middle class world outside of Boston and moved to the northern woods of Maine to create a life and a family far removed from the comforts, conveniences and privileges she’d been brought up with. In her extraordinary 1942 memoir of that experience, We Took to the Woods, she concludes with an attempt to explain why she’d made the choice to remove herself from the life she’d been raised for. In a word, it was freedom.
“To define freedom,” she wrote, “for which men and women and children are dying all over the world, in terms of indifference to clothes and social contacts and popular attitudes seems so trivial and irresponsible a thing to do that I am ashamed of it, as of a gross impertinence; but that is what living here adds up to, for me. I am free.”
It’s been a while since I’ve thought about freedom in regard to myself. The truth is, I haven’t had to. I’ve been so busy living a life free to make my own choices, chart my own path, these days I rarely ponder how long and hard I had to fight for that opportunity. And how many different ways and times I’ve waged the battle for it.
In the beginning, I can’t imagine how I would have survived riding the crest of my adolescence into young adulthood without the bracing, rebel call of a women’s movement cheering me on. To put it simply, I was a troubled youth — married and divorced twice between the ages of 17 and 24, a single mother at 25.
I was 15 years old and a junior in high school when Ms. Magazine hit the newsstands in 1972 with such media fanfare that it pierced through my thick fog of me-focused suffering. Real as the trauma was that served as the foundation of my childhood, and as disabling as its results were to my functioning, it took a revolution to alert me to a broader context than just me for everything I’d experienced.
It was the pronouncement that “the personal is political” coming from Susan Brownmiller, Gloria Steinem, Letty Cottin-Pogrebin, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Andrea Dworkin and bell hooks that shifted the ground beneath me and sent me in a direction that literally saved my life.
Not that the road to freedom was easy, steady or straightforward. Traveling it has been a slow process, and even now when I think I’ve reached my destination, I’m frequently reminded I’ve only landed at a rest stop. Which means that Ms. Magazine’s appearance on the scene alerted me to a dangling hope for me to grab at, but it would be a very long time before anything would pull me up to safety. In the meantime, that publication heralded the coming of a means for women to gather in support of one another, and an idea of emancipation I desperately needed.
An estimated hundred thousand women in the United States belonged to consciousness raising groups in the mid 1970s, the peak of their decade-long popularity. Mostly middle class, white women gathered in living rooms across the country like lovely bouquets of restless frustration, the thorny stems of their prescribed lives binding them together, then pricking one another into awareness that would set them free.
By 1982, consciousness raising groups were long past the height of their allure. That’s when I joined one. I was a 25-year-old single mother of a 6-month-old, trying to get by on a $10,000/year job as the editor of a regional horse magazine. The meeting I went to was held in a beautiful old home in Lewiston, Maine, attended by a dozen women. They were all in their early 30s and held much more lucrative jobs than mine. I was the only one who brought a baby to the meeting. The fact that I did inspired one woman to launch the conversation with a 10-minute pronouncement that it was impossible to be a liberated feminist and simultaneously have children.
That group didn’t work out too well for me. But it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the idea of feminism as a guiding light toward freedom to lead my own life, make my own way, claim the courage to be who I wanted to be. I was hungry for liberation. Desperate for it. I needed release from a childhood of abuse and the walls raised up against self respect as a result of it. I needed a map and guides to help me navigate through a world determined to convince me that as a woman I could never be safe, brave or successful on my own.
It didn’t take long for my need to embrace the idea of “I am woman, hear me roar,” to start getting slapped in the face by political sentiments of the day. It was my introduction to an awareness that regardless of how isolated or alone in the world I felt, public opinion would find a way to have a direct response to my personal life — and it was almost always a bipartisan pushback. On the one hand, I was surrounded by the standard assumption that only women who couldn’t attract a man wanted or needed to be liberated (hello dreaded fear of being labeled a “man hater”). A lesson coming from the liberal camp had me learning about the complications of a women’s movement rife with narrow mindedness and a whole host of “isms” and “obias” (our ‘80s shorthand for racism, classism, sexism, ableism, homophobia) that mucked up my hope for finding a simple sisterhood among all women.
Over the years, my quest for a life guided by feminist sensibilities has, for the most part, settled into a softly braided effort to infuse my personal and professional worlds with a commitment to defending self determination and social justice for all — including me. But for a while now, I’ve been missing the rallying cries of a grassroots revolution to back it up. I’m not sure when the women’s movement of my coming-of-age years faded away, but somewhere along my trek to maturity, the generations of young women coming up behind me seemed to shrug off the idea that they might need or want an army of peers to help defend themselves against the worldwide crushing oppression of their sex.
The older I get, the less I see of American women gathering in groups of determination to prepare them for the battles ahead. It’s made me sad with loss and worried about a future of regression to a place and time where women are expected to lean on, hide behind the power of men and do little more than hope some of it will be used to safeguard them.
That’s what I thought I was seeing, anyhow. Then last fall I attended a national llama championship show in Oklahoma. After hauling six llamas and my traveling companion, Laurel, a thousand miles to be there, we spent four days competing against some of the most skilled llama and handler teams in the country.
Between halter showing and obstacle classes, Laurel and I basked in the camaraderie of people who loved llamas in the same intense, inexplicable way we did. We swapped stories and bragging rights, relaxing into the comfort of being insiders in an unusual world far removed from global discord.
Mostly, it was women we were visiting with. Women who were grooming animals, cleaning stalls, lugging buckets of water and huge bales of hay. Our first evening there, a group of them called out as we left the building to head for our hotel, sweeping up in a cluster of llama-driven two-wheeled carts, pausing to let us climb aboard, then charging across the event grounds in the fading light behind llamas whose padded feet landed lightly on the pavement.
Throughout the weekend, I watched women bring steely determination to their competition strategy. I listened to their tales of the barn raisings, business building, llama training, youth programming they were creating and conducting on their own and with each other. But it wasn’t until move-out day that I recognized what I’d been witnessing all along.
As I pulled my own truck and trailer up to the barn entrance, I jockeyed into line behind a half dozen rigs that were being loaded with equipment, supplies and llamas in preparation for the long ride home. Back and forth between barn and vehicles, women dragged wagons loaded with buckets and hay bags and dirty stall mats. They paired up to hoist huge trunks into tiny storage spaces. They laughed and barked orders at each other. They loaded their tired llamas, sneaking a stroke along silky fibered necks. They carefully latched heavy doors, checked brake lights, stepped away from license plates that revealed their state of origin and the number of days they’d be on the road before getting home.
It was when I watched one woman climb to the top of her trailer, reach down to her friend below, and haul a big, weighty llama cart into the sky before securing it on the roof, that the truth of what I was seeing hit me. Liberated women. All around me women from across the country — women of all ages, sizes, backgrounds, were living the kind of lives the brief, flawed movement of the 60s and 70s had set its sites on. Here they were, at an isolated event center in Oklahoma, traveling alone or with other women, hauling beloved and valuable animals along thousands of miles of highway in massive rigs the women of my generation had been assured were beyond our capacity to operate. They weren’t armed or armored or otherwise under male protection. If they were ever afraid of late night rest stops or the dreaded breakdown on a lonely stretch of road, they didn’t show it. They were simply living lives of their own design and having a wonderful time doing it.
There’s rarely a day that goes by when I don’t despair for the countless girls and women around the world still subject to violence and soul crushing oppression simply because they are born and raised female — many in my own community. There remains so much work to do, my own personal battles included as I continue to rattle the cage built for us in an entrenched patriarchal society.
I worry about the young women of the Millennial generation, who don’t understand what it took for their mothers and grandmothers to clear even a small path of freedom for them to follow, and might not realize the importance of sometimes traveling that path without male companionship or influence.
But just a few days ago, I was reassured again. My friend Cecilia came to visit from the East Coast, and gamely helped me organize a three-day llama trek for a mixed group of colleagues, some young and others beginning to step through the door into old age. Before and during the trip, Cecilia and I reminisced about the joys and woes of when we were young and learning what it meant to be woman identified as a means of finding our strength. The other women in our group didn’t say much in response, and there was no way of knowing what they were thinking.
Two days into the trip, my always-to-be-counted-on, llama wrangling assistant Laurel, had to pack up early. This beautiful young woman who once cried as a 10-year-old in my llama youth group because her llama wouldn’t stand still and it hurt her feelings, had a day-long work event she was required to attend as a budding psychologist. While I fiddled with my new camp stove making afternoon tea, Laurel packed up her one-person tent, secured the picket line of the llama she was leaving behind for us to use on the trip out, then shrugged into her day pack. A quick hug, and off she went to descend the rocky trail down from our 11,000 foot camp site to where she’d parked her llama van at the trailhead miles away. Alone.
I leaned back against a craggy boulder as I sipped my hot tea, and watched Laurel slowly fade from view. I firmly believe we do still need a movement for the liberation of girls and women, but maybe I don’t need to worry about it as much as I have been. Maybe the movement just around the corner will be led by fiercely llama loving women like Laurel. And if it is, I can’t wait to sign up for that group.