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Girls Like Us
40 Extraordinary Women Celebrate Girlhood in Story, Poetry, and Song
By Gina Misiroglu
New World LibraryCopyright © 1999 New World Library
All rights reserved.
You grow up hearing things. I have an older brother, and when I was little we had this garage with a pinball machine, and all his friends would be over, and somebody would go, "Ah, she's psycho." Girls were always called psycho if they said to the guy, "Why did you break up with me?" or did anything like that. It was always, "Oh, she's psycho, she's a freak." So you grow up thinking that if you do anything, you're a psycho. And so I led my whole life being the pal, the buddy, the little sister with guys. And when I started to date, if they were awful to me, I'd be like, "Oh, that's cool. Sure, walk all over me. No problem." All because I never wanted to be called psycho.
— Wynona Ryder, as quoted in Los Angeles Magazine
Not a Pretty Girl
i am not a pretty girl
that is not what i do
i ain't no damsel in distress
and i don't need to be rescued
so put me down punk
wouldn't you prefer a maiden fair
isn't there a kitten
stuck up a tree somewhere
i am not an angry girl
but it seems like
i've got everyone fooled
every time i say something
they find hard to hear
they chalk it up to my anger
never to their own fear
imagine you're a girl
just trying to finally come clean
knowing full well they'd prefer
you were dirty
but i am not a maiden fair
and i am not a kitten
stuck up a tree somewhere
generally my generation
wouldn't be caught dead
working for the man
and generally i agree with them
trouble is you got to have yourself
an alternate plan
i have earned my disillusionment
i have been working all my life
i am a patriot
i have been fighting the good fight
and what if there are
no damsels in distress
what if i knew that
and i called your bluff
don't you think every kitten
figures out how to get down
whether or not you ever show up
i am not a pretty girl
i don't really want to be a pretty girl
i want to be more than a pretty girl
Ani DiFranco (1970 – ) began singing and playing acoustic guitar when she was nine, moved out of her parents' home in Buffalo, New York, at fifteen, started writing songs about the same time, and founded her record company, the aptly named Righteous Babe Records, when she turned twenty. Twelve albums and well over a thousand concerts later, the New York Times now calls the twenty-seven-year-old "one of the country's most successful completely independent musicians." In recent years DiFranco has toured with Bob Dylan, collaborated with storyteller Utah Phillips, recorded with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, covered a classic hymn and a Bacharach/David pop hit, and paid tribute in concert to both Woody Guthrie and The Artist (formerly known as Prince). The result? Political, poetic, and intensely personal music that is impossible to pigeonhole. This song appears on the album Not a Pretty Girl.
Georgie Anne Geyer
Starting on the South Side
"Women have a much better time than men in this world; there are far more things forbidden them."
— Oscar Wilde
Like so many things, it all started with a small obsession. When I was only seven or eight, I used to lie in my comfortable old German bed at night, in every respect a most loved and blessed child, and think about it. What, I would wonder for reasons I have never totally understood, if only one person had the truth and that person was a woman? She would not voice it because the women I knew did not speak out; and so the world would be denied this crucial truth.
Years later a famous Chicago architect told me that when he was about the same age, he was tuning in to the same waves when he also wondered, "If I knew the truth, would I tell a woman?" Even to his mother? The male answer: "No."
The life I started with was circumscribed to create the perfect wife and mother. The expectations were clear, and until I was well into adulthood, I never knew anyone who questioned them. In the forties and fifties, there was no women's movement, and the old feminist movement of the twenties had left little residue for our type of world. Too, World War II had left the United States with men who craved the hearth and women who craved their men.
My future seemed engraved in stone. I would be the first generation of our family to receive a college education. I might work for no more than two or three years (but only as an "experience" in life, certainly not to support myself or for the joy of some desired work), and then I would marry some stable, nonabrasive, amiable, boy-next-door "good provider" with whom I would settle down (nearby) and raise no more than two children. They, in turn, would then proceed to replace my life just as I had replaced my parents' lives.
When I was a young teenager — interested in all sorts of young men — my aunts and cousins would assure me, with that intense certainty of women throughout history, that this brief time would pass and I, too, would be accepted as a wife in the world of men. "You will be married before you are eighteen," they repeated solemnly. It was a promise and at the same time a benediction; it was one's entire and only reason for living.
I remember with absolute clarity how I would look them straight in the eye and say, quietly and respectfully but slowly and stubbornly, "I will not!" But then I had always been extremely willful and often blindly determined. When I was a baby, I in effect named myself. They would say to me, "Georgie ..." and I would say back, "Gee Gee," and that was the name that always stayed with me.
Perhaps it all never would have happened if the women around me — women I loved very deeply — when asked their opinions on something, even something domestic, wouldn't have always said with such resigned submission, "I only think what Joe thinks." Or Jim, or Bob, or Louie, or whichever "good provider" they had opted for. I remember lying awake at night, not brooding but repeating to myself with a deep obstinacy, "They won't get me." It was T. S. Eliot's "Music heard so deeply that it's not heard at all."
Despite the fact that I was born in 1935 in the midst of the Depression and that my parents did not have the fifty dollars to pay the doctor, I was always what one would now call, like some bogus FBI poster, a "wanted child." My adored brother, Glen, was ten years old at the time, so I came as rather a surprise into a difficult world. The country was collapsing into bits, and our family was not spared. Relatives moved in with parents or with the one person in the family who had work. We were lucky because my father had his own business and helped everyone else in quite extraordinarily generous ways. Across the ocean, darkness was settling over Europe and my brother would soon almost be killed in the near-sunset of Western civilization, but our immediate world remained solid. There was always about our family, and inside us, like a hard rock of certainty, a strong sense of good and evil, of white and black, of sureness about the world and the generosity that comes from that. Moreover, in concert with this was the absolute assurance that the United States was not just "a" country — the United States of America was the lodestone, the central planet from which the rest of the world spun off.
Our house, too, was the center of everything, and this does certain very special things for a child. It was just a little house, a simple dark brick bungalow no different physically from the endless streets of bungalows and big comforting trees on the Far South Side, but it was very different inside. Everyone came to us. We did virtually all of the entertaining, and in the summer everyone came to our Wisconsin summer home. It seemed quite natural, and it also gave me a strong, secure sense of "being" very early on. Because of an odd mixture of personalities in the family — a mixture that could have been as disastrous as it was creative — we were the first ones to try everything. Much, much later, when we were both adults and he had children of his own, my first boyfriend, Richard Siegle, said to me, "Your family did everything first. You water-skied first. You were the first to slice open the hot dogs before you barbecued them." Big, important things like that!
When my mother died in 1979, handing me the one unsustainable blow in life that I never quite believed would or could come, the minister praised her so correctly as a "woman who created neighborhoods" wherever she went. This was so true; it was a gift of God that was hers. But we were so infinitely blessed in our neighbors, who became — and still are — our real extended family. There were the Siegle family next door, the Lengeriches across the alley (we had real alleys in those days too) and the Beukes and Bailleses next door. Our homes were extensions of each other. These wonderful people are still my rock and my solace.
But if ours was first of all a happy, prosperous family life, on the other hand hard work in the Germanic sense was expected of everybody, and everybody, moreover, was expected to enjoy it.
My father had a dairy business at 7749 South Carpenter Street that thrived precisely off the sheer amount of blood and sweat he and my grandmother, "Oma," poured into it. He would get up at three in the morning and run two of the most important routes, then come home for a big lunch that was really a European-style dinner, sleep, and go back to the dairy to work. Oma, who had come over from the German section of Poland near present-day Poznan in steerage when she was sixteen, heaved the milk pails around with the best of the men. But when she dressed up in her fine lace and beaded clothes, in her elegant big house with the Czechoslovakian china and the German crystal, she was the envy of any grand lady.
In contrast to the hardworking but fun-loving nature of the house, my religious life hovered like a slightly threatening angel. I was sent to a Baptist Sunday school with a straightlaced, terribly decent and highly puritanical family down the block. Not only did I believe in God, heaven, and angels, but I took totally to heart the Baptist maxim that one must "convert" and "bear witness to" one's loved ones. Whenever my mother's father and mother came out from the North Side, I became anxious and puzzled. My grandfather, Carl Gervens, a lovely, gentle, scholarly man from the Rhineland, was a German socialist and skeptic. He was not about to be "saved." I simply did not know what to do.
But this early experience with religious absolutism is not something I really regret. It helped me to gain a strong moral sense — and a sense that life was meant to be a dedication, not simply a pastime. When, during my university years, I gradually lost an organized faith, it was a great and disturbing loss for me; I have wondered since whether work, when central and crucial to us, does not become an internal search or a substitute for the lost or wayward outer God we now seek inside us. My propensity for otherworldliness fed by constant reading, I divided the world into two spheres, both of which were deep and sometimes terrifyingly real to me. One was the world here and now, the hearty bourgeois world around our breakfast table. The other world was the "heaven" of our Sunday school ... the languorous clouds in the sky ... the world beyond our worlds beyond the horizon. I remember how excited I became one day when both worlds collided with a great Götterdämmerung crash in my mind. I was poring over the atlas, one of my favorite pastimes, and I discovered that Bethlehem, which had always been a metaphysical concept for me, really existed. On a map! I was overcome with a throbbing excitement for days.
Juxtaposed to my literary daydreaminess was a very, very real world. There was Chicago with its political corruption, its racial hatred, and its Mafia operations and a citizenry that accepted all of this as natural. It was this tribal morality that fed the growing flames of my hatred for injustice and my desire both to protect myself from this parasitical world and to fight it and to try to change it.
Perhaps most important, hovering always just over the horizon, both terribly appealing and terribly threatening, was the black community. It hung there like a cloud on the horizon — but I had always loved the rain and the wind, and so I was fascinated by it. Most of the people in our neighborhood feared or hated blacks; to me they represented my first fascination with another culture. It was forbidden — and thus needed desperately to be known. I probed it, but carefully; occasionally I would venture a little way into it and sit on the stoops (we had stoops in those days and in those neighborhoods) and talk to the old "Negro" men and try to learn about them.
Much later, when I worked on the Chicago Daily News, I tried to repay the black community just a little for all it had suffered at our hands. I initiated and got printed the first series on the black community that any Chicago paper ever printed. We had thirty-eight parts to it — in fact, once we did it, we overdid it!
But in many ways life was also so snug and cozy that to this day my closest and most loyal friends are those from the "old neighborhood." We had "old countries" and "old neighborhoods" and "new neighborhoods" then, you see, and those who "made it" might move away but were never really hated for it — envied a little, maybe — because they always came back and never forgot their friends in the "old" neighborhood. Indeed, one success was everyone's in this basically tribal milieu.
In this environment my big, stubborn, honest father stood out like a beacon of honesty, if not of understanding. Both an admirable man and a difficult man, he was a typical "mountain man" of southern Germany. He had hands like great hams, and he stood well over six feet tall and weighed sometimes more than 250 pounds. He terrified my boyfriends. He was absolutely incorruptible, with that dire, unforgiving honesty of self-made men whose honesty is both a heartfelt thing and a dare against the world they have bested.
In the midst of the Depression, before I was born, the dairy business on the South Side of Chicago was fraught with corrupt building inspectors looking for payoffs, with Mafia "enforcers," and with big dairies driving out small dairies like ours with bribes of five thousand or ten thousand dollars — substantial amounts of money at that time. If you were not Irish or one of the "machine" ethnic groups, you weren't in — especially Germans, with their individualistic tendencies toward their own businesses. My father had the dubious "honor," when he was a boy at Twenty-first and Lowe, of having to avoid the Reagan's Colts, an Irish gang that included such boys as Richard J. Daley and his cronies. This left him with a deep hated for "the machine" and its bullies. He overcame by being so big he simply threw Mafia bullies and others out physically.
I inherited this white, burning hatred. I was capable of being moved to tears when I was only seven or eight by the pictures in the paper of mobsters bombing union leaders' homes. I was never one of those suburban relativists, bred in suburbia where liberalism was easy; life for me was real because there was always a very real bully on every block.
In the early days of the Depression, before I was born, the White Castle route, a large and money-making route of hamburger stands all over the city, opened up for bids. They were little white-brick "castles" and the hamburgers were flat, good, and cheap — five cents in those days.
A story that became one of the little myths by which we lived was born when my father, Robert, went to Mr. Lewis, then president of the White Castle chain, and told him flatly, "I'm not going to offer you one cent in bribes. I couldn't, and I wouldn't if I could. But I'll give you the best milk and the best service you'll find anywhere."
Mr. Lewis, another rare, honest man, accepted the offer on the spot. The Geyer's Dairy chocolate milk was so rich that the White Castles just whipped it up and there you had creamy milk shakes. Thanks to all of those little white "castles," we became moderately well-to-do.
Excerpted from Girls Like Us by Gina Misiroglu. Copyright © 1999 New World Library. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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