Rebels in White Gloves: Coming of Age with the Wellesley Class of '69by Miriam Horn
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Theirs was a generation that imagined it would reinvent the world. Self-conscious iconoclasts and pioneers, the women of '69 would experiment boldly with sex and work and family and religion and politics. They would also develop the habit of seeing their own lives in historic terms. In recounting their histories, each of these women
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From the Introduction
Theirs was a generation that imagined it would reinvent the world. Self-conscious iconoclasts and pioneers, the women of '69 would experiment boldly with sex and work and family and religion and politics. They would also develop the habit of seeing their own lives in historic terms. In recounting their histories, each of these women has made a story of her life. They have not kept many secrets.
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"Freak out, Suzy Creamcheese. Drop out of school before your brain rots," urged Frank Zappa. "Protest boxy suits! Protest big ugly shoes!" exhorted the Wellesley News. "Get your ring before spring," cooed the women's magazines. Reject "inauthentic reality" in favor of "a more penetrating existence," advised Hillary Rodham to her fellow graduates. Whipsawed by these conflicting mandates, the Wellesley Class of '69 were women on the cusp, feeling out the new rules. Rebels in White Gloves is their story.
When these women entered Wellesley's ivory tower, they were initiated into a rarefied world where the infamous "marriage lecture" and white gloves at afternoon tea were musts. Many were daughters of privilege; many were going for their "MRS." Four years later, by the time they graduated, they found a world turned upside down by the Pill, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Roe v. Wade, the Vietnam War, student protests, the National Organization for Women, and the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment. "Coming of age at a rare moment in history and with the equally rare privilege of an elite college education," writes Miriam Horn, "the women who graduated from Wellesley in 1969 were destined to be the monkeys in the spacecapsule, the first to test in their own lives the consequences of the great transformations wrought by the second wave of feminism."
For the thirtieth anniversary of the Class of '69"Hillary's class"Horn has created trenchant, remarkably nuanced portraits of these women, chronicling their experiments with sex, work, family, politics, and spirituality. Horn follows them as they joined SDS, tumbled into free-love communities, prosecuted pot growers, ministered to Micronesian natives, fled trust-fund security, forged and surrendered marriages, plumbed the challenges of motherhood, and coped with the uncertainties of growing older. As Horn writes, "The women of '69 have come out as debutantes. They have also come out as lesbians, as victims of domestic abuse, as alcoholics." In all their guises, these are wise, well-spoken women who look back on the last thirty years with great eloquence and humor, and whose coming of age mirrors all women's struggles to define themselves.
On Commencement Day at Wellesley thirty years ago, Hillary Rodham told her classmates, "We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us understands and attempting to create within that an uncertainty. The only tool we have ultimately to use is our lives." In Rebels in White Gloves, Miriam Horn has created raw and intimate portraits of women on the verge. Their tumultuous life pathswild, funny, heartbreaking, unforgettableare a primer in women's history of the past fifty years and a timely attempt to make sense of the increasingly blurred line between the personal and the political.
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"He waited a long time to leave my mother, feeling it a bad thing to do, a great taboo. He's a pretty tightly bound person. He wouldn't be in the vanguard, but then the changes initiated by our generation rippled upward. He finally left, and moved into a one-room apartment, and has been married three times since, not so happily. His second wife died. His third was a disaster: He was with her when I had cancer, which seemed to make no impression on them at all. His fourth, well, with her he seems pretty happy. He's certainly ended up in a far better place than he ever would have with my mother, which I guess is an argument for people to make the changes necessary to try to keep some happiness for themselves. He calls a lot now, and I go to see him.
"My parents are in their eighties, but there's this funny bond, like we're all old people wondering how much longer we have. I drew up my will and then made sure my mother's was in order. I jumped into their generation. Everyone will enter this place in time. But somehow a young person faced with her mortality, well, I speak from a place most people my age don't know.
"I never thought I'd go back to a Wellesley reunion, but for the twenty-fifth I sought them out. I was apprehensive, but wanted to understand why I'd hated it so badly, why it had been so traumatic. I ended up loving it, and came to think less about how fucked-up the college had been and more about who I was when I arrived there. I saw myself as a victim: that they were privileged and I was not, which I now think was mostly my inherited paranoia. And as much as I wish it had been happier, given who I was and my family, it was the only experience I couldhave had.
"In many ways, the sad tone of my life was set there. I hoped I'd find a place, and didn't. To me it felt like a cul-de-sac, that things were closing down instead of opening up. Other people whose families thought they were great had a stronger sense of themselves, and just flowered. Martha Teichner knew she was a good storyteller and found her place in TV and . . . zoom. I wish I'd had that sense of myself early on, but I couldn't have: My father was too critical of who I was, and what he told me about life was too poisonous and frightened. I thought you had to sell your soul to have a secure life. I felt alienated and lost, and that feeling stayed with me.
"At reunion, I stood up and said, 'Here's the most important thing that's happened to me,' and told them about my cancer. People were really moved, which moved me to tears. I thought, How kind to give me that recognition, to offer courage. And what a shame I had felt so isolated as a student, when I feel so close to these women now. What a terrific community I might have found. All the time I thought we had nothing in common, that they all had it made. Now I see they've struggled, too, that their lives played surprises on them, that everyone has endured grief. No one has gone unscathed. We had more choices than we knew how to deal with, and most of us still are confused. Should I be doing this, or that?"
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Miriam Horn is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report. She spent her twenties working for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado and now lives in New York City with her husband.
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