where the writers are
The Feminist
Morris and Marilyn Sachs

"The Feminist" is the third in a series of exclusive, original essays by Marilyn Sachs, the author of more than forty books for children and young adults. Credited with helping launch the trend of realistic fiction for young readers with her first book, 1964's Amy Moves In, Marilyn is considered a literary treasure. Born in New York City in 1927, she grew up in an apartment on Jennings Street in the east Bronx, and her own childhood provides the framework for many of her stories.  When she came to Red Room to let us know she was working on her memoirs, we jumped at the chance to work with her and publish them here first. These essays recall a time and place far removed from our own; however, the emotions Marilyn evokes are timeless.

Marilyn says, "I look forward to sharing some memories with my fellow writers and readers.  Please let me hear from you even if you want to disagree. And thank you to the staff at Red Room for their encouragement, help and advice." Read Marilyn's first story featuring her cousin Hal here.

It was about a mile walk from where Cousin Hal lived to my home.  At the time, I was staying with my sister, Jeannie who had eloped with her new husband George.  My father, who had remarried, refused to send me to college, saying, "A girl doesn't need to go to college.  Get a job, and maybe if you want, you could take a few courses at night until you meet the right person, and get married."

Looking back, I think I should be grateful to him because at seventeen I moved out of his house, moved in with my sister, and became a staunch feminist.

It was a lovely summer night, and Hal talked cheerfully as he walked with me, limping along beside him.  My grandmother had been right. I should have taken my sandals in to the shoemaker and had him fix the heels - especially the one on my left foot that felt as if it was about to fall off.

Hal said he wasn't going to wear his uniform anymore after tonight.  Tomorrow, he planned on going shopping, and buying some new snazzy clothes.

"Next time you see me," he said, "I'll be wearing great-looking civvies."

Which was a pity, I thought.  He looked so great in his uniform.

Hal told me about his plans to go to school - maybe N.Y.U., using his G.I. bill of Rights.  He said he wasn't sure what field he was going into -engineering maybe, or something along those lines.  He liked science and math, he said.

"And what about you?"

"Well, I plan on being a writer.  I'm going to Hunter College, and will major in Creative Writing and English Literature." (Hunter College was a free New York City school.)

Hal nodded.  "What will you be writing about?"

"I haven't decided yet," I told him. 

"Well, you've got time," he said tolerantly.  "And reading good books won't hurt you.  Maybe you could be a teacher."

"No," I told him.  "I don't want to be a teacher."

"Right, and you don't have to decide now."

Hal was easy to talk to.  Even though my feet were killing me, we chatted and laughed all the way home.  When we arrived, I invited him to come up, I knew my sister and her husband were home because I could see the lights on of the small apartment on the second floor.  Earlier they had been hanging out with some of their friends in Rockaway, which is why they hadn't come to Hal's party.

Hal said no.  He said it wouldn't look right at that time of night for him to go upstairs with me. Not everyone would realize that my sister and her husband were home.  They would only see a young man following a girl into her house, and might get the wrong idea.  Since there was nobody out at that time, his concern struck me as overly respectable.

But before I could say anything, he quickly invited me to go with him to a play on Broadway called The Voice of the Turtle.  He suggested the following Saturday.  The play started at 8:30, and he would pick me up at 7.  Afterwards, we could go to a cafeteria, and have some snacks.

"Yes!" I said, maybe a trifle too quickly.

"Good," he smiled.  "See you then," He patted my arm, and took off.

All week long, I worried about what to wear.  My sister made many suggestions, and we finally agreed on a clean, pale blue dress with mother of pearl buttons.  I had my sandals fixed at the shoemakers and Jeannie loaned me a long string of fake pearls that George had given her.  My hair had grown a bit longer, and my sister helped me put on the right amount of lipstick and rouge.

Hal rang the bell, and came upstairs to meet Jeannie and George.  He shook hands with George, hugged Jeannie, and sat down for a few minutes to chat.  Clearly, he wanted them to know I was going out with a decent, respectable guy.

"You look good," he said, as we started out for the train station.  He seemed surprised and maybe relieved that I could manage to look like everybody else.  With all his new clothes, he looked good too, but I missed the uniform.

It wasn't often that I saw a play on Broadway.  Most of my boyfriends couldn't afford tickets to a real play.  I tried to act casual, as if I had often seen plays on Broadway.  The only other time I had gone was with one of my aunts who had taken me to see Oklahoma, but we sat in the last row of the balcony.

The Voice of the Turtle turned out to be racier than I had expected. From time to time, Hal turned towards me, with concern.  During the intermission, he explained that he hadn't known anything about the play and that the tickets were actually given to him by a friend of his mother's who had twisted her ankle and wasn't able to go.  He said that if I was offended we could just skip the rest of it.

"Oh no," I assured him, "I wasn't offended."  Just sitting there in the middle of the orchestra was worth the whole play, which I hardly understood anyway.

After the play, Hal took me to a local cafeteria, and we ordered coffee and doughnuts.  We were sitting in a booth, side by side.

"I'm sorry," Hal said.  "I didn't realize it was going to be such a ... such a ... Well, not an appropriate play for a girl like you."

He put his arm around my shoulder, and smiled at me.  "Next time," he said, "I'll make it my business to know better.  Anyway, let's talk about you.  I know you've had a rough time, and your sister, and George seem like they're good to you."

"Yes, they are," I told him, "but George is going to be drafted and Jeannie will try to go where he'll be stationed.  Because the war is over, I'm not too worried about him.  But I will have to find a roommate."

"You mean you'll keep the apartment?"

"Well, yes.  I don't have a choice.  And there is a girl who ... "

"You're too young," Hal said.  "At your age, you should live at home.  Why don't you go back to your father?"

I told Hal that my father didn't want to send me to college.

"Try to reason with him," Hal said.  "Maybe you could work part time, and go to school part time."

That's when I made my speech.

I told him that I already worked part time but my father was adament. I told him that I needed to go to college so I could have a career. And then I delivered my feminist creed.  I told Hal that I believed all women should have careers, and not depend on men to support them.  Equality, I told him, between men and women was the only right way to go.  Men, I said, should help with the housework, the cleaning, and all household chores.  And if there were children, men should help with them too.  And finally, I told him, women should work after marriage, and not just turn into housewives.

Slowly, Hal withdrew his arm from around my shoulder.  He was no longer smiling.

"Listen," he said, "I'm your cousin, and I'm never going to tell anybody what you just said.  But let me say that you should never tell any other guy what you just said to me. You'll never find a husband if you do."

And that was the end of Cousin Hal's interest in me.  But I continually made that same speech to every guy I ever went out with.  A few reacted like Hal, most shrugged their shoulders, and finally, when I met Morris, and made my speech, he said, taking my hand, "Where have you been?  I've been looking for you all my life."

We've been married more than sixty years.        

Comments
4 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip

Very satisfying story

How amazing that you knew your own mind - without really knowing it - at that young age. But you listened to your gut, and it steered you right.

There's a lesson there young women today still don't seem to understand.

All the best,
Barb

Comment Bubble Tip

Great Story!

Marilyn,

I loved your story. It was wonderful and inspiring. I can't wait to read more.

All best,
Eva

Comment Bubble Tip

You Are Not Alone

I can relate to your story since, in the late 70s, I enrolled in technical school in the male career field of television and radio electronics repair. The guys all thought that I was trying to be a man; more than one told me that, if I wanted a husband, I should quit because men didn't want women who weren't quote feminine unquote. In fact I knew of one woman who dropped out of the course because her boyfriend insisted that she do so; I lost all respect for her caving in to that pressure.

Anyway to make a long story short I worked long and hard and finally graduated but it wasn't until after I'd served in the military for four years that I finally got a job doing what I was trained for. I stayed with that job, fighting the same male attitude, for over fifteen years before I had to leave the field to tend to my daughter's needs. Even now I have to fight the attitude that I should be staying home; not working in what some consider a 'man's field' of driving cars from place to place.

Comment Bubble Tip

The Other Side...

I started out equally determined to find equality in relationships. I was the only female honorary political intern for the NAM in Washington, D.C. in the '60's, planning a career as either a lobbyist or a journalist with television anchor aspirations.

My mentor was one of the few respected female lobbyists of the time. She was as powerful in demeanor as any Senator and minus a few rough edges, I wanted to be like her. Her personal life was never revealed to me: married or single? I never knew. She tutored me with a vengeance as we dashed in and out of the halls of Congress and the offices of staffers.

The secretary at the NAM was my other tutor. She was delicate and pretty, a wife and mother, working just until her second child was born. She was soft-spoken and deferential to men. She was determined to save me from myself and convinced me that I would never lead a normal life if I stayed my course. No man would want a woman who competed with him intellectually, and I would go through life married to my career and lonely for a spouse and children (as though she knew something about my mentor unknown to me).

I took her advice and returned to my home state and a small teaching college. I married just the type of man she advised, an "up and comer." We initially had the suburban perfection she promised me. I always wondered, "what if..."