In 1975 my family uprooted me from my settled, safe life in the Midwest. My father was transferred from his meatpacking management job in Dubuque Iowa to South San Francisco. A class president and varsity cheerleader with a boyfriend, I sulked the entire drive across country. The only thing keeping me going was the idea that I could got attend an excellent university at a low cost with just one year of California residency. (At the time UC Berkeley was cheaper than the University of Iowa!)
My high school however had very low standards compared to my Iowan parochial classes. Seeking refuge from boredom, I became co-editor of the school newspaper and assigned myself to cover the Patty Hearst trial, who was kidnapped from her UC Berkeley room. Every day my next-door neighbor Geri, (whose father was also from Dubuque!), and I took Bart to the San Francisco courthouse and flashed our high school press passes to the security guards, much to the amusement of the full-time journalists.
At least one of them took pity on me though. While all the seasoned veteran reporters gathered in front of the building for the arrival of the prisoner, one journalist pulled me aside and said to follow him. I told him we’d miss Patty but he assured me he had a scoop. I took a leap of faith and captured the photo that was on the front page of every paper the next day: Hearst defiantly holding her handcuffed wrists in the air as her police car sped past.
Following this episode it’s not surprising my mom was worried about my safety when I was accepted to Cal, but our next-door neighbor, a high school teacher, convinced her it was an honor to attend this internationally recognized university. 1976 was a strange time at UC Berkeley. While my older siblings were wearing angel flight pants and polyester print wrap dresses, the better to do the hustle, my uniform was worn-in boy’s Levis and t-shirts.
The 60’s protests were over, but the sorority/fraternity crowd was just starting to get re-established. No one seemed to feel passionately about anything, except of course finding Mickey Mouse (easy A) classes and the next party. One area I did find compelling was “women’s lib” as it was known then.
It was also the perfect way to rebel against my mother, a stay at home housewife who had ten kids in just 13 years (and no twins). I was number five, alternating between battling with the older siblings who tried to boss me around and taking care of the younger kids. The one thing I vowed to avoid was becoming a stay-at-home mom.
Berkeley took feminism to new levels showing graphic sado-masochist films to depict the abuse of women. Required reading was “The Women’s Room,” by Marilyn French, a revolutionary book at the time about a housewife dumped in mid-life by her husband for another woman. After reading it in one night, I lashed out at my boyfriend/roommate Ron. I did have some reason for my anger, we were both employed as maintenance workers at the dorms, but he frequently talked me into cleaning his share of the bathrooms.
I did so well as a janitor, I got a job during the summer cleaning the dorms when they were rented to tourists. (In my defense it was the best paying job on campus). The full-time maids who had been working at the University for decades told me great stories. My favorite was their depiction of Mario Savio, the famous free speech activist. “He always seemed like the nicest boy, then one day he blew up a toilet!” they exclaimed. “We gave him hell, saying who do you think has to clean this up? You should know better, you came from a working-class family.”
After three years Ron and I broke up but he had a hard time getting over me. For spite, (or an easy A), Ron signed up for the same women’s study class I was taking. The only man in the course; he had the rest of the class (all females—including the professor) doting on him. They were enthralled with his bravery and open-minded attitude for enrolling in a feminist course!
For the final project, this self-proclaimed Renaissance man decided to write and act out a play, with willing classmates, in front of the class. The subject matter? Details of our three-year romance and break-up, casting me as the villain. He even used my real name. As I sat in the audience watching myself depicted as a man-eating monster, my face grew red and my anger spiked, but like a car accident by the side of the road, I couldn’t stop watching.
As the actors bowed and my classmates and the professor clapped and commented on Ron’s brilliance, I slunk out of the room, recalling the A grade I had received in my Shakespeare class for the loving sonnet I wrote about this very same vindictive guy.
My view of sisterhood changed that day. I never took another women’s studies course, but I remained a feminist. Little did I know how it would backfire on me. I worked since I was 15-years-old without a break, but my husband, a decade older than me, retired early to help his ailing mother. Now I’m supporting a househusband who does everything I hate: finances, gardening, car repairs, laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, errands, and cleaning, everything except the bathrooms. Seems it is my lot in life to clean toilets and that is one practical lesson I learned at Cal that I use everyday.
Causes Ruth Carlson Supports