People who demand fast social change either don’t have an understanding of how social change works, or pretend not to.
Which is fine and natural. For one should not ask people to be patient, as so many oppressed peoples have been asked before. How are people supposed to go about fighting for gradual, comfortable change?
But wisdom demands that occasionally we look back half a century or so, and marvel at how different everything was, then.
I once profiled the photographer and gay activist Jerry Pritikin, who told me that when he was a young man in the late 1950s, he moved from Chicago to San Francisco—not because San Francisco was particularly gay-friendly then, but because if he stayed in Chicago, word would inevitably get back to his parents, and they’d be humiliated. “You knew it was taboo,” Jerry told me, “But you knew it was you.” Jerry’s still around—and has lived to see a lot of change. And he will die with a lot of change left to be made in the LGBTQ world—and a lot of reactionary bullshit still to fight off.
Similarly: I wrote a piece for The Atlantic a decade ago, when I was researching a memoir about my advertising parents, Raised By Mad Men. The Atlantic piece is about my father’s paternalistic, well-meaning, then-unremarkable yet now completely insane-sounding sexism in the 1960s. I stumbled on it the other day, and found myself freshly ball-zapped—not by how far women have come, but how far they’ve dragged men along, mostly as dead weight.
In 1967, my mother, who had worked for my dad at GM’s ad agency Campbell-Ewald, had an affair with him and married him—and then left the agency to write novels and have kids.
My dad Thomas Murray, the creative director, marked the occasion with a memo titled, “The Loss of a Lady”:
There was a time not so long ago in this business that, with a few exceptions, women writers were regarded as extravagances, as somewhat expendable specialists who were brought in to write recipes for homemaker ads, give cleaning tips, or otherwise write giggly girltalk. And no one took them very seriously.
I think they might have gone along that way for a long time, if some smart ladies hadn’t come into the business and proved to it that, in spite of their sex, they could be every bit as imaginative, versatile, and thus valuable, as their male counterparts. I remember how surprised some people were around here when Mary Scott first did some outstanding Burroughs advertising, when Margaret Firnschild became the expert on Stran Steel ads. They’re still a little amazed when Patty Kemp comes up with some excellent GM or United Delco or WJR [radio] ideas.
Certainly no one has contributed more to Campbell-Ewald and to this Vanguard of Versatile Ladies than Carol Muehl.
As I added in The Atlantic: “A decade later, Carol Murray would tell her young children she could read the feminist novel Women’s Room only a few pages at a time, ‘Because it makes me too mad at Daddy.'”
I don’t have to mansplain to you that a little over 50 years later, we’re still up to our corsets in misogyny and persistent pay inequity—and in the interim, reproductive rights have been given and then taken away—so there’s no reason for women or men to declare any kind of victory in women’s equality.
Still, it’s well to occasionally look back on how far we have come in a generation or two—if only to take heart in imagining how far we might still manage to go, even in our lifetimes.
As my old dad did, a couple of months before his death in 2009, when he voted for a Black man for president of the United States of America—and wept, in bewildered wonder.