Liberation by Strobe Light

disco ballFrom my battered black metal filing cabinet  I retrieve a handful of yellowing sheets, my journal notes from the day I attended my first women’s movement event, a day-long self-discovery workshop sponsored by the Office of Continuing Studies for Women at Foothill Community College in Los Altos Hills, California. Saturday Oct. 14, 1972, all day with lunch, $7.50 reads the opening line, along with a list of workshop leaders.

At the opening forum, my friend Judi and I recognize a few women we know. There is a feeling of bonhomie among the attendees, I have written in my notes. After the introduction we are shown a women’s lib segment from the Archie Bunker show “All in the Family”. Women roar with approval at Gloria’s feminist attitudes, chatter noisily during commercials.

The surroundings for my first breakout session are inauspicious. Out of the rain and into a Foothill College classroom plod two dozen women like myself, suburban housewives, thirtyish to middle-aged, dripping umbrellas. The desks have been pushed back against the cream-colored walls, and the chalkboards are still scribbled with students’ assignments. Self-consciously we obey the call to take off our shoes and sit on the floor. The instructor, in powder blue leotards, is already making pumping movements with her arms.

In formal dancing, she explains, the woman is led by her male partner. But today’s kids dance apart, doing their own thing. We are going to pretend like we are kids. We heave up our sagging muscles. The lights go out. The music comes on, a strong rock beat. A strobe light flickers. I have never seen a strobe before. I am fascinated by the jumping shadows. Impossible to see any other person clearly. The classroom is disappearing, and we are no-place. Though we are crowded together, we are each alone, in our own darkness. At first we copy the movements of the instructor, but imperceptibly private fantasy takes over.

From my mother I learned to fear my sexuality. Now I am doing a sexy dance, gyrating my body in a collage of distant memories. I see again the smoky crush of teenage bodies glimpsed through a basement doorway at a country club near Syracuse, NY. It was 1962; the Twist was just coming in. Terrifying, beautiful, and my fear was mixed with envy of these kids little younger than myself, who could accept their bodies’ needs and express them freely.

My fingers flicker in the strobe light, twenty fingers instead of ten, flying over the keyboard of an imaginary concert grand. I am strong. I am ambitious. I am free. The beat of the music rises to a climax. My body is soaring to a rhythm of its own. I have flown back fourteen years, back to Syracuse, NY, back to the doorway of the smoky basement. I enter the door and mingle with the grease and sweat of the dancers. I am no longer afraid. The tape ends, the lights come on, and we flop exhausted onto the schoolroom floor.

My next workshop is titled “Changing Images.” A large wood-floored room in a gymnasium complex, walled with mirrors at both ends. Again we take our shoes off, and lie on the floor to do a relaxation exercise. “Breathe … out. Now let’s see what happens when we loosen our clothes. Those of us that have belts on, let’s undo them. Let’s unbutton our slacks. There now, isn’t that more comfortable?” We are given a little pep talk on the influence of other people on our fashion choices, then break up into small groups to discuss how we feel about our clothes. I tell about my conservative wool suit, and how mod and worldly and competent I felt when I dressed it up with cream opaque pantyhose and body-shirt to go out and do an interview. A striking single girl confesses that she usually winds up wearing a sexy dress to go to a party where there may be new men. A matron in trim blue slacks and floral shirt tells how she automatically thought of wearing a knit suit to this workshop, until she read in the paper the invitation to wear “comfortable” clothes. She wishes she could find her own style – everything she buys turns out to be too conservative for what she thinks may be the real her, yet very suitable for her role as wife and mother, church-goer, active member of the PTA at her kids’ school. We try on a few wigs and clothes. It’s fun, but inconclusive – there are not enough things to do much with.

I meet Judi at the cafeteria for lunch, and we trade notes. At her clothing workshop, the first of her day, two women had stood conspicuously at the side, refusing to soil their clothes by lying on the floor. Everyone now is very chummy. The cafeteria is crowded. I hadn’t realized there were so many women here. The luncheon speaker gives a brief potted history of the women’s movement. Her voice is rather flat, and I have read it all before anyway. I look at the mural from the morning’s painting session. It is very militant. I look for the positive, affirmative images. Not many. In a flash I know what I want to paint.

My last workshop of the long, full day is a painting session. In theory, we are to paint our reaction to the clip we were shown of the Archie Bunker show “All in the Family,” in which Archie’s wife Gloria expresses feminist attitudes and Archie berates her. But that was early this morning, at the introductory forum. A lot has happened since then.

Most women paint their reactions to the day. One painting is of a huge orange cloud, turbulent, stormy, but beautiful, and raining golden rain onto a green hillside. This was how she saw what was happening today, says the painter. The stirring of new ideas was exciting, but also scary, and in the long run it would benefit humankind.

Many women paint themselves. “This is me when I can’t cope,” writes a mother from a wealthy suburb, whose dark green and black picture shows a figure in bed under the covers, surrounded by black smoke and scary faces. Another draws a bright fire arched over by a brown form. “The brown shape is her man,” says the painter. He is both protecting her from the outside world, and smothering her fire so it can’t get out.

My image comes out fast, so fast I keep running out of paint on my brush. I draw the arms first, in dark, strong red, reaching up, hands wide open. A smiling face, a body, a quick angle of a dress to show that she is female. “Reach out!” I shout in red paint underneath. Then quickly back to the table to find some yellow paint. Bright yellow light scribbles itself behind the figure. She looks too sketchy. Pour the yellow paint into a remnant of blue to give her a green dress. Green hair? Why not? “This is where I am at,” I tell my fellow painters. “I have broken out of my chains.”

 

7 Responses to “Liberation by Strobe Light”

  • I probably wouldn’t have remembered much either, if it weren’t for my notes.

  • Judith Pogue:

    Strangely, I don’t remember the details of this workshop at all. My divorce was final in February of 1973, so I was probably in a period of great stress, but it was part of my awakening. I do recall that we attended more than one event dealing with the women’s movement including hearing Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem speak.

  • Henri Bensussen:

    takes me back to those days of “women’s lib”–when women were so bound into society’s roles for them. it would be very different now, I think, much more into activism & politics.

  • Martha Buck:

    oh, I wish I could have been there . . . altho’ it would probably have taken me longer to “come out” than you did. Many thanks, Maureen.

  • Yes! You are free and wild and still reaching out to those around you. Thank you for sharing this lovely snippet of an era. Green dress, green hair, flower-power and courage forever…

  • Harriet Gleeson:

    Whoa! Some great workshop day.

  • Jewels Marcus:

    What a wonderful blast from the past! Thank you.

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