March 30, 1999
by Nicole Youngman
Several hundred people came to the New World Landing in downtown Pensacola in early March to hear journalist Molly Ivins speak in honor of Women's History Month. Ivins is a syndicated columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram who has also written for Esquire, The Nation, Mother Jones, and Harper's, and is published monthly in The Progressive. She has appeared as a commentator on 60 Minutes, National Public Radio, and NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The event was jointly sponsored by the University of West Florida and Pensacola Junior College. Impressed by the high turnout, Ivins began by joking, "And they tried to tell me this was some kind of right-wing town!" She then reminisced about women's history in Texas, her native state, where earlier this century "Idiots, imbeciles, aliens, the insane, and women" were legally forbidden to vote, raising the age of consent for girls from 7 to 10 was a major change, and men were allowed to kill unfaithful wives and their lovers. "This upset women," Ivins explained. "They wanted equal shooting rights! The way women are thought of is changing so rapidly that of course it causes a lot of people distress and indigestion."
Ivins spoke fondly of Mobilian Maryln Schwartz, the author of The Southern Belle Primer, or Why Princess Margaret Will Never Be a Kappa Kappa Gamma, and Texas stunt pilot Catherine Stimpson, who was able to train WWII fighter pilots long before the military began discussing whether or not to allow women to fly in combat missions. "One of the things that women do to one another, and mothers do to daughters, is make us afraid," she said. "Mothers, of course, are afraid their daughters might get hurt. It is something that gets passed by women from generation to generation -- don't fly too high, don't spread your wings too wide, don't try to do too much, you might get hurt, you might crash to the ground. And now we are not free of them, but we are free to recognize them...and look at them and regard them with wonder and bemusement, as they so richly deserve.... We have a chance now to look at this nonsense that's foisted upon us -- I don't know how often y'all read fashion magazines, but there's an amazing source of information!" she joked, noting how women are all supposed to look like "those poor anorexic models from New York."
Ivins does feel that the women's movement has made some tactical mistakes. "The whole point of the women's movement was to give women more opportunities, to be doctors as well as nurses and bosses as well as secretaries. It didn't mean that we thought that women who raised children weren't doing anything important, that's a ludicrous idea! But I think that because we were working on opening up more career opportunities for women, we let our opponents use that charge against us." She also stated that feminists should have made more attempts to reach out to women of color and women without good educations.
Abortion remains a central issue in politics many years after the second wave of feminism got started, and Ivins shared her recollections of growing up before Roe and sex education classes. The "nice girls," she said, were often the ones who became despondent enough at their feelings of shame and their lack of choices to commit suicide when they faced unwanted pregnancies. She stated that, while the men involved in the pregnancies should often be involved in women's decisions, "It didn't seem to me that those old fat white men in Washington had anything to do with it...It is up to us to make sure the young women have choices." Ivins spoke of the fundamentalist Christians of the Religious Right with a combination of sympathy and frustration. Noting that she has many fundamentalists among her friends and family, and that they are wonderful people and marvelous neighbors who have good intentions. She insisted that even so, "There is no reason whatever to let the poor blue-bellied nincompoops screw up the entire Bill of Rights, which is just what they are fixing to do!" Fundamentalists are "the most frightened people in America," she explained, who are reacting to rapid changes by clinging to the familiar.
She closed by repeating that "It is real important to have fun while you fight for freedom...it needs that little light touch of semi-lunacy...otherwise you might get worn out and give up." As an example, she described the scene at a recent Klan march in Austin: "As y'all all know, it's always annoying when the Klan comes to march. It upsets the black citizens, it upsets the Jewish citizens, the skinhead kids turn out to cheer 'em on, people get into fistfights on the sidewalk and everybody's mad at everybody for a good six months. And of course, as a good American and defender of the Bill of Rights, there you are, standing up for the right of these vicious nincompoops to spew whatever dreadful drivel they want to because it's their goddamn right under the Constitution!" So, Ivins and company decided to try a different approach: "They were greeted by 5,000 citizens of Austin who mooned them as they walked by!"
During the question-and-answer period after her talk, I asked what she thought about using lotteries as a way of raising money for college scholarships. She replied, "I think it's a really terrible idea. They pass it again and again saying that the proceeds will go to education. Not only does it NOT go to education, it also is an unsteady revenue source, it is not a good way to fund something as important as education because it goes up and down with the economy and for a lot of other reasons. You know what our two fastest growing industries in this country are? Gambling and prisons. I just think it's a dreadful way to fund public policy and it's one of those things I always side with the Baptists on."
Molly Ivins' most recent book is You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You: Politics in the Clinton Years. She has also published Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? and Nothin' But Good Times Ahead. Her columns may be read online at http://www.star-telegram.com/opinions/fwstcol.htm. Her columns also appear in Liberal Opinion Week; subscriptions may be obtained by calling 1-800-338-9335.