“We are called to order.” The mayor’s gavel struck sharply. “Tonight’s City Council is now in session.” Huge oak doors closed behind me. I was just in time, and thankfully, Cora had saved a seat for me on the aisle. I was grateful because I was nervous even to be here, to have been asked by my woman’s organization to deliver an acceptance speech to the City Council, and at least now, I wouldn’t have to stumble up and over everyone in order to make my way to the podium.
The room around me buzzed. I was surprised at the hubbub, the people of all shapes and sizes who crowded the chamber. The wood of the railings and chairs, the wooden trim gleamed, positively glowed all around the room. The wood reflected the red, white, and blue of the flag. We stood for the Pledge of Allegiance.
“I love this!” Cora greedily snatched my little one-page speech from my hand as I sat back down. Then her glasses perched on her nose, she literally seemed to devour my words.
The City Council was made up of six men, one woman. All were dressed well, and all were older than myself. But then Cora was “older” too, I reminded myself. I’d first met Cora Walters when I’d moved to town not so long ago, and to me, Cora seemed to be one of those people who is always the center of action, a source of energy and of light.
Barbara Schaeffer, tonight in my ever-so-gray and ever-so-professional business suit, certainly paled next to a Cora Walters. Cora who was large, who wore bright colors—who even tonight had deigned to wear a slacks ensemble of peacock and of teal, of dark blue set off by heavy silver jewelry before an ever-so stiff and stuffy City Council. Cora and her husband, Glenn, had raised seven children. Myself, none.
“We have a very important session tonight, folks. A very long session.” The mayor spoke sonorously, heavily. Why I got myself into these things, I wondered. Other people were evidently content to go to jobs, then come home to collapse on the sofa and watch T.V. Why did I, Barb Schaeffer, who had no particular talents anyway except something called “middle management,” insist upon getting myself caught up in community affairs? Who did I think I was, and what was I trying to prove?
Mayor McWhorter, Benjamin McWhorter or “Big Ben” as he was often called, droned on about the order of the agenda before reciting the list of proclamations to be proclaimed. Women’s Equality Day to be proclaimed by him and then accepted by myself.
Some inner side of Barb Schaeffer though, I knew, enjoyed politics. The show of it all. Tonight, feedback resounded from radio mikes, individuals stood to talk, the cable T.V. cameras hummed. Meanwhile, the council seemed to sit above we common citizens, off up behind some sort of half-a-round table. Why had I expected our City Council members to be in robes, dressed up like judges or something? Of course, the members wore business suits, like me. Perhaps being raised in another era, I, Barbara Schaeffer, still held “the government” in some sort of naïve, idealistic esteem. I guess politics had just never seemed dirty to me, so much as it seemed some arena for saviors and for other important men, for knights in shining armor.
“We are asking those accepting proclamations to cut their comments short tonight,” the mayor was saying.
Cora interrupted, “We’re the only group getting a proclamation, the women!” Cora’s chin flew up with a snap. Her blue eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“ . . . and so we are proud to present this proclamation . . . .,” the mayor was talking over Cora though, and I found myself already rising and moving to the podium.
“Accepting will be Miss Barbara Schaeffer,” Mayor McWhorter shook my hand. He put a warm arm of welcome around me. Mayor Ben McWhorter was an older man. Heavy-set with thick, iron-gray hair. He dressed in a suit, a white shirt, a tie. Mayor Ben McWhorter’s eyes were hazel, fringed with dark lashes. The mayor looked directly into my face, his expression—very serious.
Big Ben McWhorter was not to be taken as being in agreement with our organization, I’d already been informed by Cora. No, Mayor McWhorter did not approve of “these newfangled women.” He at least did not approve of any woman who did not act like “a real woman,” according to rumors I’d heard around town, as new as I was.
“You’re not going to read all of that tonight, are you?” Big Ben kept his arm around me. He really did have hands like hams. The mayor eyed my one-page speech. Mayor McWhorter had a nose like a hawk, I noticed, as I turned from him and began to speak. “Now, I’m serious,” the mayor continued to wheedle, and so I stopped.
Listen to your breath, I knew to command myself. I’d spoken in public before and so I realized I was getting too warm, too nervous. I began again, “Thank all of you. We especially want to thank the members of the City Council . . . .”
“We do have a lot to cover tonight, dear. Let’s keep it to a few words.” Mayor Ben whispered to me. He spoke like a little boy. Also, he did not move away from me.
I looked up to make my eye contact with the audience but could not immediately find Cora. The lights were bright, and faces swam up at me. All colors, shapes, and sizes. I tried to tell the audience how proud I was to accept such an award. I tried to summarize quickly how grateful I was to the women who’d gone before me.
The mayor, however, seemed to close in on me. I could feel the man’s heaviness. I could smell his aftershave. I tried, but I stumbled over my remarks about women who’d endured real hardship, real poverty, and worst of all, ridicule.
The mayor’s meaty hand rested on my forearm. His thick fingertips traced the inside seam of my blouse down to where it ended at my wrist. He patted my hand. Big Ben McWhorter fingered the ruffle at my wrist. His forefinger massaged the soft base of my thumb. The mayor’s hand swallowed up my own as I continued to read. While I tried to continue. My voice, the voice of Barbara Schaeffer, it seemed, had grown very, very tiny.
The mayor’s hand then began to make its way back up my arm. Both seemed to have grown disembodied somewhere off in the corner of my vision: the mayor’s meaty hand and my thin, silky-covered wrist. I got goosebumps. Reporters’ pencils, front row-center, stopped scribbling, and all eyes, all cameras and mikes fixed on me. I cut the speech.
The page I held in front of me had become a blur. I cut the comments I’d written on men who’d given both time and money in their lives to ensure that daughters, wives, sisters, mothers, friends, were considered equal. No time in the City Council for words on good men.
Our mayor’s hand stroked my forearm again and again. His hand came up over my elbow and mercifully stopped at my shoulder. The man held me in his grip. One arm all the way around me and the other then massaging my shoulder, I, Barbara Schaeffer, squeaked out something about two hundred years of struggle, but I literally could not breathe. I sat down.
“You did a good job,” Cora compassionately lied, but did not look up at me when I sat back down. I felt I’d gone totally pale. Indeed, perhaps no one could see Barbara Schaeffer at all? Perhaps I’d become a ghost? A break came in the City Council’s agenda, and handing our plaque to Cora, I fled. I went to the restroom. There were no showers, of course, but at least I could wash my face. My hand. My arm. I leaned over the sink to rinse my face for the second time.
“He does it to everyone.” The woman whose face I then saw in the mirror, the woman who’d just come in, was the woman City Council member. The lone one. She also was dressed this evening in a suit. She had silver glasses and long, silver hair all neatly done up in an old-fashioned bun. I realized the woman was trying to comfort me. “Didn’t anybody warn you?” she asked. “They probably thought you already knew.”
“It was my fault,” I replied. “I shouldn’t have let him touch me in the first place! I shouldn’t have let him intimidate me.” I straightened and wiped my face off with a paper towel.
“What could you have done?” The councilwoman came to stand next to me. She crossed her arms and peered out over her glasses. “What exactly could you have said?”
“Someone will tell me I should have slapped him, should have told him to take his hands off of me!” I protested.
“If you’d said anything like that out there in front of everyone, done anything so that all the T.V.-viewing audience could see –” the council member began.
“I know,” I finished. “It’s me who would have looked bad. Everybody and his brother would be calling me unprofessional. Unbalanced. Everyone would be saying I was the one who had the problem!”
“And a sexual problem at that,” the woman agreed and turned on the tap. The council member washed her own hands. Water spit out over the sink. “Our mayor says it’s the way he was ‘reared.’ I tried to talk to ‘the Chief’ once myself. Seems he has this general love for all humanity.” The councilwoman smirked. “He just can’t help showing it.”
“Unlike an ice queen like yourself?” I smirked back. “Does Mayor Ben love men too?”
“Well, I don’t think he touches men in quite the same way. I think that’s what you mean.” The older woman replied and finished wiping her hands, finger by finger.
Not even I could imagine that our good old boy mayor would come up and lay his hand on the pant leg of a male colleague or even an adversary while uttering comments about camaraderie with ‘the masses’. Wouldn’t that bring on some fireworks?”
“So he’s done it to you too?” My voice seemed to echo loudly now. It had returned.
“Not anymore,” the woman shrugged. “These days he thinks I’m a bitch.” The councilwoman opened the door for me.
“According to the mayor, those are my two choices,” I asked. “Tempting morsel or bitch?”
“According to many people,” the councilwoman replied. The woman held out her hand. “My name’s Jeanne. Jeanne Leland. I’m an architect. What’s your name?”
“Barb. Barbara,” I answered as our mutual footsteps echoed against the cavernous walls of City Hall. The sound bounced off the marble columns. Down marble stairs.
“There you are!” Cora sighed with relief. She’d evidently escaped the City Council chamber too.
Jeanne nodded, “Yes, and I think she knows now, she’ll survive along with the rest of us.”
Jeanne tossed her head and heaved open one of the heavily carved doors. “Back to the lions,” our councilwoman winked. “Choose bitch.”
“There, you see, it’s a very nice plaque,” Cora was saying as we hurtled out the main doors and into the evening air. “You did fine,” she insisted and stuffed the Proclamation of Women’s Equality down into the large, beaded bag she always carried. “Let’s get over to our own meeting now though. We have the mailing list for our fundraising dinner to talk about. There’s the march on Washington coming up too. We woman have to make a good showing!”
“He treated me unequally,” I sighed to Cora. I’d remembered the wrong women in my speech, I was beginning to realize. I’d forgotten all about my own mother whom I knew had once had to ask my father to speak with her employer at the pharmacy. Something about where to put or keep his hands. And there’d been my girlfriend who had received a failing grade in college because she had refused to go out with the instructor. There’d been the story of someone’s grandmother treated likewise who had to quit a job her family needed to survive. Generations full of stories and an anger that was old. Centuries old—and building.
“Barbara, we’re late! We’ve got lots to do. Time to get cracking!” Cora took off down the street, full of fire. “Every woman has a story,” she was remarking vehemently. “Last meeting the man told the representative of a firm wanting to locate here that he’d love sharing his home with her. Can you imagine? And did you know there was this reporter, or maybe it was one of the secretaries, at a commission hearing once,” Cora was remarking as she walked. “Ben McWhorter not only put his hands all the way down around her neck, he asked her if she wouldn’t like to give him a neck rub too! Seems our good old boy gets so tired!” Cora snorted.
I knew that many of the men on the City Council, many people in town, thought of Cora Walters as just another retired housewife, a “menopausal nut case.” Taking off ahead of me like some volcano in tennis shoes though, and all decked out in her purple and her teal, I, Barbara Schaeffer, supposed “professional woman,” thought Cora Walters more like a warrior.
“Barbara, you drove,” Cora was calling back to me. “You’re the one with the keys!”
I had to run to catch and keep up with the older woman. The real knight in shining armor.