The Personal is Political, Part I

Jill Benton reads from  Together We Rise: The Women's March , in which she is included.  Photo by Michelle Dowd

Jill Benton reads from Together We Rise: The Women's March, in which she is included.

Photo by Michelle Dowd

When asked why she is still working, 79-year-old photojournalist Paola Gianturco replied, “It never occurred to me to stop. What for? I can’t imagine not using what I know and what I can do to try to change the world. It would be a waste. I just can’t imagine, if you still do important work, why would you stop?”

Some women work for money, some do unpaid work at home, some retire young from paid labor, and some run organizations or work on their own projects until their death. But no matter what combination we choose, none of us get to have it all. At least, not all at the same time. Despite what advertising slogans tell us, there are too many options for anyone to live their best life.

A former mentor Joyce Kirk-Moore once told me, “All we really have is the integrity of our compromises.”

Life is messy. No one has it all together. No one has a perfect life or juggles all their roles with grace, no matter what their social media avatars look like.

I have made the best choices I could with the information I had available when I made those choices. Maybe under different circumstances, I would have made better choices. Maybe the paths now available to me are the result of specific choices my past self made, and had I chosen better, my options now would be more varied or clear. But it’s also possible that with everything I have experienced in this particular body, with this particular DNA, I couldn’t have done otherwise.

I have no idea, being who I am, if I could have made any other choices than the ones I appear to have made. Certainly they are different choices than my same DNA-self raised by anyone else, in any other place, would have made (let alone in a different body or different time). And if we begin to explore the idea of parallel universes, the options just become greater. In a multiverse, every single quantum wave function becomes a real possibility in some reality. Within an infinite universe, every single possible configuration of particles takes place multiple times, with infinite variations. It may be that every moment of your life, every decision you make, is causing a split of your now self into an infinite number of future selves.

Even if none of this is true, every path I don’t choose has a shadow self in my imagination.

I think about what I am proud of, what I regret, and what I want to do with the second half of my life. Sometimes I’m paralyzed by the choices I have, at the prospect of all the directions I could go that I haven’t yet explored. But I know this is an immense privilege, having choices, and I am deeply grateful for my health, energy, education, income, and for all the women who worked so tirelessly to assure that women have any choices at all.

I recently began a series of interviews that pay tribute to women who paved the way for these choices. As a starting point, I am focusing on women who participated in the second wave of feminism, a movement from 1963-1983 which helped close the wage gap, gave us reproductive options, legal defense against domestic violence and marital rape, greater equity in custody and divorce cases, and independent access to credit cards, property, and income.

For my first interviews, I have chosen women who inspired or pushed me when I needed to grow. Every one of the women I contacted was willing to be interviewed. Each woman is over 70, politically active in the current women’s movement, and believes that although the world has mostly changed for the better, there is still a lot of work to do.

Most of us who are descendants of witches executed in Salem are proud of our heritage.
—  Jill Benton

Jill Benton was one of my first English professors at Pitzer College, a woman who encouraged me to read numerous books, identify as a feminist, ask difficult questions of myself and others, and dress shabby chic. Jill is now 74 and lives is Claremont, California with her husband Al and a slew of grandchildren who stay with them off and on. She is a lead organizer for canvassing in CA District 39, a conventionally Republican district that is swinging left. She educates political volunteers on the immediacy of social issues, compassionate policies and how to knock on  doors and converse with constituents who want to vote responsibly. In a well-attended public ceremony, she was recently awarded a key to the heart of Chino Hills.

This is a short excerpt from a four-and-a-half hour interview I conducted with her in her home on July 17, 2018:

Jill: I identify so much with Hillary Clinton. When she talks about coming of age, you know, it’s the same time I came of age. And I think that the world has changed. For instance, when my daughter was graduating from law school and she was in the top 2% of her class, I wept the whole time, because such a thing would not have been possible in 1969. There was no word called patriarchy. It didn’t exist as a used form. Nor was there a word for feminist. Without those, you have no power.

Michelle: When did you first identify as a feminist?

Jill: I can describe experiences before I knew the word feminist. I can describe being in Morocco in 1969 and seeing a woman out in the countryside, and I saw  a woman on all fours, being loaded with wood, like a donkey, and feeling anger flick like electricity to the ends of my fingertips, that that was the lot of a woman, you know, in that situation. And I had the same the same experience reading a book I would later use for my dissertation, and by this time, I knew the word feminism. This would have been in the late 70’s and I called myself a feminist, and it gave me a way of analyzing, and it was very useful as an ideological position in relation to literature. I was reading a book recommended by my adviser, and I thought it was a silly book, until I began to get that feeling at the end of my fingertips and I realized I was reading an ideologically feminist book, written to come under the radar.

Michelle: What book was it?

Jill: It was The Corn King and and Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison. It was my fingertips. It was visceral, that electricity charge, and I trusted myself, and I began to look, and there it was. But I consider myself an accident of history. I would not have known the word feminist or know the word patriarchy if there had not been a woman’s movement.

Michelle: How much did the Trump election affect you?

Jill: Immensely.

Michelle: Did the outcome surprise you?

Jill: Yes. I felt as though the red tide of Bakersfield and the John Burroughs society had now spread like a flood to the entire United States. He reminds me of my father.

Michelle: He reminds me of my grandfather.

Jill: Yeah. My sister had a visceral response to the way his mouth moves. It was a double-whammy. [She pauses, visibly collecting her emotions]

Michelle: Would you use the word anger?

Jill: I was furious. And I mean, it’s so typical of my generation, I was just unable to function. At first I was in despair. I really couldn’t even sleep, and then Katie, my daughter, said, “I know what is happening to you and I’ve got a plan.” This was two days after the election. Her plan was to get together in Washington DC, because she’d heard there was a group of people starting to form a march to fight back. She said, “I’ve already booked an Airbnb for you and me and Sienna. And I’m taking you there,” so, through these plans, in all these ways, she provided a way for me to be angry, and she’s responsible because of that, you know, for me putting my feet on the ground and doing what I hate most. Knocking on doors and talking to people [referring to her work as a canvasser]. Any way, on election night, I didn’t believe it. I was, you know, what are the stages of grief after death? I was denial, anger, bargaining.. I went through all the stages and I’m still angry. I’m so angry. I’m so angry, I don’t dare talk about it. Because it feels so...intense. I’m REALLY angry, and I hate him, Trump, I hate him and what he stands for. And I hate that a woman who is as smart and well-educated and experienced and wise, the best of the best, was done in by the likes of a man like that.


Michelle Dowd