The Personal is Political, Part II

Jill Benton speaks a Congressional District 39 Unity Celebration on June 23, 2018; photo by Melissa Utsler

Jill Benton speaks a Congressional District 39 Unity Celebration on June 23, 2018; photo by Melissa Utsler

Betty Reid Soskin is the oldest national park ranger in the United States. She began her career as a national park ranger about 10 years ago, when she was 85. When Lisa Congdon asked her what keeps her going to work every day, Betty replied, “My first eight decades were spent collecting dots, and now I’m connecting dots. I’m in what I assume to be my final decade, and so everything I’ve ever learned, I’m using now. I’m still having first time experiences at 95. I feel like an evolving person in an evolving person in an evolving nation in an evolving universe.”

In the continuation of the interview Jill Benton gave me on July 17, 2018, she told me she is a strong introvert, and it takes an enormous amount of energy from her to do advocacy work. She hates canvassing, hates speaking at large events, hates talking to people door to door, but she believes we have a duty as citizens to volunteer our time as activists, to resist the Trump agenda and to advocate for progressive values in our communities. Jill is a private person, who guards her time closely. In a more personal segment of this interview, I asked her about the people she chooses to have in her life, how she manages to say no, and what types of relationships she consciously cultivates:

Jill: In my relationships, I like to be stimulated, and to experience portions of myself I hadn’t known existed. I really, really like sarcasm and wit, and that edge smart people have, engaging you...but you know, I hate jokes. I don’t like anything canned. I like the spontaneity that comes from a smart mind and I like to be challenged mentally…which, you know, doesn’t happen very often...because I’m so smart (she laughs).

Michelle: I can see you found a smart man…

Jill: Oh yes, Al is so, so smart. I can’t get over how lucky I am.

Michelle: Do you feel he was an asset to you in your teaching career?

Jill: Oh, certainly. Mostly because he gave me the emotional security to be more myself, and that translated to more courage in the classroom. You know, I’m proud of the time I spent teaching women’s literature classes, and that there came a time when I was doing that where I decided to stop glossing over places in these novels where women were making decisions about their bodies…..there’s usually some sort of pointer to menstruation and that sort of thing and I said this to myself, there are women in this room growing up without having really thought about how they’re going to integrate their careers and their education and their desires for children or not to have children…

Michelle: Yes, you’re the first person who made me think that could be a choice.

Jill: Right. I mean, of all the women professors I knew in my career, I’ve never heard one say they actually wanted children. I mean, many of them had them, but I’m a rare academic who was able to say she wanted to. And I’m lucky to have had the desire. Most of our desire is washed out of us, you know...

Michelle: Yes.

Jill: It’s a huge price, and of course we're not told what we're getting into. I mean, I’m in camp with John Stuart Mill in the middle of the 19th century. If it’s so wonderful to be a mother, why do we force women to be mothers? Wouldn’t they choose to be mothers? On their own? I mean, what woman would really want to traumatize her body with pregnancy…it's just like, horrific, and it was part of my anger in my divorce, the idea that men and women are equal when it comes to children. They’re not. It comes out of our bones, our hair, our’s a gift we give our families and that should be recognized. It’s even a part of the gift I give to Al, being a grandmother, and he recognizes see he’s willing, at 85, to be overrun by toddlers and teenagers, because its hopeful, to be a part of the future…

Michelle: I’ve always recognized, even when I was 18, that your children played a central role in your life.

Jill: I came to love myself because my children loved you, I had never experienced love… I wasn’t loved growing up, even though my family used the word love, and well, I didn’t know how to love. I’m a slightly better grandmother than a mother, because I’m more attentive. Attentiveness is a vital part of love, you know…

Michelle: Yes, you taught me that.

Jill: Yes. But you see, I worry the younger generation won’t have their own inner compass.

Michelle: How does one develop that?

Jill: I don’t know. But I think it goes back, you know, to that relationship between risk and safety. Risk is something I don’t like. You take far more risks than I ever have. Me? I’m quite happy being safe. I had no idea how much I needed safety, until I was in a relationship with Al. My first husband, you know, he wasn’t safe. I mean, certainly my bodily well being was safe and all that, but he didn’t make me feel secure. He likes to keep people off balance. He thrives on that.

Michelle: You weren’t aware of that, until you’d seen the inverse?

Jill: I was too young to be aware that that’s what was happening. I had no idea how much I needed safety. I hadn’t grown up in a safe home. Because, you know, alcoholism doesn’t make for safety, in terms of the turmoil and the blood and the violence and all that. And growing up in the sixties wasn’t a safe place to be, either. There was a lot of experimentation and the sex was, um, well, there was no safe way to be safe in it. You know, I mean, the symbol of wearing a miniskirt, there’s no safety at all in that. You had to manage your legs, with no sense of freedom at all really, it was just a product of the patriarchy. The birth control pill offered freedom, but again, it was a product of the patriarchy, because it meant more freedom for men, and women were much more at risk with their hearts and with their sensibilities.

Michelle: Do you think it’s better now?

Jill: I don’t know. There is a greater awareness of gender identities, but girls are raised so much different now, so prudish. I can see my granddaughters are being raised by mothers who are so devoted, and so on top of these poor kids...this whole generation, they have no access to freedom and they’re not allowed out. They have no freedom to roam. It’s hard to know what their relationship will be with risk as they get older. They’ve never been able to take one….

Michelle: Being in public is always a risk. In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are divided into specific identities with specific costumes to manage the risk.

Jill: Yes. It’s set in the near future, but it’s grounded in our present, you know, it’s lurking right there.

Michelle: Systemic patriarchy makes me angry, but I'm more angry at the normalization of a systemic devaluation of ourselves, that we think blame ourselves. Women are still taught that when assault happens, it’s because we made ourselves susceptible to it. There’s that scene in the Red Center where the handmaids are taught to point their fingers and say, it’s your fault. And then they internalize that, of course. It’s my fault, it’s my fault, it’s my fault.

Jill: But you know, we’re in a bubble, an historical bubble. Women have never had this much freedom, in any culture, ever. Ever. Maybe, I’m told, there was a time in ancient Egypt for women of a certain class, but you saw how long that lasted...and there was a large movement decades before suffrage, and it was done in by the time the civil war started...and then when feminism was mentioned again a century later, in the sixties, it was like the invention of a new idea, like none of it had ever happened. It was just gone. I mean, there were banks run by women in England, and they had their publishing houses in the twenties, but all of it is so fragile. And if we have any sort of crisis, you know, now, the gains we’ve made, the choices women have about balancing work and family and love and public participation, it’s just so fragile. If a bomb drops, we as women will be the first to be folded back into the old order of things. You know, in this administration, it’s all being arranged and set up. The political war is over our bodies. We’re the battleground.

Michelle Dowd