A retired professor I know, after viewing the recent exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, “Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou,” told me that some of his former, young, female students didn’t understand the in-your-face anger found in the work from the 1970s.

 Historical amnesia, it seems. 

The entire show felt underwhelming. Much of the 1970s portion, with its anger factor, seemed silly in its self-indulgence. Or maybe it felt that way because the work hit home a little too hard and true. I can’t always tell the difference.

Last year’s 40th anniversary of Title IX went by with minimal fanfare.

But in the face of women now OK’d for U.S. military combat roles — a logical extension of the long quest for equal rights — the historical-amnesia part, to the degree it exists, is bothersome. 

Take a look around Queen Anne and Magnolia and see how many business owners and movers and shakers are women. 

It was noteworthy, when Auto Hound opened on Dexter Avenue in 1991, that its president was a woman. A few years ago, when Diane Keller took ownership of Marqueen Garage, it really wasn’t.


Until recently, our governor and two U.S. Senators were women — now we’re two out of three there, too. That fact seems mentionable if you’re working on a history of women’s s suffrage. Otherwise, the real news is: It’s not news. That’s the true measure of progress.

 

The historical perspective

But that progress stands on the shoulders of history, which tells us it hasn’t always been this way. You don’t need to be very old to know this.

It’s been 50 years since Betty Friedan’s seminal “Feminine Mystique,” a book that futurist Alan Toffler said, “pulled the trigger on history.” 

An equally powerful work, “Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the 19th-Century Literary Imagination,” by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, published in 1979, offered a feminist reconsideration of the likes of Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, the Bronte sisters, Emily Dickinson and others. We had lived with these authors and their books for so long, we thought we knew them. Suddenly, we men, anyway, didn’t — though maybe we learned a little more about ourselves.

One of the most electric books you could ever hold in your hands is “Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s’ Feuds,” by Lyndall Gordon.
 Gordon brings to life the poet’s strange domestic drama set in a small-town, patriarchal society, manifested by stern father and stern brother, offset by her sister-in-law, soulmate, North Star and custodian of her poetic legacy, Susan Gilbert.

Dickinson tuned in to the world outside her window: Emily Bronte was her hero. The reclusive poet kept pictures on her wall of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans). These were female geniuses with whom Dickinson had a telepathic receptivity — think of all the buried lives, the lives of quiet desperation, of women who were smarter than the men around them. 

Austin Dickinson gave his wife, Susan, whom he was cheating on, a book called “The Angel in the House,” extolling the ideal of the selfless woman.

Fast forward to the 1970s for an understanding of how feminist anger bubbled over.

Still, art is not all about self-expression, and equality — “Playgirl” as an answer to “Playboy” — does not necessarily equal freedom. Emily Dickinson understood this:

I'm nobody! Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?

Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!

They'd banish us, you know.

 

How dreary to be somebody!

How public, like a frog

To tell your name the livelong day

To an admiring bog!

 

So much for Facebook.

 

Still a long way to go

African-American author James Baldwin once wrote that his people could never be free until white people were free. The same goes for men and women. 

A woman’s right to a role in combat is overdue. But the argument that holding women back from combat inhibits career advancement should give us extreme pause. 

It suggests our moral compass is defunct, and that all of us, men and women, still have a long, long way to go.
 

MIKE DILLON is publisher of the Queen Anne/Magnolia News. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.