The bar was packed, every stool occupied. A Lea-sized space was open at the corner between a large black gentleman in a gray Viet Nam Vet sweatshirt and a pasty-faced male in a navy polo. To Navy Polo’s right, a youth with a scraggly red beard and baseball cap hunched over his beer, elbows planted on the bar. Overhead, TV screens blared assorted commercials and sports events as, eager for a glass of water, I slipped in between the men, heedless of the heat of their conversation.
Laying a meaty hand on my arm, the very large vet said, “Young lady, I was just telling these fellas that no man should tell a woman what to do with her body. These guys in Washington are trying to take away women’s rights.” His gaze shifted to Navy Polo. “Hell, you and me, we get into a ‘situation,’ we just walk away. Women? Can’t do that. No, they’re stuck with the problem. I tell my daughters and nieces all the time, ‘don’t you let no man tell you what you should or shouldn’t do.” He gave my arm a little squeeze, and said, “Am I right?”
Before I could answer, Navy Polo said, “I’m not disagreeing with you. I’m just saying, those videos about Planned Parenthood are very disturbing. An organization getting government funding selling fetal parts for profit? Very disturbing.” Red Beard shook his head slowly in dismay and mumbled, "Yeah. Disturbing."
Three pairs of eyes swiveled toward me and waited.
This was not a college coffee house, book group, or Fairfield County cocktail party. This was a neighborhood Bridgeport bar. My husband and our friends were drinking beer, playing darts, and chatting about football; who would have guessed that this unlikely trio would be immersed in a discussion about women’s rights? Not me. I had tucked them into a neat category from the moment I saw them, without even knowing I had.
“Who wouldn’t be disturbed by those videos?” I said. The men nodded thoughtfully, and I wondered what else to say.
For I’ve been thinking about this too. Truly, who wouldn’t be disturbed by those videos? Yet, this conversation occurred before all the follow-up coverage. Before I learned that only 3% of Planned Parenthood’s budget goes to abortions, which are not federally funded anyway. That the vast majority of the organization’s resources go toward women’s health, particularly that of low-income women who would not receive care otherwise. Politicians can claim what they will, but cutting funding to these programs would be an assault on women’s health.
Besides, I’m disturbed by any action by wealthy white men in Congress that might curb women’s rights and, unfortunately, abortion has become inextricably linked to those rights for precisely the reason the meaty vet pointed out. The course of a girl’s life can be irrevocably altered by an ill-advised sex act. Not so for a boy. Men can walk away… and too often, they do.
My mother recently attended a lecture hosted by Planned Parenthood. The presenter spoke of the impact of the pill’s introduction and availability in the fifties. “For the first time, it gave women their freedom. Suddenly, they had a choice in the course of their future. They didn’t have to get married or stay home to care for children if they weren’t ready. They could pursue a career.” My mother’s voice held wonder as she reflected on how recently women had gained some semblance of the self-determination men had always enjoyed. Use of the pill reduces abortions, yet even the pill has opponents.
My concern for women’s rights has been churned still further by media reports of female oppression and images of roiling gatherings of angry men in Middle-Eastern plazas. Not a woman in sight or, if she is, she’s swathed head-to-two in black. What’s wrong with these men? Inflamed beyond self-control by a glimpse of ankle or wrist? And the response is to blame the women: bundle those temptresses in burkas, and flog them if the fabric slips.
Back in the bar, three pairs of eyes were waiting, so onward I plunged.
“I think the issue goes deeper than Planned Parenthood or abortion. Boys need to be taught restraint. From an early age. Why is it always up to the girl? Why must the weight and the worry and the blame rest always with the girl? Young boys need to learn they have a responsibility. Absolutely. They need to learn restraint.”
My companions watched my face and listened intently, then nodded, turned to their beers, and took a swig. Navy Polo said, “That makes more sense than anything else we’ve said tonight.”
The meaty vet asked what I was drinking.
“Water,” I said with a grin.
“Water!” The three men laughed. “You standing here all this time for a glass of water?”
Yes. Also, apparently, although I’d not known this when I walked up to the bar, to crystallize my thoughts on the Planned Parenthood discussion and learn, yet again, not to judge others by appearance.