In the sub-basement of the old State, War, and Navy building in Washington, DC, there’s a door with a small, yellowing card next to it reading, in Selectriced letters, “AMERICAN HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION.” (There is, of course, an ongoing debate between the authenticity faction and the archival preservation faction over whether the card ought to be replaced with one made of acid-free paper.) Inside the room is – well, is a lot more dust than there should be, actually, but also an agglomeration of black boxes wired to a console distinguished by its steel heft and Bakelite knobs. There’s a row of lights across the top of it, each with a paper label underneath – 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, and so on – years extending back to the dawn of the republic and forward, with the limited foresight of the original engineers, to 1976. Fortunately, that year – with a special bicentennial appropriation – the AHA was able to add an auxiliary console, carrying the lights forward to the millennium. But no further; nobody works here full time anymore.
The room was built during the war, when the AHA worked with the Office of War Information to construct it. During the heyday of the profession at the middle twentieth century it was manned day and night. An array of antennae on the roof – of another building, for security reasons – connects here. If these mechanical feelers pick up a signal, a lamp on the console begins to blink. In the old days a trained technician would look at the dials above it and determine just what assault was being made on the history of that year, and how intelligent people ought to respond. That was how C. Vann Woodward came to write The Strange Career of Jim Crow, of course, to meet head-on the distortions of history propounded by opponents of desegregation. The room saw most of its use during the war and the Cold War, when National Defense was deemed to require it.
It’s no longer classified, but no longer funded or used either. Occasionally one of the few who still have a key pops in to run a desultory sleeve across the surfaces, and to flip the test switch, which runs through each of the lamps in sequence. Some of them burn out quite frequently – the ones for 1941 and 1861 forever need replacing – and fortunately there’s a generous stock of surplus bulbs, each wrapped in paper and packed in excelsior sometime back during the war mobilization.
I mention it to you now because the light for 1963 has been blinking incessantly for some weeks. This kind of thing happens on an arbitrary anniversary of some momentous occasion – the effusion of ill-informed commentary sets the poor thing off. Normally the dials allow you to pinpoint the occasion and the source of the insult – but this time it’s the whole year that’s awash in ignorance, from all quarters. You see, 1963 brought us the onset of the sixties, proper – so people say, anyway – and we are going to have frowny-faced foot-stamping and po-faced remarks aplenty this year. The March on Washington is going to set off the machinery; so is the John Kennedy assassination. There will be a set of offensively contrarian, but ignorant, “Kennedy is overrated” pieces that will bury the needles.
Just at the moment, the 1963 light is flashing double-time because Kathleen Parker can’t understand the fuss over Betty Friedan’s focus on “the toils of sad, wealthy women.” Here’s the clever part:
Thus, the feminist movement left the station without me — except to the extent, as readers sometimes remind me, that I benefited from the protests of my foremothers. Indeed, I am grateful for the suffragists who thought my vote should be equal to any man’s. And I am thankful that the workplace I entered recognized my value. But the world in which I grew up never suggested otherwise.
Parker moves from noting that “the feminist movement” left her behind, to acknowledging “readers” who remind her that she benefited from it, to thanking “the suffragists” (not those wacky 1960s feminists, no) and noting her gratitude that her workplace recognized her. Then she begins the concluding sentence, saying she did not grow up in a “world” that needed feminism, with a “But.” Parker attributes the woman-friendly parameters of her world to her enlightened widower dad, who cooked and cleaned and brought her up to think women could do whatever they pleased and their abilities warranted (well, except for the “combat exception”). It is to sigh. Parker père, of course, explains the house in which she grew up. But he doesn’t explain the world in which she grew up; for that, she needs to acknowledge feminism and Friedan.
It’s going to be a long year, isn’t it?