THE AGE OF FABULOUS WOMEN
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Back when I was in high school, women didn't play sports, although we were allowed to swim. So now I watch with awe and joy as those young Olympic women fly into the air on snowboards, turn somersaults on skis, or race down silvery ice on thighs as powerful as steel girders, or shoot and ski and race and pant and sweat and win and lose in front of the entire world. Yes, I keeping thinking, we have finally entered the age of fabulous women.
It's not only in the Olympics that we are seeing this fabulousness. The New York stage happens to be full of it -- fabulous women reveling in their own fabulous lives. Last year, for example, in New York I saw the prize-winning "The Syringa Tree," a fascinating one-woman show written and performed by Pamela Gien.
The theater, a tiny jewel box located on the Upper East Side, was so new to me that I had to call the TransitAuthority to get bus directions. The play is set in Johannesburg, South Africa. It begins in 1963, in the early days of apartheid, when the heroine, Elizabeth, is six years old. Gien, barefooted and slender in a full-skirted dress, is the high-spirited Elizabeth, taking a spellbound audience through her experiences as the daughter of a white doctor who treated blacks when it was dangerous to do so, through the struggle to end apartheid, through to her maturity.
After the play, I was still so spellbound that I forgot all about the buses and walked 45 blocks back to the apartment where I was staying.
Just a few months ago, I went back to New York to see another fabulous woman in a one-woman show. Elaine Stritch was playing at the Papp Theater then (she has since moved to Broadway), and all the tickets had been sold out months before. Determined, my cousin and I sat in the theater lobby from 2 p.m. until 7:40, when two tickets finally became available.
Then we grabbed a much-needed sandwich and allowed ourselves to betransported by the witty, rueful and wry Stritch as she talked and sangabout her experiences in the American theater. (These experiences included dating Marlon Brando and still keeping her virginity, serious drinking problems, and introducing incomparable Stephen Sondheim songs to the world.)
Another fabulous diva whose work I've loved for years, Bea Arthur, is on Broadway now doing her own one-woman show, so I'll be going back to New York soon. And the marvelous Anne Bancroft opens Sunday in Edward Albee's new play about the dramatic sculptor Louise Nevelson.
Meanwhile, HBO this week gave us another fabulous woman, Eve Ensler. Her "The Vagina Monologues" has played all over the world, but nowwe can see at home an entire play built around a word we certainly didn'tspeak out loud when I was a girl.
The fiercely intelligent and entertaining Ensler spent years interviewing and collecting stories from women all over the world, then created character-driven monologues about their experiences with love and childbirth and rape and loneliness and adventure. Her work has now been turned into a world-wide movement to stop violence against women.
And speaking of fabulous women in show business, my 84-year-old mother called on Sunday to tell me how her latest play is going, down ather Florida condominium. This is her 26th musical, I believe, one she wrote and is now directing and choreographing.
According to her, the clubhouse is filled with people painting sets, practicing dances, and building props. Between the performers, the backstage people and the audience, over 1,000 people get involved in these shows every year. My mother struggled all of her life to reconcile marriage and children -- the only real option she had when she was a girl -- with her love of musical theater. Maybe that's why, when Betty Friedan came along with "The Feminine Mystique," I was predisposed to leave my early marriageand "become the man I wanted to marry."
In the rush of second-wave feminism, some women started magazines,others went back to school and started careers, and still others foundedorganizations that helped other women. I was different; I took to the roadfor a life of adventure. It turned out that the man I wanted to marry wasJack Kerouac. Who knew?
Thanks to the radical, terrifying, heretical idea that women can do whatever they want, we got the precious Title IX, which mandated sports for women in schools. More than anything else, it has led to what we see now atthe Olympics.
We also got female corporate executives, female journalists covering the war in Afghanistan, women like Oprah and Martha Stewart who have built financial empires around their own interests and personalities, Rosie O'Donnell finally coming out, Hillary Clinton going out on her own,civil unions, and many other things, some good, some not.
Of course there have been steps backward, too, such as First Steppford Wife Laura Bush, and those tacky retro ice dancers in their expensively tattered clothes. The number of women leading Fortune 500 companies is still in the single digits, and women in other male-dominated fields are still having a hard time. The working world is unkind to people who want to parent. The military is trying, but it's not entirelyreconciled to women in traditional male roles. We may have a long way to go, baby, but in my lifetime I've seen women become a normal and accepted part of the greater American culture, achieving fabulousness on their own and being rewarded for it. There aren't as many firsts as there used to be, although Tuesday night, we watched the first black athlete ever to win gold at a winter Olympics -- a woman on a bobsled, no less.
It all makes me very, very happy.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes aboutculture, politics, economics and travel.