Ruth Pennebaker

“If We Don’t Speak Up, Others Will Speak For Us.”

Interviewed by VFA member, Suzanne Tuckey, March 2022

ST:  We are here today to talk about your story with the focus on the women’s movement second wave, which is roughly considered between the years of 1965 and 1982. I’d love to hear your story during that time, your experiences and then also your thoughts around it. But then also go beyond that and hear more about you, your earlier life, how you see your earlier experiences and what really influenced you, and then shift to later years.

How things have been evolving, because we’ve come quite a way since the 60’s and 70’s, how things have been evolving since then, especially around the women’s movement, women’s rights, and your thoughts about where we are today, especially with a lot of the recent things in the news.

Right now, we’re sitting here in March of 2022. We’ll probably have people watching this these days or years after now, who weren’t even alive during that era. Your story is very valuable. I will allow you to introduce yourself, by saying your story during that period, the 60’s and 70’s, like where you were and what you were doing and what your thoughts were around that time.

RP:  Wow. The 60’s and 70’s. All of a sudden that’s a long time ago. It seems so recent. And then I recall it’s been 60 years. Good grief. In the 60’s, I graduated from high school, I went off to college. I wore mini-skirts and applied makeup with a trowel, basically. I had no real plan, to simply go to college at that point. I spent two years at Texas Tech University, where occasionally hippies would demonstrate and then the cowboys would come and beat them up. And that was considered to be progress.

In the meantime, a friend of mine told me she’d gone to a women’s liberation movement [gathering]. It was like the most radical thing I ever heard in my life. It turned out there were seven women or girls, they would have called themselves, who went to that and talked about women’s roles in society. It was just kind of an outlier in my life. It was something I knew about, but nothing I focused on terribly, because I had been brought up to be compliant, to please other people, to be some sad flower of southern womanhood or something, which I was never very good at, but I did try.

I ended up at a hippie college in Florida with my then boyfriend, whom I’ve now been married to for 49 years, which is kind of a long time also, in retrospect. I graduated in Comparative Literature, and then worked as a legal secretary. The year I worked as a secretary was really important to me. It taught me how people treat you when you’re not important. And that’s something I never want to forget. It’s so important to have experiences like that, in jobs like that, where I wouldn’t say you see the world from the bottom up, but you see it from a very different perspective.

I ended up going to law school at the University of Texas from ’73, getting out in ’76, and in some ways was really transformed by that. I did not end up practicing law, except for a couple of years. But going to law school, I’d never really taken my intellect seriously. I think when you’re young and kind of a good-looking woman, nobody else takes it very seriously. All of a sudden, I was a law student. I had a certain status in the world that I absolutely loved. I could tell people looked at me differently, that perhaps I had substance.

I spent three years in law school. I worked my butt off. It was a different world. I did very well in law school, which is what was very important to me at the time. I ended up just dropping it all a couple of years later and becoming a writer. But I’ve never regretted those years. Going to law school and doing well made me feel I could do anything.

We moved to Charlottesville, Virginia. There were many jobs there, and I became obsessed with The Washington Post and writing for it and started sending in essays that were published. I decided, well, that’s going to be easy. I just quit my job, which was tremendously naïve, but necessary for my mental health, and became a writer. My husband and I got married in ’72. I have since then worked for newspapers, written for newspapers and magazines, have written novels.

Over these years I had a growing awareness of what a disadvantage women were at, and how much I resented it and how wrong it was. I’m not a joiner. I was not in any particular women’s group, although again, harkening back to law school, we were 18% women in my class, the class of ’76. And even though no one would have called it that, it was its own kind of feminist group, that we were going to be different, that we would not have to live the lives our mothers did.

All I can tell you is those were very busy professional years when I working like crazy and developing a voice as a writer and very ambitious and was being published again in The Washington Post and The New York Times. Just feeling this capacity I had that this was what I wanted to.

ST:  Which is wonderful. One of the things that I read that you wrote is, you felt when you identify with the women’s movement and being an advocate for women, you felt like it was coming out within your writing. I’d love to hear more about that.

RP:  Exactly. I’m trying to think because I wrote so many things those years. But also remember at that time there were not that many women journalists or women writers who were being taken seriously. Actually, even the act of sending something out and having it accepted or rejected was a big step forward. Finally, women were speaking and were being listened to. Whether I knew it or not at the time, I was a part of that.

I think looking at women differently and women looking at themselves differently, that we had some kind of future that we could create ourselves, that we did not have to live through other people, through husbands and children. We began having children after we’d been married almost ten years and had two children, a daughter and a son. From the beginning, I was determined I would work, I would go ahead with my life.

Motherhood really scared me because I’d seen women of my mother’s generation. I’d seen my own mother who never had a life to herself, who never sought out anything because she wanted to do it. And having grown up with a mother who was very depressed, somehow, and this was probably an oversimplification, but I thought that she never had something that was hers, some kind of profession, some kind of passion, and that made it all the more important to me that I had to pursue that. I know this sounds terrible, but I didn’t want to be my mother.

ST:  You’re describing the 60’s and 70’s, such a time of transition where you’re going to law school and you’re working as a writer, even if you’re not aware of it there was a form of advocacy almost.

RP:  And assuming you had something to say that would be of interest to other people. It’s an act of ego to send out writing.

ST:  That’s wonderful. You started speaking about your mother. Obviously, that was a huge influence for you. Anything else that you want to reflect on as far as where you came from, how you grew up, where you lived, and then the influences like your mother. It sounds like your mother was a significant one.

RP:  It was a very significant one, which reminds me of something I didn’t mention. My first two years of college I happened across the book by Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, and I read it and I felt I had found a secret to my mother’s distress, which was she did not have an independent life, that others were dependent on her and she on them. But there was nothing for her in this world.

I remember going back and talking to my mother about it. I was very excited. I found what was the source of her problems. And she was furious at me. Of course, in retrospect, I understand why she was furious. I told her essentially everything she had done in her life had been wrong, had been harmful to her. It’s the kind of thing you do when you’re 19 and you think you have all the answers. I guess in a way, I was discovering my own answers and not any answers that would be a benefit to my mother.

ST:  After you have that original conversation with your mom in years after that, did you continue to talk about that, or did it just kind of go quiet after that?

RP:  No, we could not talk about that. I knew that she regarded me as a kind of failure in her world, beginning with the fact I was not a sorority girl. That was a big problem. I’d never been popular, and that was even worse, but also because I married but I really didn’t do all the traditional female things. I was always a horrible cook, and I never liked it. My husband and I both cooked.

Then once we had children, I didn’t want to be derailed from my life. That’s one thing I tried to be very clear with my husband about it. I would never stay at home with children because and again, this is rather simplistic reasoning, I saw what I thought it had done to my mother, and I could never risk that. Also, I could never give up something I cared about as much as my writing. I knew that would ruin me as a human being.

ST:  One of the things that’s so valuable for folks that will be listening to this, especially years down the road, but even a lot of people today that weren’t alive during that time, is painting that picture of what it was like during that era, and you’re doing that so well. Then you got married during that time, too. Anything you can say about what it was like at that time, a significant social change is valuable. How it went with your husband and everything. You guys have been married for a long, long time, so I guess it was okay.

RP:  Yes. But I do think in spite of all my resolve and ambition, things change once you have children. They just do. It’s fairly simple to start out with feminist ideals before you’re married and when your childless. Pushing that through at a certain level is incredibly difficult. And I don’t think I always did it. I always worked, but it was not as equal as I would have wanted it. And it’s also not as equal as the marriage I see with my daughter and her husband. But they have [moved] beyond us.

ST:  This is what’s so valuable, though, because now we’re thinking about all of the years since the 60’s and 70’s and all of your years of being married and I would love to hear actually a little more about that. In what way the realities of having children and how it worked out. Things aren’t perfect, but how all that was for you through the years and seeing the younger generation. I’d love to hear more about that.

RP:  That’s funny. Our kids were always in good daycare, and that was such a tough subject then. I remember when I came back from maternity leave, although I didn’t have maternity leave, I was on disability, which showed you what the workplace thought of the pregnancy. I came back. I wrote a piece about what women did with children in our small town of Charlottesville, Virginia.

I had three mothers who stayed at home and were full time mothers, and everything was just great with them. Then three other mothers who had children and went back to work, and they were doing just great, too. It was probably the most boring article I’ve ever written in my life. It was so balanced and so striving to be overly fair to everyone. So here was this namby-pamby article that went out there.

First there were the broadsides, after a few days from women who stayed at home and were making fun of the women who went back to work, thereby neglecting their children and putting themselves before their families and have careers and how materialistic they must be. That was the first onslaught.

Then the second onslaught of women saying they were working because they had to put food on the table because there would not be enough if they didn’t work. It was a very pragmatic approach to work, but it was equally passionate of saying they had no real choice. Of course, they went back to work, they had to make ends meet.

It was amazing to me, the blame and the passion behind both sides that they or we were blaming one another for a system that was really stacked against us. Of course, back then we didn’t realize that, but also because my reasons for working, I could work for money, certainly we needed money, but I really felt this passion for writing that were I to put it on the back burner for a while, that I would suffer and I could not give it up.

ST:  Which is speaking beyond the, “I need to work for money.” About what year was that you wrote that piece?

RP:  I know what year it was. Our daughter was born in 1982.

ST:  If you were to write that same article today, how would that be different? Because you’ve lived a lot, you’ve learned a lot, you’ve become more wise in this time.

RP:  The sad thing is, I spent time with my daughter and her friends, all of whom are professionals and mothers, and I swear the same shit still goes on. They are scrambling, and these are young women of means who have the money for good daycare. They don’t have to worry about substandard facilities or teachers. But it’s still more on women. Women still feel guilty about it. No matter what they do. They feel guilty. If they go to work, they’re neglecting their children. If they stay at home, they’re neglecting their own potential.

ST:  It was kind of a track almost. Still this strong cultural message that the women are the nurturers, the caretakers, and it’s primarily their responsibility. But then also this message of being a professional and contributing in that way.

RP:  Yes, and those messages really inhibit us. It’s not as if we have that much control over them. All of us have been culturally conditioned for all the decades of our lives that this is who we should be.

ST:  Yes. One of the things I was thinking about with this talk was what are the things left undone from that era? And you’re speaking to a lot of that.

RP:  What’s left undone? I’d say everything. Goodbye Roe v Wade.

ST:  Exactly. We are sitting here in Texas now. I know you’ve been in Texas a long time now. Texas is so much in the news lately. Sitting here at 2022, we have anti-abortion rights laws all over the country. Texas is in the news more than any with our recent six-week abortion ban that was allowed to stay in effect by the U.S. Supreme Court.

We have the U.S. Supreme Court that in a matter of months is going to be ruling on the Mississippi 15-week ban. So curious to hear your story, your thoughts on that, especially now that you’ve lived in Texas a long time. If you think Texas is similar or different from others and what the role of Texas is, but also just that trend around the country, that’s so much against abortion rights.

RP:  I am a Texan, but sometimes I am a Texan in spite of myself. I have never been as angry at the so-called leadership. And as I wrote in my op-ed piece for The Washington Post, I struggled to think what did these men, and the legislators are mostly male, what do they think of women? Do they hate us? I really sometimes wonder about it. I think actually the more accurate statement would be we’re just negligible to them and our lives don’t matter that much.

ST:  This was true back then, and it’s true today.

RP:  It is. Believe me, anyone who goes around with a uterus, knows how much we are controlled by our bodies, how we live in fear of getting pregnant when we’re teenagers. Then if we can’t get pregnant, that’s the problem. Menstruation, which, of course, we never talked about, this horrible forbidden topic that I’m thrilled young women are starting to talk about. And then menopause, which in some people’s eyes means we’re just over the hill and useless to anyone.

But they’re all kind of subjects of shame. And we had to do them perfectly. And if you get pregnant out of wedlock, you’re a slut. That word wedlock still comes up now and then. And if you can’t have children, you’re not a real woman. I mean, what bullshit. But we have inhaled that our entire lives. That’s what we grew up with.

ST:  Right. You’re speaking to the things that haven’t changed. One of the things that you mentioned in that Washington Post piece you wrote recently was you were wondering if back in the 60’s and 70’s era, if more women had spoken up about their stories, if more women had their stories out there, you were questioning how would it be different today? Maybe it would have made a difference.

RP:  Would anyone have cared? It was like the struggle to go to work and how hard it was to get kids up and fed and dressed and off to daycare and then going to work yourself, trying not to look too disheveled and sleep-deprived. How difficult that was.

But especially for the first women who went back into the workplace, my generation, we were never to complain about it. It was simply something we had to get through if we were ambitious. I never had photos of my kids. I never talked about them a lot, because that would be implicitly saying that you weren’t devoted to your job and you weren’t as good as a man who, of course, never had those problems.

ST:  Sort of restricting you from being the full person you are with all of those parts of life.

RP:  Well, to being dedicated to the work life.

ST:  With all of the laws that are sweeping the country, that are banning abortions in various ways or restricting access, all kinds of things. And when you just think of the last 50 years, often I wonder, are we going backwards?

RP:  Definitely we’re going backwards and kind of at a quick rate, as a matter of fact. What makes me so angry is similar to daycare, we are talking economics and class. We are talking about on the backs of the poor who can’t afford abortions or good daycare. My daughter and her daughter will always have the means to secure an abortion, if necessary. But that is not at all true for women with tougher financial situations, which is horrifying to me. And don’t forget, one of the most horrific and cynical parts of the Texas law is that anyone can turn someone in.

ST:  Anyone can file a lawsuit against anyone that has anything to do with supporting someone having an abortion.

RP:  Upending the legal system, because in all of history, you have to have standing, you have to have skin in the game and injury to yourself before you can bring a lawsuit. These are casual bystanders who want to mess with your lives. It’s the gratuitous cruelty that infuriates me and also just continues to puzzle me.

ST:  I keep thinking of you in that you had just gotten married right at the time of the Roe versus Wade decision. You probably have a lot of personal stories, your own or others. Pre and post Roe versus Wade.

RP:  The fact that women have not traditionally talked about abortion, which is one reason I felt I had to write that op-ed, because if I don’t speak out, I’m 72, I’m not in the workplace now. I’m financially comfortable. If I don’t speak out, who will? And we have all been shamed into silence over it.

ST:  Anything you want to say about your own story?

RP:  I look back, there was never any other decision. We were newly married. I don’t think our marriage could have sustained having a child at that point. I was in my first year of law school and very committed to it at that point. We drove to San Antonio and had safe, legal abortion. I cried on the way back. It is not a small decision. It’s an enormous decision. I know of no woman who ever has done it like, easy. I think partly because we haven’t spoken up, a certain mythology has grown up around it.

My husband and I were at a dinner party in Dallas. This would have been in the early 90’s with a neighbor down the street who was a district court judge for the State of Texas. And he opined in this loud voice of, well, he’d heard no woman who had an abortion, didn’t feel guilty, didn’t feel terrible about it.

And just sitting there, it was another time when if I didn’t speak up, who did? And he said, I’ve never met a woman who had an abortion who didn’t regret it. And I said in this loud voice, “Well, you have now,” and damn it, we have to do that. If we don’t speak loud, others will speak for us, and that will become the mythology that defines what the laws are.

ST:  You have been a writer for many years. You’ve published a number of different books. And you mentioned in your Washington Post piece also that a lot of your books feature the stories of women, and a lot of your perspectives have come out through that. Do you see in your own writing how you’ve evolved through the years, especially when it relates to women and their lives?

RP:  That’s funny. Actually, what I see is I’m a little more tired these days, that the old stories, the old tropes, have not gone away as swiftly as we thought they would.

ST:  And that comes out in your writing?

RP:  I would think a certain world weariness, yes. I mean, are we still talking about this? Are you kidding me? Am I still marching in pro-choice marches, which I used to do with my daughter and son and my daughter is now grown. She just turned 40, and she has her own very strong feminist perspective and a daughter of her own.

I do see hope in the younger generation. I’m tired of hearing any complaints about millennials because I think they’re wonderful, but they didn’t have our same experiences. So of course, they’re different.

ST:  You see hope in the younger generations. In many ways, we haven’t come that far. But then you do still see hope for the future in the younger people.

RP:  It’s like talking about civil rights. I tell my children. I can recall still seeing “colored” bathrooms, in the 1950’s and 1960’s in Texas. It was something we grew up with and it no longer exists and it’s wonderful that it doesn’t exist. But I don’t think we can comfort ourselves too much because so much bias is very subtle. Things we are not even aware of. And no, we haven’t come far enough for women, for gays, for Blacks, for Asians. No.

ST:  Another thing that’s in the news lately was the Equal Rights Amendment. There’s this debate currently in the news about whether it can become published as an amendment to the Constitution, the Equal Rights Amendment that will assure equal rights for women. A lot of constitutional scholars say that the deadline isn’t part of the text, so it shouldn’t be the driver.

RP:  Look at the Supreme Court we have.

ST:  Even though it is in a sense an accomplishment getting those last three ratifications, it’s still very much an uphill battle.

RP:  Exactly. And of course, that was derailed by a woman, Phyllis Schlafly. The old bat from hell as far as I’m concerned. Women can do one another great damage.

ST:  Any other kind of wisdom from what you’ve learned that you want to share as we wrap up?

RP:  I’d like to think as you age, you begin to comfort yourself. I’m wiser than I used to be, and I do think that’s true. I abide by that wisdom about women. It’s very interesting. In spite of all the barriers and difficulties, I have enormous pride in being a woman, which I do believe I’ve passed on to my daughter. In our family, we had an equal sex distribution. We had one daughter and one son.

I used to try to explain to my husband and son that even though it was harder to be a woman than it is to be a man, we wouldn’t trade it for anything. I know who came up with penis envy. It was Sigmund Freud. I’m sorry. No, I don’t think so. I think being a woman, perhaps because of all our problems, is a much richer, more fascinating emotional experience. And also, the comfort and importance of good women friends is so vital.

I don’t see men as having those assets. Of course, they have power. What else do they need? But I see their lives as being emotionally impoverished compared with women’s. One of the main things I’m working on is an Instagram project on women and aging called Blue Hour Dames and just looking at the lives of older women when you really do become invisible in a certain way and dealing with that, recognizing it and pushing back.

ST:  Anything else you want to say before we wrap up?

RP:  I’m sure I haven’t covered all kinds of things, but as you can tell, I’m very impassioned about this, but at the same time very hardened because for so long I can recall our daughter going off to college in 2000, and she talked about not wanting to use the word feminist because it meant kind of busty and humorless. And that has changed. I’m so happy about that.

ST:  I always like to wrap up by saying, because we’re reflecting on your whole life story and all that you are, all that you’ve done, your perspectives on many things beyond yourself. If you describe your life story in essence, is there a term or a phrase that you would use that personifies who you are?

RP:  A slow awakening. Also, the fact I’m very well aware, no matter the problems we’ve had in my generation, I feel very fortunate to have been part of this Boomer generation when opportunities and expectations for women came to the fore in a way they never were for our mothers. You luck out with such things.