My Sexually Liberated Grandmother, Myself
At 58, Julia Lee Barclay Morton recalls the woman who taught her to be the guardian of her own soul.
My grandmother, Jani Mace, died too young at age 63 of lung cancer in 1980, after crashing out of three violent marriages and becoming an independent feminist editorial writer and high-school teacher in her 50s. The year before she died she was writing about sex after 60 and describing her preferred lovers in their 40s. In 1979 this was literally unheard of, so even though she submitted the essay to Playboy (because there would have been no other publication she could have submitted this to at the time), it was of course not published.
Reading over her essay, I think the rejection may have had as much to do with her demand of a certain kind of performance from men, as with her proud description of her "two towel orgasms," "both clitoral and vaginal!" In 1979, at 62, it was a radical act for her to demand sexual enjoyment—which I know first hand she fulfilled, having walked in on her by accident one summer at a cottage in Maine, me age 13, and her 60, lying naked on a bed with a man with long blonde hair with his face in her crotch. While I was woefully ignorant of sex at the time I barged in on her, I did get the basic drift, thanks to the fact that one of the books on the cottage shelf alongside old detective novels and jigsaw puzzles with pieces missing was Our Bodies, Our Selves, a saving grace for women of all ages needing to understand bodies no one described except in cloaked and confusing terminology.
The year before she died my grandmother was writing about sex after 60 and describing her preferred lovers in their 40s.
She credits in her essay the young women of the feminist movement in the 70s for her enlightenment, though she also rightly says even this movement for sexual liberation was considered only relevant to young women.
She was not going after anyone's college age sons, quite clear that choosing anyone younger than in their 40s was "unseemly", because she did not want to be mistaken for someone's mother or client. The primary things she asserts over and over again are her agency and personhood, and her insistence on sexual pleasure. She also says she is not after anyone's husbands, which is not strictly true, since most of the lovers she corresponded with at the time were in fact married. What she meant was, she did not want them to leave their wives, because she had no interest in being married again. However, in those letters, she does plea for more attention, especially from the one man she does not manage to seduce. So her statements in the essay are a bit more fronting than reality.
I have in the past been critical and frankly frustrated by this tendency of hers to self-inflate, but when I look at what she was facing, I also think: how else could she have managed? The world had been beating her down since she was young, and even so she earned a teaching degree in the midst of her third and most abusive marriage, walked out one day, moved half way across the country, found work as a teacher of remedial reading in inner city Milwaukee, bought her own house in the city, and became a feminist activist who fought passionately for her students. At her memorial, one of her students who was my age, came up to speak and started crying because she said she did not know who would fight for her now. I cried, too. While Jani was a beacon for me, she was a rock for others who had no one else in the public school system who gave a shit. Not only did she teach reading, she also taught much needed sex education class to girls. She somehow managed to get this class approved through a maze of paperwork, hostility and indifference.
In 1979, at 62, it was a radical act for her to demand sexual enjoyment—which I know first hand she fulfilled, having walked in on her by accident one summer at a cottage in Maine, me age 13, and her 60, lying naked on a bed with a man with long blonde hair with his face in her crotch.
When she was 58 (my age now), Jani single-handedly spearheaded a successful campaign to change the rape laws in Wisconsin, after a man made the mistake of trying to rape her on her doorstep. She told me, age 11, in detail how she defended herself: "He tried to strangle me with a plastic string. I kicked him in the shin and turned around and scratched his face with his keys and he ran off." This story is emblazoned in my mind as my strategy if ever this should happen to me.
She discovered after this incident that attempted rape was considered a misdemeanor and the police were not inclined to even look for the man—even though a man not yet apprehended had raped and killed women in Milwaukee using the same tactics. She called the Mayor to yell at him and said the law had to change. Within a year it had, thanks to her efforts. So perhaps a little self-promotion can be forgiven.
Her writing about sex is also rife with prejudices against older men, but again, considering her history of abuse, perhaps this too can be forgiven.
In the essay draft, she cuts references to three miscarriages and two abortions. Even in the late 1970s, even by Jani Mace, this was considered too much. But she does include the following section about the younger feminists who lifted her up in her fifties, when she was divorced for the third time and finally knowing she could live on her own:
The world had been beating her down since she was young, and even so she earned a teaching degree in the midst of her third and most abusive marriage, walked out one day, moved half way across the country, found work as a teacher of remedial reading in inner city Milwaukee, bought her own house in the city, and became a feminist activist who fought passionately for her students.
"My experience in a CR [consciousness raising] group for the first time exposed me to women as friends. It also provided me with the knowledge that I was not some kind of latent nymphomaniac, and washed away years of guilt over my divorces…
"They were supportive of my love affairs and became my personal claque. I guess they figured that if I could achieve sexual parity at my age, there was hope for them when they were beyond their fertile years. It was a new kind of ‘right’ to add to their lexicon. I'm not sure otherwise what I was to them, except the voice of experience, a role model. To me they were angels of light. They healed the bullet wounds, even though the sight of my own blood still frightens me if the scar tissue is lifted, and there are times it still is."
Both the pride and vulnerability of her writing is what slays me. She goes on to write about romance and sex, and how she doesn't want to see anyone in the morning. The writing is funny and boastful, and the portrait of someone having a really good time. Of course that was not always the case, but given the fact that in 1979 a woman was writing proudly about having really good sex with multiple younger lovers while living independently at age 62 is kind of amazing.
In another essay she wrote two months later about growing older, she recounts an experience she had when in the middle of drafting her first novel in an isolated farmhouse in Door County, Wisconsin. While she never told me this story, it was her capacity for this kind of complex creative-emotional insight that I cherish most as her legacy:
"Late one afternoon, while reading some previously written chapters, I heard an agonizing scream that seared my soul. I sat rigid. It had to be me! There was no one else there.
"I ran out the door and scrabbled my way up a rocky cliff. At the top I threw myself on the ground and screamed and sobbed into the hot grass for over two hours. I hadn't wept tears like that in a whole lifetime. I am not a weeper.
"Shaking and half-blind, I finally returned to the solace of the little house. My hands and knees and bare feet were raw and bleeding.
"For many nights after that, I was wary of unseen fears I imagined coiled like snakes in dark corners waiting to sink their fangs into me. They never did and my apprehension gradually subsided.
"A marvelous peace grew in its place as I faced what this book was all about. Me.
"I made a determination. Nothing would ever lie buried in the center of me to rise and strike me down with such ferocity…
"I have become protective of my nexus…my essential core…I'm building the ‘room of my own’ that will see me through the physical aging process."
When she was 58 (my age now), Jani single-handedly spearheaded a successful campaign to change the rape laws in Wisconsin, after a man made the mistake of trying to rape her on her doorstep.
A month after writing this, Jani was diagnosed with lung cancer. At 16, I spent the last summer of her life with her at a cottage on an island in Maine, where we were in some essential ways taking care of each other. She had always scared me, but that summer, she was quieter, and we connected over a common love of Theodore Roethke and theater. She had previously been dismissive of my desire to be an artist because she thought I was supposed to be a physicist, to wave the feminist flag for women in science. She screamed at me on the phone when I had quit my trigonometry class. But facing her own death, she saw her writing had been the key to her own salvation. She told me how she had won a scholarship to Hunter College to study acting when she was 18 but her parents made her turn it down and go to the local University of Toledo in 1934. The irony being that is where she met a man many years her senior who got her pregnant and became her first reluctant husband.
This moral of this story: a woman following her desires, whether creative or sexual, is safer than one who stifles them whether of her own or others' volition. In attempting to conform to the norms, one is vulnerable to all forms of manipulation. To have been taught this lesson over fresh-picked blueberry muffins in the kitchen of a hundred year old cottage on the Atlantic Ocean at age 16 in 1979 was no small thing.
When Jani died the following February, I knew her soul entered my body, because I shifted dramatically from a painfully shy, introverted 16-year-old into a much bolder theater director and political activist. I also inherited a lot of her flaws and challenges, including alcoholism, but—imbued with the same survivor spirit she displayed—I found recovery when I was 23 and have been sober for 35 years. She never stopped drinking, but she did get herself off all manner of horrible prescription benzos, the proverbial “mother's little helpers” of the 1950s and 1960s, used to keep uppity women calm and compliant.
This moral of this story: a woman following her desires, whether creative or sexual, is safer than one who stifles them whether of her own or others' volition.
Growing up I heard her and my mother speak when she visited, either because I was sitting with them or overhearing them, and because of that, I learned my body was my own and my life was my own responsibility, that men were not to be trusted, like ever, even if they were sexually desirable. (This was open conversation in my household, embarrassing me no end at the time.) And basically: you have to work out your own salvation.
This is all considered pretty basic now, I suppose, but at the time it was radical. No other girls I knew had mothers, never mind grandmothers, who said such things or had a basic expectation that their daughters should be great somehow. Jani and my mother were a little concerned about me because I was clueless about sex and men and terrified of the subject in general, both of them unaware that perhaps their wine-soaked late night confessionals were part of why I was scared. While they themselves were still playing out old scripts even as they tried to write new ones, and while this left me hopelessly confused in some fundamental ways, I am grateful for their modeling of a life outside the one being shown in every magazine and movie and book at the time: a woman's happiness could only be found with a man. This may seem like an exaggeration, but if you go back to the popular culture of the 1960s and 70s, you will see this. Feminism was beginning to be heard, but was still considered “shrill” and “man-hating.” You could be a feminist, but only if you did not want to be desirable. Your desires could be for other women, but then you were branded a “dyke.” You could definitely not be considered part of the regular world.
But what Jani and my mother both showed me, even with their imperfections, is that the regular world for women was a bad joke. Even if they were not sure precisely how to climb out of all the conditioning, they knew another world was possible.
We owe women like them a lot. Including our post-menopausal sex lives, a basic awareness of our humanity, and an understanding we are the guardians of our own souls.