Every now and then, I wish that Elly Peterson were still alive so that we could swap observations about the world in general and politics in particular.
She had just turned 92 when I began work on my book, too old, she readily acknowledged, to be Internet savvy. She relied on a niece to print out e-mail messages from her friends, but still read avidly and watched a steady stream of cable news shows. Still, her strong personality and sense of humor came through in the letters we exchanged, and I got to experience both first-hand during three days of interviews that I conducted with her in 2006.
So I’m imagining the look on her face if I told her that contraception has emerged as a big issue in this year’s Michigan GOP presidential primary. Or, if she discovered that the Virginia General Assembly is now arguing over whether to require women who want an abortion to submit to something called a “transvaginal sonogram.”
First, I’m sure she would say, “A what?” Until I saw the curling iron-sized device on The Daily Show the other night, I might have had a similar reaction. I’ve had a couple of sonograms in my time, but never one as invasive as the one envisioned by the Republicans in the General Assembly, being that I am, ahem, beyond the age of child-bearing.
Peterson grew up in an era when such things were off-limits in polite conversation, not to mention political ads. When I interviewed her, she acknowledged that although she was the daughter of a physician, she had had little knowledge of the facts of life. The experiences she had as an American Red Cross volunteer in England and France during World War II, she noted, had exposed her to some things that were foreign to a girl who had grown up in a small town in south-central Illinois in the first part of the 20th century.
She also came from a world in which a man could still get away with introducing a female political leader like herself by saying, “. . .we hope you will not give us your bra speech as that only covers two points, but instead launch into your girdle speech as that covers everything!” As far as I know, she continued to smile.
Late in her life, she was fed up with the focus on social issues, and race-related issues, when wars were under way and economic concerns needed attention.
That’s why I’m confident that if she had turned on her television set, and discovered we were arguing over transvaginal sonograms, she would have rolled her eyes skyward. Or shaken her head sadly that 40 years after the founding of the National Women’s Political Caucus, and 39 years after the Roe v. Wade decision, we are still fighting the same old battles over access to birth control and a woman’s right to choose.