My Feminist Aunts

Mary Jane (left...always...*g*) looking her most conventional at Sally & my wedding in 1983
Mary Jane (left...always...*g*) looking her most conventional at Sally & my wedding in 1983
When I was ten my parents got divorced, my mom got involved in politics and the women’s movement, and in the process made new female friends, several of which became close and long-term to the point of becoming a sort of non-genetic extended family. This was particularly important for me, because I was soon plunged into puberty and adolescence, and these women became important role-models and mentors for me – like a preacher, rabbi, guru, teacher, etc. – might be to someone else.

So who were these people that played this important family-like role in my life? There were two in particular…

The first was Mary Jane Shoultz. My mom met Mary Jane when they both were involved in local Ann Arbor Democratic Party politics. Both transitioned from that start point into the women’s movement, with Mary Jane embracing more of the radical separatist side of the movement. Mary Jane and her husband Ray had four kids who became like cousins to me. My mom was always the more politically moderate, more pragmatic activist, ever trying to “be effective”. Mary Jane was more the radical philosopher, determined to be provocative if not always effective. But through her I was exposed to a lot of radical outside-the-box thinking of people like Marshall McLuhan (see “Mechanical Bride” and “The Medium is the Message). Soon after my mom and dad divorced, Mary Jane and her husband Ray did the same.

The second was Carol Crane, who my mom met with her husband Bob in that same circle of Democratic Party and feminist activism. Carol was closer to my mom in her pragmatic activism for equal legal and economic rights for women, working for EEOC (the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission) as an investigator of cases of discrimination against women in he auto industry and other businesses in southeast Michigan. Again, soon after my mom and dad divorced, Carol divorced her husband Bob.

I can remember many times being the only male person in a room full of women, including Mary Jane, Carol and my mom, when Mary Jane would voice some profound critique of men. Then acknowledging me in the room she would grin and say, “Present company accepted of course”. Her eyes would catch mine with a twinkle as if to say, “I challenge you to do something about that someday young man!”

As I learned in my high school Modern Russian History class about the radicals that overthrew the Czar, and began to wrestle with radical activism and profound critiques of our society, Mary Jane seemed like the genuine article – a real radical – to challenge my thinking and dialog with. Through Mary Jane I was first introduced to some ideas that would later become a significant part of my life, including:

* The “medium is the message” and other critiques and under-the-hood analysis of our high-technology society by Marshall McLuhan, her friend and occasional co-collaborator

* The concept of patriarchy and its aspects of male-supremacy, male-identification and male-centeredness

* The “death of literacy” and the idea that my generation – growing up awash in TV (later the Internet) and other electronic media – was in fact “post-literate”, more in sync with the communal acoustic aspects of electronic media than the alienating qualities of “phonetic literacy”.

* A profound critique of public schools and compulsory education – “if it’s mandatory it’s not education”, which I thought was crazy then, but was prescient of my kids’ and my own later experience

* A vegetarian diet and the political implications of this lifestyle

Mary Jane would sometime come to my mom’s parties wearing a maroon monks robe wearing a women’s liberation necklace featuring the women’s symbol with the clenched fist within the circle and spout off about stopping “male literacy” and “patriarchal pimperialism”. Though it might be easy enough to write her off as a whacko, and a fair number of people at my mom’s parties and elsewhere did, she was probably the smartest person I have ever met, and she became my feminist “guru” of sorts to, at times, the consternation of my mom.

She had a flair for the theatrical, provocation and adventure. She initiated our unlikely sojourn to Toronto to see the musical “Hair” (see “Naked in Toronto”). She would buy a six foot submarine sandwich for a party and then serve an oversized banana split for desert, served in a new six-foot section of roof rain gutter filled with a row of half-gallon bricks of different ice cream flavors. Another party icebreaker of hers was to have cardboard boxes, graham crackers, frosting and various gum drops and other candies as construction materials for party participants to build cookie castles and houses.

Mary Jane encouraged my own budding flirtation with radicalism and theater which was an important path forward in my adolescent trying-on of different adult-type personas. Though I threw myself into theater, my own radicalism did not really come to real fruition until ten years later in Los Angeles.

While Mary Jane was the radical-hippy-earth-mother with her monks robe, tofu and cookie castles, Carol was the tailored and focused equal-rights-for-women activist. Carol introduced me to the idea of thinking globally and acting locally. I think she was also the first person to speak the mantra of “be effective”, which became my mom’s as well. She told me about the life of Susan B. Anthony, and how this legendary feminist inspired her own efforts.

A room with the three of them holding court – Mary Jane, Carol and my mom – was a great experience for an adolescent in general and me in particular. They were smart, loving and respectful of young people, and full of energy, agency and a bit of hell as well. Sitting and listening to the three of them discuss history, politics, parenting, or whatever in a feminist context was the closest I ever came to a religious experience. There was a strong system of ethics and belief behind their arguments, regarding equal rights for women and life in a patriarchal society.

I gained a strong ethical framework, which some might call almost religious dogma, from these three bigger than life women, including:

* Respect and solidarity for all people, particularly those people that are marginalized by majority society

* The absolute and fundamental equality of women and their ability to be strong leaders and deep thinkers

* The importance of activism in a democratic society – if you are not part of the solution your part of the problem

* The need to challenge complacency, conventional wisdom and the patriarchal path of least resistance

* The power of education and ideas

Carol died tragically of cancer in the 1980s in the prime of her life. My mom passed away in 2005 after her long bout with dementia. At the time I am writing this book, Mary Jane, I am happy to say, is still with us in both body and spirit, and I continue to relish my regular yearly visit to Ann Arbor to see my hometown and her in it.

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  1. […] classes, playing military simulation board games in dark basements, being schooled in feminism (see “My Feminist Aunts”), plus exploring recreational intoxicants and the magical side of life, I still didn’t know what […]

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