I first read Hemingway at college in 1978, an intro course called Modern Existential Literature. The Old Man and the Sea was like looking at an x-ray to see how we are put together. The Sun Also Rises was a look at how we fall apart. It was also a siren’s call: “This way, follow me.”
In spring 1980, I had five hundred bucks, a Eurail Pass and a backpack, and two months in which to see as much of Europe as I could. From Paris, following the characters from Sun, the train took me as far as Bayonne and from there it was thumb out. An old man named Jesus picked me up in a white car and drove me up the mountain to Pamplona. As a boy during the San Fermin festival, he had shaken Hemingway’s hand. When I got out of the car and he shook my hand, I was convinced if not a torch at least a spark had been passed.
“It is my honor to be here, to stand on the shoulders of those who came before,” Kamala Harris, the first female, the first black, the first Asian American Vice-President of the U.S.A. proudly said in her first address to the nation on inauguration day. Her tone is optimistic, her goals are ambitious, and her energy seems unlimited.
It is true, we all are standing on the shoulders of those who came before, all the women who prepared the way for our progress, our achievements. And there has been quite a bit of progress as Carol Dyhouse, a social historian at the University of Sussex, describes in her new book, Love Lives: From Cinderella to Frozen. The title is a bit misleading. Though myths, fairy tales, and popular culture tropes still influence us, Dyhouse outlines how women in the western world have abandoned the restrictions of domestic life since the 1950s and gradually, though often painfully, have claimed access to education and the professional world. A long path it has been to self-determination and economic independence.
But even now the question remains: Have we made enough progress? Because I do worry about “my girls” these days, as Michelle Obama describes them. I worry about “my boys,” too, but this is a blog post to remind ourselves of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month. Both encourage us to reflect on those who came before, but also on those to whom we pass the baton, whose legs we steady on our shoulders.