Some of us are born with a special advantage. Like a poor kid from the ghetto who has uncanny athletic ability. Or a fat girl with a beautiful voice. I was born with an advantage, too, and it’s served me well over the years: white male privilege.
White male privilege got me into a fancy Ivy League college. It won me jobs and social prestige. I can’t say it actually made me money, but that was my own damn fault. It certainly could have, as that is one of the things it was specifically designed to do.
I have never felt the least bit guilty about it, as lack of guilt is another of its most salient characteristics. We white males know that everything bad that happens to other groups is their own fault, not ours. This is particularly true when it comes to women. As I’ve explained over and over to my women friends, they got themselves into their secondary status by not being assertive enough, by trying to make things “nice,” and by insisting that stiletto heels are crucial to their happiness. When it comes to seeking power, they didn’t have the “fire in their bellies”—Richard Nixon’s phrase.
Then one of them ran for president. And she did have fire in her belly. And what happened? White male privilege defeated her, brutally.
To look for answers I decided to take the bull by the horns and go on that women’s march across the Ringling Bridge. I wasn’t expecting much, to be perfectly honest. My first misgivings had to do with the pussy hats. First of all, I do not approve of the way that the word “pussy” has entered the public vocabulary—and because of a presidential election! It’s now OK to say and write it in just about any context. Now, call me a pussy, but I do not think this is somewhere we want to go. It’s upsetting the dignity of our language. I can still recall the furor set off by the arrival of the word “sucks,” as in “Mr. Chatterbox sucks.”
Anyway, back to the hats. It was requested of me, by a close woman friend, that I buy some pink yarn, learn how to knit, and create my own pussy hat to wear during the march, as “Everybody was doing it.” And she wanted me to knit her one, too, because she was too busy “organizing.”
Every man, even the most enlightened, has to draw the line somewhere, and I draw it at knitting pussy hats. Besides, this whole march thing had disaster written all over it. A couple of dozen women would show up, wave their little signs, sing some Joni Mitchell songs, and go off to some café in the Rosemary District and have tea and muffins. I’d go anyway, but just to take notes on what they were doing wrong.
It turns out I was the one who was wrong. The women’s march was an incredible success, and the pussy hats stole the show. There were over 8,000 people, and whatever your politics you have to admit it was one of Sarasota’s greatest public events, ever. I can’t think of another to compare, except maybe for Nik Wallenda’s high wire walk across the very same intersection, or the last biker fest that got so rowdy they’ve been forever banned from Main Street.
The location—the intersection where southbound U.S. 41 meets the turnoff for Longboat Key—is quickly becoming the Hyde Park soap box of Sarasota. Its focal point is the “sailor statue” (Unconditional Surrender) portraying a sailor assaulting a nurse (OK, because we just won a war) and providing a slightly off-key note for the many political events it towers over.
The great advantage here is that you not only have the people who show up with signs as participants, you have everybody who drives by as well. And this is where the fun comes in. Protesters get right up to the edge of the road, and yell and wave at the motorists, who in turn give them a honk and a thumbs up if they approve, and a different digit if they don’t. This gives the event the exciting atmosphere of a TV game show.
And of course there are the poor souls caught in the middle, who stare grimly ahead, refusing to make eye contact. Or the biggest catch—a working man in a company truck. When the Fed Ex guy drove by and gave a friendly toot, a cheer rose that could be heard all over downtown. My favorite touch—the construction workers from the Vue, looking down on all the women. Boy, I would have loved to be a fly on that scaffolding.
It was so much fun putting motorists on the spot that I soon gave up any plan to actually walk over the bridge. Yes, it was a little humiliating, given that scores of old ladies in wheelchairs were making the trip, along with dogs, elderly men with oxygen tanks, babes in arms, and novelist Stephen King. Mr. King made a speech, one of several under the statue, but I was standing way in back and thought he was Ron, the guy who cuts my lawn.
The placards were great—homemade and witty. There were, perhaps, too many pussy jokes, but this kept the focus on reproductive rights, one of the main issues the crowd was there for. I signed a petition to amend the constitution but unfortunately can’t remember how I wanted it amended. I saw many friends, most of whom seemed giddy and exhilarated. There was an amazing number of young lesbians, which led people to comment that they had no idea Sarasota had so many—in a good way, of course, for that was the nature of the afternoon.
Then I went to the antique show at the Municipal Auditorium.
It took a while to get there, as the march, along with a seafood festival at Five Points and an anti-abortion vigil and the farmer’s market, had created a traffic situation that people had never seen the likes of. Every street was gridlocked. For people who complain that downtown is getting too dense, here was convincing proof. From the door of the auditorium you could see an endless expanse of traffic not moving an inch.
Inside, the place was cool,dark and empty. Clearly, the day’s events had conspired to keep people away, and just about the only sound was the hushed conversation of the dealers, wondering where the customers were.
White male privilege is not that important in the antique business. Sure, many dealers are men, but the playing field is pretty level and a smart, ambitious woman can get far, particularly if she has a rich husband. This, coupled with the fact that most buyers are women, meant the atmosphere in the auditorium was, like the march, heavy with estrogen.
I ambled through the aisles, my head still buzzing with goodwill but relieved to be away from the crowds and out of the sun. I saw a booth that featured Murano glass, my favorite, and began perusing a nice selection of birds, vases and clowns. A customer had arrived before me, and I overheard her and the proprietor discussing the march.
“I was there,” I said brightly. The proprietor took one look at me and sidled away, while the customer gave me a hostile stare.
“What are they trying to accomplish?” she said. “Women already have rights.”
That isn’t what I was expecting. “Well, maybe,” I stuttered.
“Why are they acting like this?” Her face was becoming slightly contorted. “He’s our president. He was elected. Don’t they get it?”
“Well, gee,” I said. Was I actually going to have to defend women to this woman?
“Let him rule,” she hissed. “They’re crazy. They’re disrespectful.” She drew herself up to her full height. “And they’re disrupting all the traffic!”
I decided it was time to go home. I put the Murano clown back and made my way to the front door.
She was right about one thing. The cars on the Trail were still there, bumper to bumper. Oh, God, I thought to myself. It’s going to be a long four years.
Maybe I’d better learn how to knit after all.