One of my career highlights was meeting, and fitting Gloria Steinem, real life Superhero, the Shatterer of Glass Ceilings, into a new bra. Gloria, along with Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, and other early feminists, fought for equal political, economic, and social rights for women in the 1960’s, and were my first, and most profoundly powerful, role models.
Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique illustrated the frustration and despair of a generation of housewives, many college grads, who felt trapped and unfulfilled in their comfortable suburban lives. My own mother, herself a high school dropout, married late at the age of 27, and suffered from the drudgery of housewifery and motherhood - it just wasn’t the fairy tale she’d expected. Embittered, she wondered, is that all there is?
My crabby mother and chauvinist father fought loudly and often about what a “woman’s place” should be in the world. Dad believed a woman’s place was in the home, and that a man was “the king of his castle.” Children were to be seen and not heard, and the order of the day insofar as parenting was “do as I say, not as I do.”
A woman’s job was to please her man and make him comfortable and happy, and the more Dad demanded Mom obey his dictums, the more vociferous her protests. Even innocent conversations became a battle.
“Hon, I’d like to learn how to drive.” Mom mentioned shortly after we obtained our very first family vehicle, a champagne colored V8 Ford LTD with a black vinyl top, in 1968. It was Dad’s pride and joy.
“Over my dead body,” Dad replied. “Just what the world needs is women on the road. Women don’t drive. Period.”
A few years later, after he dropped dead out of the blue, Mom took driving lessons within 3 months. She passed her road test on the second attempt.
“Take that fuckface!” She stood before the large, ornately framed portrait of him that hung on a wall in the living room, and gave him the finger. “How do you like them apples?”
I knew, at a very young age, that my place would never be at the feet of some man, subservient or submissive. If I were to ever become betrothed, my vows would not include the word “obey”. And I know my dear old dad thought he was being cute when he called me from another room to change the channel on the television, back in the ancient days, when I was the remote control, but something about it irked me too. Did his rules about women also apply to his daughters, and were we doomed to the same fate as Mom? Ugh.
As a Baby Boomer, and the first generation to grow up with television, my daily diet of world news consisted of the Civil Rights movement, Feminism, Women’s Lib, Viet Nam war protesting, sign carrying, dope smoking, peace activist hippies. I was a curious girl, and National Geographic magazine, Star Trek, and Mission Impossible on TV, made me hungry to know more about the world beyond Brooklyn, NY.
I wanted to be more, and do more than just have babies and wash clothes, floors, and dishes. I didn’t understand why everyone said, “Girls can’t do that” when I mentioned wanting to be an astronaut after seeing the first manned space flight, Apollo 7, on TV.
The whole progression of love, marriage, baby carriage, didn’t really appeal to me. All the grown ups I saw seemed miserable, bickering over whether the meat was too well done, or if the shirts had enough starch. Even so-called happy couples sniped at each other over how she poured the coffee, or “use your napkin! Don’t make a mess!.”
I remember my dear old grandmother following Papa around the house, turning off the lights he’d just switched on, or hovering like a helicopter, waiting to empty his ashtray as soon as he flicked an ash from his cigarette into it. I know it drove Papa crazy, and occasionally he would let loose with a “Woman, please, leave me alone!” I didn’t have happy-couple behavior modeled for me, so the feminists’ fight for equal opportunity for women provided a brighter outlook for me and my future.
As the Cuban Missile crisis geared up, and our country became more entrenched in the Cold War, and atomic weapons threatened to annihilate every living thing on Earth, we practiced duck and cover in school, and the world became a terrifying place to me. I didn’t think the world needed more children, especially after hearing my nightly admonishment when I couldn’t finish my supper, “children are starving in China.”
The world sped up, and I believed in the promise of easy communication with Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone, or being beamed to distant galaxies through teleportation as in Star Trek. Most of the TV programs had bad guys fighting good guys, and I was never sure who really won. The good guys always had another fight ahead of them. There didn’t seem to peace anywhere, except maybe inside I Dream of Jeannie’s bottle.
I became self aware in those days, knew that I would not allow myself to be limited by a man’s archaic notion of gender roles. The whole world seemed poised on the cusp of enormous shifts in the cultural, political and sociological zeitgeist. This was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, a time for change. And Gloria was leading the charge.
Our office manager Angela approached me as she was booking an appointment over the phone. I saw the light on my desk phone blinking - the caller was on hold.
“Lori? I’m on the phone with a woman making an appointment for a Gloria Steinem. Do you know who she is? They asked for you. Do you want to work with her, or should I book it with Cristal?”
“You don’t know who Gloria Steinem is? Are you kidding?” I was aghast.
“I’ve heard of her, but I don’t know what she did. Should I?”
“Well, hell, she’s only the mother of all feminists!” Holy crap, Gloria Steinem! From bra burning to bra fitting. With me!
“Well, hell yes you should know! She’s only a founding feminist mother! The woman is an icon, a crusader, a real life superhero! She’s the reason it’s possible for women to even own businesses! Wow, Gloria Steinem. She’s been my hero since I was 13. Yes, I will work with her.” Hot damn!
“OK. I’ll book it with you, ” Angela said, apparently unaffected by the enormity of the bra- burning, mother-of-the-movement coming in for a fitting.
I felt a little sad, too, that young women like Angela were often unaware of the struggles of prior generations of women, and that she took her high paying job so matter of factly. I never had things quite so easy, and now have an abiding appreciation of the struggles, and strides feminists made for all womankind.
Television shows in the late 60’s depicted a new generation of women, rebelling against the status quo, asserting their independence, with careers and jobs and men. That Girl, and The Mary Tyler Moore show in 1966 depicted young women living on their own in New York City. I wanted to be Mary Richards. I wanted to be That Girl, Anne Marie. I wanted to live in a studio apartment on upper Madison Avenue with a window facing the street, and sip coffee there in the quiet of the morning, watching the city come awake. Why couldn’t a woman define her happiness and success by things other than husband and children? A few years ago, Marlo Thomas came to Bra Tenders for a fitting, and I had the chance to tell her how much her show influenced me. Circle Complete.
Mine was the first generation of women with enormous potential and the opportunity to move through the world in a new way. In the 1970’s droves of women entered the workforce in record numbers, forsaking love, marriage and the baby carriage. In this age of Facebook, I am not surprised to know that so many of my female high school classmates are entrepreneurs and female business owners today: lawyers, business mediators and consultants, artists, psychologists, professors, photographers. The Women’s Liberationists cleared the way for us to not only chase, but catch our dreams.
I had butterflies in my stomach on the day of her appointment. Even though I’d worked with actors and movie stars, both face to face and vicariously through wardrobe personnel, meeting my lifelong hero was something else altogether. In my junior high school class in 1972 we dedicated our annual Sing production to Women’s Lib. We explored what could have been possible for women, and the world, had Eve come before Adam. I even remember some song lyrics, set to one of the tune of Fiddler on the Roof:
When God created Eve, she saw no need for man/And here is where you’ll see just what’s the Master Plan/ And then came Adam timid as he was/naked as jaybird probably because/Even would only give him pennies here and there/to buy some underwear.” Reminds me of the old feminist joke - “when God created man she was just kidding.”
The feminist movement for Mom, was a call to arms, and she became what Rush Limbaugh referred to as a feminazi. All the pent up anger she carried deep within her gushed forth into the universe in a steady stream of vituperative man-bashing. She blamed MEN for all the woes of the world, and became determined to make them pay, starting with Dad. I remember her brief boycott of housework, her refusal to cook dinner or take his shirts to the cleaners. All this only enraged Dad, and he withheld household cash until Mom returned to sanity and resumed “doing her job.” The nasty cycle of hurt and retribution went on and on until divorce seemed the only reasonable way out. We kids were always caught in the middle, our loyalties to each and either parent was tested daily.
I remember my paternal grandmother, Helen, with her enormous, pendulous breasts that hung down to her knees, and her inquisitive, blue eyes, struggling to maintain her own sovereignty. Family legend posits that Helen wanted to be a mortician when she was a young woman, and the family collectively shuddered at the thought and gave her an ultimatum: Them, or that “crazy thing” she wanted to do.
She and her sisters were a pack of independent minded, brash, raucous women who smoked and drank with the best of ‘em. My Aunt Linda got married in a red wedding dress. “I’m no virgin, and it ain’t no secret.”
As a kid I believed girls could do anything boys could do. I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted opportunity to knock for me. Even as a thirteen year old, I knew girls may have been the fairer sex, but we possessed a lot of power. Why else would all the older family women tell me “don’t try so hard. Let him win. It’s not nice for girls to win.”
When it came to paddle ball and my new boyfriend Brian, of course I wanted to win; beating him was the purpose of playing. I didn’t begrudge him the right to win, as my mother would. I believed “may the best person win.” For me, that is what feminism represented. I wanted to be given the chance to prove “I can do everything.”
In 1975 I began employment at my first full time job at the Etienne Aigner shoe factory on West 18th street. The company distributed leather footwear and accessories, and I was hired for office/stock work. I was still naive and oh-so trusting of people, even after all the shit with Mom, Yale, and her other Men. Sometimes I think that’s a miracle - to survive such betrayals and still be able and willing to trust.
I worked there for a few months, pulling shoes off shelves in the warehouse to ship; taking sales orders over the phone; processing orders for shoes that came in 10 sizes, including halves, 3 widths, and four colors. I became a whiz on the adding machine, which is what we had before calculators. I received a promotion pretty quickly, and was fast tracked for another, for which Ken Hillman would train me.
Ken was a tall, skinny guy with round, stooped shoulders and a hawk like face who smoked like a chimney and smelled like an ashtray. He saw himself as Mr. Executive, cool, and hot shit. After I worked there for six months, my next phase of employee development involved a road trip to King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, to attend a shoe show. Ken assured me I would have my own room for the overnight, told me not to worry. That was my first trade show, and I looked forward to meeting all the salesmen who phoned their orders to me, and to get a sneak preview at the latest trends coming out of Italy for the next season.
Mr. Cool-Hotshit didn’t stop staring at my boobs the entire car ride there. It was warm out, and I was 20 years old. I wore a white halter-top meant for girls with half the boobs I had, and regretted wearing it as soon as I got in the car. I put on the cardigan I brought along, saying I was chilly with the car windows open. I was always self conscious about my body, and usually wore loose fitting and oversized tops to hide myself. It was hard to tell what shape moved under my father’s sweaters.
Now I have to wonder why I chose to wear such a revealing, out of character, top that day. I suppose I felt grown up, I was an adult, with a real job that held future potential. Was it ideal? Nope. It was a stepping stone. My first office job, where I excelled, quickly, and wanted to do well. I was hungry to know adulthood, womanhood.
But I didn’t quite know how to be a woman yet, even though I wasn’t still a girl. I didn’t know what, or where, my boundaries lay. Much as a young feminist as I was, all I knew was, on TV, tits took you far, and men were suckers for big boobs. Which I had. Whenever I had even modestly exposed more skin, a v neck top, the opposite sex zoomed right in on the boobs. If I had a dime for every time a man said to me “you have such beautiful eyes,” without ever raising his gaze up from my chest…
I was confused by mixed messaging. I wanted to earn my rewards, whatever those might be, on my merits, talent, skills. Anyone can fuck. But not just anyone became a CEO. Did women in positions of leadership and power get there on their merits, or did they use their womanly wiles to achieve more, quicker?
Did I intend to seduce Ken, even though I found him physically revolting? His Brut cologne clashed with the ashy smell that emanated from his pores. His breath was more foul, especially after he had a few gin martinis. Was that a new game I had to learn, fuck the boss to get ahead?
I had a relative who fucked her way into a house in Malibu, and my mother and her were like oil and water. My mother was seething with jealousy and envy that her sister in law was living a fantasy life, flitting from island to island in the Caribbean, sleeping her way up the ladder of social success. If that was the game, I was way out of my league.
Femininity did not come naturally, nor easily, to me. Having to dress up in girl clothes made me feel awkward. I only suffered a lack of confidence whenever I had to “dress pretty,” unlike so many friends who sucked up power from the personas they created to dress up in. Sometimes when I spotted an elegant, graceful, confident woman, who was powerful and poised, and knew how to grab life by the balls, I got a little jealous. Became a little intimidated. I couldn’t walk in heels, didn’t even own a pair. Ken gave me a pair of black pumps, beginners heels he called them. I hated them, but smiled and said thank you.
Shortly after arriving at the Holiday Inn, I learned he had only booked one room. Ding ding ding! Well, there was no way I was going to sleep with, or fuck, Ken Hillman. I didn’t make it a secret that I was annoyed. I was not some dopey dame with big tits so easily duped, though it seemed as if Ken believed otherwise. That job was not worth fucking him for.
We talked shop over cocktails in the motel bar, and then had what he tried to make into a romantic dinner. I was angry, and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at how earnest Ken was being, how sexy he thought he was. Now I wasn’t especially picky about men, as evidenced by my mother referring to one of my early boyfriends as “the gorilla.” But Ken’s long, gray face, prominent beak, pencil thin lips and stringy comb-over, not to mention the reek of stale cigarettes, repulsed me. When he leaned in close to me, I held my breath. I was so confused.
When it was bedtime and I laid down on one of the two full size beds in the double room, Ken got in behind me, and I deepened my breathing as if I were asleep. His stale eau d’ashtray scent permeated the space, clung to the scratchy sheets, and it was hard to suppress a little cough.
“Let me sleep, please,” I said in the sleepiest voice I could muster through my disgust and fear.
“You know what this means about your promotion…” he whispered in my ear, while trying to pry open my legs, which were closed tighter than a clam.
I took a deep breath, had enough of the game. I threw the covers off and sat up. I didn’t turn around to look at him.
“Yeah, it means you’re an asshole.”
He moved away from me, but left a heavy cloud behind. We barely spoke the rest of the weekend, though he introduced me around at the show, smiled and kept his cool. We barely spoke on the ride back. Neither of us spoke about it again. I went to work and did my job. Ken was on the road checking on accounts, and wasn’t in the office much.
About ten days later I was introduced to a woman named Shirley, who had already become well acquainted with Ken, darling. Shirley was hired for the job I was supposed to move into. She was closer to Ken’s age, mid thirties, and had a short, tight body that she liked to wrap in close fitting clothes. She had nicely defined biceps, and wore her black hair cropped short in the back and full on top. She wore cat-eye liner and false lashes. She looked hot. She was smart, too, and knew how to play the game. I felt out of my league, and like a kid.
There was no place for me to complain that I’d been passed over for promotion because of sexual harassment. That happened to women all the time, there hadn’t been that societal shift yet. Women were treated like sex objects, didn’t have the right to complain, it was our choice to enter a man’s work world, not theirs, and we had to deal with the consequences. Who would believe a twenty year old girl over Ken Hillman, Big Man On Campus?
On the day of Gloria’s fitting, I was flustered, had the same insecurity as my 20 year old self. I wanted to be professional, my god, the woman who made it possible for me to own my business, sought ME out! I wasn’t sure how effusive to be, whether I should drop to my knees as beholding royalty, or just welcome her as every other woman into my domain. I felt immense pride that, of all the stores she might have gone to shop, she chose Bra Tenders to shop for the ubiquitous item that kicked off the women’s lib movement.
As always, I decided to just be myself, and do what felt right in the moment.
“I’m really honored to meet you Gloria. Please come this way.” I offered a firm handshake, very careful not to be wimpy about it. I showed her to a seat in the lingerie lounge and allowed her to get settled before escorting her into the fitting room. “There’s a water cooler in the corner, and the rest room key is hanging to the right of the front door. We’ll get started in a moment.”
I felt as nervous as a showgirl in her first gig on Broadway. I couldn’t decide how to address her. Here we were, Gloria and me, face to face, bosom to bosom, heart to heart. A feeling of surreality persisted, this woman was a legend, after all! I have been a feminist my whole life because of Gloria. I followed her through newspapers long before twits tweeted. Now here she stood before me, the leader of the tribe, waiting to be uplifted, by me.
“I have to say again, what an honor this is for me. I have been inspired by you since I was a girl. Thank You for all you’ve done for women. Bra Tenders wouldn’t have been possible without you! How did you hear about us?”
What would my life have been like if not for her work? What if I had no options?
“A friend of mine was here and said this is THE place to come bra shopping. She said you are the best in the business, so here I am.” I felt warm from head to toe and my cheeks flushed. It dawned on me that Gloria and I are colleagues, sort of, both uplifters and defenders of women. Maybe I wasn’t as out of my league as I thought.
And that’s the funny thing about self esteem. When you see it in someone else, you recognize it as a reflection of yourself. In that moment with Gloria, I felt a surge of empowerment and confidence for the first time in my life. I had mastered something, and was acknowledged for it, known for that mastery. I took an amazing leap in my growth that day, and I saw possibility all around. A major mindset shift. Here I was, 52 years old, and for the first time in my life, I finally felt like an accomplished woman who was worthy of recognition.
“Well thank you, and our thanks to your friend. I must say, feminist bra burnings were the worst thing that ever happened to the bra business! I have customers now, women in their 60’s, who haven’t worn a bra since then. They say being liberated from the torture contraptions was the best thing that ever happened to them. Makes it hard to do my job sometimes!”
“You know, there were never any bra burnings. No burning of any kind.”
“Well do tell. But first, can you take off your sweater please? Let’s see how your girls are doing.” She removed her sweater and placed it on the back of a chair beneath the window. Gloria Steinem -naked in my fitting room. If I dropped dead at that moment, I would have died contentedly. “Ok, let’s see.”
I checked out her bra, pulling the band to test the life of the elastic. The band was too big, not giving her enough support around the rib cage. The straps looked to be in the right place, but she seemed a little droopy. She needed a little more lift, more structure in the cup than the flimsy, stretchy bra she wore provided. She was in excellent shape, clearly had taken good care of herself. Her stomach was flat, posture erect, hair still coiffed in her signature, parted in the middle style.
“I think we need to go down a band size. Cup size looks OK. Maybe it’s just time for an update. I’m impressed. Most women who come in here are so far off on their size! This bra though, should be burned. Anyway, please tell me about how the bra burning rumors started. I lived through that era and believed it until you just disillusioned me!”
“The burning of feminine items was supposed to be a symbolic statement. It started with a demonstration outside the Miss America pageant on the boardwalk in Atlantic City in 1968. They were protesting the Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol. At the time beauty pageants were one of the biggest sources of college scholarships for women, so many young women degraded themselves in these contests just to have access to the funding.
“The protest organizers asked women to bring stereotypical feminine items - hair curlers, steno pads, lipstick, false eyelashes, aprons, mops and brooms, pots and pans, bras - to burn in a “freedom trash can.” The symbolic burning stood as a critique of the modern beauty culture, of valuing women for their looks instead of their whole self. A reporter covering the event drew an analogy between the feminist protesters, and the Vietnam draft card burning protesters. The bra-burning trope became a catchphrase of the feminist movement, even though it was incorrect. As you mentioned, it persists today!”
“Huh, that’s fascinating.” I unhooked her dead bra, and held it up, nodded at the plastic orange trash can already containing a few other bras. She chuffed politely. I handed her a soft cotton robe, and stepped in front of her as my brain rifled through its rolodex for the best style to show her. “Please put on the robe and I’ll bring some bras. But first, please finish your story.”
“The fire department wouldn’t issue a permit to burn anything because it was hazardous to do on the boardwalk. But inside the convention center, a large Women’s Liberation banner was unfurled, and that was broadcast around the world, really thrusting the movement into the spotlight.”
I remembered a time in the 70’s when men I dated used to say ‘I like you for your mind.’ I can’t tell you how many times in my life a guy looked at me and told what pretty eyes I had, all the while staring at my chest. But isn’t feminism about dissolving the patriarchal stereotypes about men too? Didn’t the movement seek to have men get in touch with their softer sides?
I said, “Personally, I think it’s women who are going to save humanity. It’s time for matriarchy to rule. We’ve seen how men handle things - pretty soon there won’t be anything to left to blow up. That’s why I do what I do. Confident women can kick some ass.”
“Yes, feminism believes in social justice and equality for all. Unfortunately, on the quest for equality, women began to compete with men. The point we wanted to make was that women are equally able as men and deserve equal pay for equal work. Except in matters of physical strength, women can do anything men can do.”
“You know, I think if men had to put on a bra and pantyhose every morning, the world would come to a screeching halt!
She gave a small laugh. “Now, what do you think I need?”
“Give me a few minutes to pull some styles I think you’ll like.” I exited the fitting room, and closed the drape behind me as I headed into the stockroom.
I dug through boxes, and riffled through racks until I had what I wanted, and headed back into the fitting room. We tried several styles, and she chose two bras she liked. I felt unusually triumphant knowing that my instincts were spot on, even with a legend.
Whenever we work with celebrities I like to get their autographs on a piece of intimate apparel. From men on Broadway, and in movies, we have a collection of signed t-shirts; from women, signed camisoles. We’re kind of like the Hard Rock Cafe of underwear.
“Gloria, I’m so happy we were able to give you an Uplifting Experience. I hope you feel as good as you look! Would you please autograph this for me?” I handed her a white nylon cami. She wrote, “Thank You for this great women’s space.”