Mapping the Road Not Taken: Three German Words That Threatened Women’s Freedom

My book, The Road Not Taken, poses many “magical questions”—and I’m going to begin digging even deeper into the historic and mythical underpinnings in its pages, here and on social media @SusanRubin1 on Twitter and @SusanRubinWriter on Instagram, in a new series: Mapping the Road Not Taken. Together, we’ll travel through the pages of my book—and at every stop, I’m going to ask you to answer a magical question. Leave your response in the comments here or on social media.

Note to self: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose” is a great lyric, but not the truth.

As a woman, I have fought for freedom my whole life. The feminist movement which I entered in the seventies gave women the freedom to pretend we were equal, but there were a few telltale signs that we were not: Abbie Hoffman said the place of women in our movement is on their backs. The popular slogan “make love not war” never included, in word or deed, “if the woman you’re with wants to.”

I was 16-ish when I was set up to meet a man for coffee. We climbed up endless stairs to his greasy apartment near Sheridan Square. He closed the door and, without even offering me a glass of water, jumped on me and started slobbering. I had ridden the IRT subway for too many years to take this shit, so I pushed him off. He looked at me with shock and asked: “Are you afraid of a man’s penis?”

He was lucky that I simply stomped out the door; I could have said “only big things scare me.” My mother had trained me not to fear the myriad men on the downtown local who would show me their dicks. I’d run home and tell her and she’d laugh. “Forget about it, he’s just a sex fiend.”

That might have been bad parenting, but it was a great life lesson. I was not afraid of a man’s penis. I wasn’t even afraid of men. But that didn’t mean I was free.

I’ve been searching through history to find a time when women were free. My favorite episode on the long march towards equality happened in Weimar, Germany, right on the cusp of WWII. In Weimar, the bars and nightclubs were jammed with men and women dressed to the nines—smoking their heads off and drinking so much that it killed any cancer the cigarettes, cigarillos, and cigars might’ve contained.

There was live music. There were raucous costumes in fantastic colors and loud discussions about art and politics. (Full stop: If you don’t want to hear about politics, I’ve heard that tired old statement more times than I’ve had to pee really bad and couldn’t find a toilet. To me, politics is life. It’s not about political parties, or candidates, it’s about where we are on the way to a Just and Equal society. If you don’t care about that, get a pet.)

Back to Weimar: It was exciting! Women were out at night without their husbands—free (and not just another word for nothing left to lose), they argued vehemently about the rise of a little house painter with a funny mustache and the worst haircut ever. Weimar was at its height in the early 1930’s before the tiny monster became chancellor, but exactly when the frog was put in the water and the heat turned on. Many Germans did not see him as a threat. He was too ridiculous. But they failed to notice that the people surrounding him were demonically brilliant.

He spit out a new way of life: Kinder, Küche, Kirche. Kitchen, Children and Church. Hitler’s promoters saw Weimar and knew that, in order to sell their homunculus candidate, they had to get women back in the house. In order to create the Fatherland, they crafted an effective propaganda campaign. The women in Weimar, they insisted, “weren’t doing their jobs as mothers, wives, Christians.”

They won. Hitler came to power, and women’s roles were relegated to something the 18th century Hamish would have found suffocating. LGBTQ people and artists were called degenerate and forced to flee for their lives. The music stopped. The conversation was stifled.

There’s a lot about Weimar in The Road Not Taken. (There’s even an excerpt of some of those chapters up at Ms. magazine!) To this day, I haven’t seen an environment in which women were so free—and I grew up in Greenwich Village.

This brings me to today’s magical question:

What three words define your freedom?

Maybe you chose mothering, wife-ing and going to Church. If so, did it make you feel full? Maybe you didn’t, and you never looked back. What did you worship instead?

You tell me, in the comments here or on social media,. and I’ll tell you more about the men who tried to scare me with their penises. (It went on for a long time. But I’m still not scared.)

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