The 1980s was my favorite decade. It wasn’t the shoulder pads, big hair, Brideshead Revisited (the TV series), Farm Aid, Hands across America, yuppiebacks (Vintage Contemporaries like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City), Tom Petty, or Cynthia Heimel’s columns in The Village Voice. I liked ’80s culture, but I enjoyed the decade mostly because I felt empowered as a woman.
I never wanted a career, though I considered myself a feminist. Is that an oxymoron? I couldn’t imagine myself in any profession. A librarian? Dull. A lawyer? Couldn’t face it. But classics turned out to be a lucky field for me in the ’80s. I was content to find a job teaching Latin at an excellent girls’ school.
I was an earnest teacher. My students could write “This sucks!” on their saddle shoes with impunity, but had to be able to identify”absolute absolutes”and “historical infinitives” to prove they were doing the translation. They bragged that they knew more Latin than their brothers and boyfriends at the prestigious boys’ school across town. It is true that I drove them through the Jenney, the first-year text, at a rapid pace, and required the upper-level classes to scan poetry at sight. I learned that girls preferred Ovid, Virgil, Catullus, and Horace to Cicero. After Cicero reduced a smart student to tears and others looked perplexed, I made a decision. Poetry would drive my program. The point was to make them love Latin literature.
Like most teachers, I had an avocation. I was an aspiring writer. And on the weekends I began to write reviews, articles, and essays. In retrospect, I wasted too much time on bubbly features and should have stuck to reviews.
And it didn’t occur to me that I was grossly underpaid. Later, I was appalled to find the freelancing men were paid more. Yes, there is sex discrimination in writing. But in the ’80s I felt empowered! I was a writer. There were no limits for me.
Were people happy for me? Not especially. And freelance writers were cautious allies at best, competing for the same jobs. At an informal meeting of women writers, a middle-aged woman said (loudly so I would hear) that I got assignments because I was “cute.” Cuteness wasn’t my thing: I had a bad haircut, no makeup, wore jeans and cowgirl boots. Did the cowgirl boots give me an aura? Should I have thanked her for the “compliment?” But later, I did know what she meant. Haggard after a hospitalization, I heard a male editor say, “She didn’t used to look this way.” Divas need to be young and pretty.
Still, I didn’t know any of that in the ’80s. We have to enjoy our youth while we’re young. And I was so excited about everything back then. I’m glad I didn’t focus on the negative.
The best thing was the joy of new experiences.