01/03/2011 12:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Barbara Jean at Rest

Norris Church Mailer death was widely reported. Slow news week. Coverage was zip when her younger self -- Barbara Jean Davis -- fell victim to our consumerist-celebrity culture. Nobody cared.

She appeared to go the way of the Women's Liberation Movement that the future (and last) Mrs. Norman Mailer remembered as being so vital in her life. Like authentic feminism, I choose to believe Barbara Jean did not die. Muffled certainly, but dead? No.

When I read Norris Church Mailer's memoir, A Ticket to the Circus, I could not help but call up the spirit of singer Peggy Lee in "Is That All There Is?" Surely the feminism we had embraced as young women held far more promise for humankind. Try as she might -- and did -- "Norris" ended up being too easily dismissed as just another celebrity's wife.

That was before this April when I met the frail but still quite beautiful woman who'd burned through all three names. To my surprise, "Norris" seemed almost relieved to talk about Barbara Jean's name-ectomy. After decades wearing a fabricated moniker -- two husband's surnames hooked together by a religiosity she'd rejected -- here was Norris asking me what I thought she should call herself. I was genuinely touched that it was "Barbara Jean" who thanked me for welcoming her to our program.

Many of us still put human rights ahead of property rights. One name for us is "feminists". We seem to be asking much the same question. What should we call ourselves? More importantly, who have we grown up to be? What is our adult-self doing?

I'm encouraged that Barbara Jean can be found in Norris' artwork. Judge it on its merits. She was a better-than-average "everywoman" in both Norris' fiction and non-fiction. Watch her take on role after role as American culture increasingly reviles the liberation of anyone by choosing instead greed over character.

I liked Norris Church Mailer. Our acquaintance was brief but poignant. She knew her time was short. Still. Here she was, embracing her cancer as forthrightly as she did the beckoning book tour. Was she staking a final claim to something essential about herself?

I also want to think that feminism, regardless of what "wave" one rides, offers a great deal more than a tired capitulation to social conformity and hypercapitalism. I want to believe Barbara Jean came to the same conclusion.