Damn, She's in Distress!

05/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The year before I graduated high school, Betty Friedan stormed The Oak Room, that male bastion of a bar at New York City's Plaza Hotel. I'd walked past that mysterious room, inhaling the cigarette and cigar smoke that wafted through its doors when I went to dinner with my parents at Trader Vic's (also in The Plaza).

At the time, I had no idea that Friedan was wearing what became her trademark sunglasses that day because her husband had given her yet another beating -- something he did with regularity and typically on the heels of her being in the spotlight of the media. I knew nothing about domestic violence -- the term hadn't yet been coined. I knew nothing about "the problem that has no name" -- the depression suffered by women at the hands of emotionally and physically abusive husbands. Besides, my protestation of the War in Vietnam preempted my interest in The Women's Movement at 16 -- a time in life when I felt that the world was mine to have despite what anyone -- or any man -- dictated.

It wasn't until years later that I recognized my father's chauvinism when he poo-pooed my desire to become a pediatrician. Despite his discouragement, I knew I would "grow up" and have a "job" -- a notion that my mother both supported and ingrained in me when she took me to sign working papers at 14. My mother did not work although she often wished she did. I never paid much attention to her plaintive "your father won't let me." In those days, having a nonworking mother was de rigueur. I didn't dig any deeper

In addition, and in retrospect, attending an all girls school ("single sex" was also not a term used in those days and by the way, the only male in our school was the glee club teacher) made me feel that I never had to battle for anything: We "girls" were all on equal footing, healthily competitive both academically and athletically, and well, I simply didn't feel any less deserving as a woman. At 16, when Betty was insisting upon service in The Oak Room, we hiked up our school uniforms after school -- well above the "below the knee" regulation, smudged on some lip gloss, lit up our Tareytons and strutted our stuff. Whether it was the construction crew on the corner or the private school boys pouring out of their single sex hallowed halls as well, we would flip them off when they admired our tits and asses -- and it was nothing but a game. We were entitled and brazen.

Until years later.

Come college at NYU "with boys," Betty gave me a new perspective. The Feminine Mystique was my own required reading. Suddenly, there was a world out there where women needed to take a stand. I was no longer fair game for public commentary on my anatomy, nor would I entertain male professors willing to trade better grades for favors, nor would I tolerate a man holding the same job as I did on campus but getting more pay. Although hardly militant, I had new rules and expectations: Open a door for me, and I will usher you ahead of me with great aplomb...Pick up the dinner check and hey, no one buys my affections... I am more than capable of paying my own way and you will not have yours with me just because you bought me dinner...Walk on the street side of the sidewalk to protect me, and I will remind you that there are no more horses and buggies that might slosh muddy water on my mini skirt...Tell me that I have a maiden name and I will remind you that I am not chattel and never was a maiden.
At 19, I did a brief stint as a bar maid: I slapped a customer across the face when he grabbed my behind. My male boss told me that it comes with territory and fired me. And still, I never called myself a "feminist." Somehow that label compromised my credibility. I mean, were there masculinists? "Equalist" would have better suited me.

So, what with all that history, and the way the world has changed in the last decades insofar as men being "politically correct" and eschewing chivalry lest they are rebuffed, I became upset when a man offered me his seat on the subway on Tuesday morning. He was a younger man -- maybe about 45 and looked a great deal like the actor Ed Harris.

"Please, sit down," he said.

"No, that's OK," I declined.

"Please. Sit," he commanded (with such machismo I confess I nearly tingled or perhaps felt like a spaniel).

And it was then that I wondered whether this rather good-looking younger (stress younger) man gave me his seat because I was female and looked old. Sheer kindness did not enter my thought process. Maybe, I thought, just maybe he sees the book in my hand and notes the disappointment on my face when everyone else is aggressively pushing to grab seats, and I am left standing. Clearly, I wasn't upset for the same reasons I would have been 40 years ago. This was not about gender.

If he stays on the train, I'll feel humiliated. Whew. He gets off with his friend at the next stop.
That same afternoon, it was raining, and I took a cab home. I'd just paid the fare when a man, around 30 (a day of younger men, indeed), flung open the door as I was collecting my belongings and umbrella.

"I am so sorry," he said. "I thought it was empty."

"Not a problem," I replied as I fumbled to ready the switch on my automatic umbrella.

"Here, let me help you out," he said, reaching a hand forward.

Two shining knights within hours?

"I'm fine," I said curtly, trying to exit the cab with agility and grace.

I felt like Ruth Buzzi on Laugh-In, ready to swat him with my pocketbook.

Once upstairs in our apartment, I examined my face in the magnifying mirror that hangs on our bathroom wall. Does chivalry begin again when a woman becomes of a "certain age" or is it simply making a comeback? Ten years ago, would I have welcomed this gallant behavior and assumed it was because I am attractive? Or is it just kindness among both men and women and no different than the times I've given up a subway seat to a younger or older woman (or man) with a book, a heavy package, or a child?

Perhaps it is that I am about to have a married daughter and people are now forewarning me about impending grandmotherhood that is rocking me with insecurity and making me feel like I'm wearing an AARP badge. Grandmotherdood? I've still not recovered from motherhood. Grandmothers wear Red Cross Shoes, beige pants suits, yellowed pearls, and smell like Pond's -- like my Grandma did. But then I recall my mother when she got into her seventies and still the eternal coquette (although a grandmother) -- never doubting the attention of a gallant man was anything other than male attention, but recoiling from me if I helped her to step off the curb.

"What do you think you're doing?" she'd ask me.

"Nothing," I'd stammer. "Being polite? Helping you?"

"Well, just you stop that. Right now. Cut it out."

It still rings loud and clear in my ears -- makes me smile and laugh, and finally understand that my good intentions insulted her: She navigated those curbs just fine in those great spike heels.

As for me, I'm on the fence about Knightly Subway Guy. I'm hoping he thought I was a fairly attractive bookworm who looked disappointed when all the seats were taken. I'm not believing that though. My self-esteem is shaky. In a nosedive. Ah me. To think that ten years ago -- maybe even five -- I might have thought that being given a seat by a handsome man on the A train was a pick-up line.