Imitating Art: My Experience Living a Scene from The Second Wave by Jean Copeland
One of the best things about being a fiction writer is the vicarious thrill of placing a character in a situation I’ve never had the opportunity or the guts to experience myself. Whether it was my adolescent heroine in The Revelation of Beatrice Darby risking everything to come out in conservative 1950s New England, or Alice Burton attending a political demonstration during the 1970s women’s lib movement in The Second Wave, the creative process of imagining their worlds into print reality was empowering. It was also the only way I’d ever get to experience either event. After all, I can never go back to my early twenties and undo the damage caused by years of hiding in the closet. And I’d just assumed that with America so close to electing the first female president—ever—no longer would women need to galvanize in resistance to a political backlash against our basic human rights. After eight years of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, it seemed like women had finally cleared that hurdle.
So in 2016, when I set out to write my protest scene for The Second Wave, a modern romance exploring the star-crossed love affair of Alice and Leslie, I relied on internet research and my imagination to capture some essence of such a profound epoch, never having had occasion to attend a women’s rights rally growing up in the 80s in women-friendly Connecticut. The closest I’d ever come to anything like it was in 1984 when I was 15 and had tagged along with my older brother, Kevin, to a presidential campaign rally for Gary Hart. The only reason I was interested was because I’d learned that some democrat was making history by choosing a woman as his running mate. Yes, your memory serves you correctly that it was Walter Mondale who chose the woman, not Gary Hart. But that was of little consequence to my budding adolescent feminist sensibilities. What mattered was that a woman was selected to be a major player in the presidential election process for the first time in my life, and I wanted in some way to feel part of it.
Sitting in a coffee shop some thirty years later, I’d all but forgotten that experience as I wrote the scenes in The Second Wave, in which Alice and Leslie and their feminist friends, devoted disciples of Gloria Steinem, gathered to crochet, smoke pot, and discuss the issues women fought for and against in the 1970s. Coincidentally, Hillary Clinton was the favorite for the democratic nomination and, in my mind, sure to trounce any one of the cartoonish republican nominees in the general election. I relished writing the characters’ sardonic jokes about how forty years from then surely congress will have come to its senses and rectified the disparity in pay between men and women. I thought I was being clever having these bra-burning divas dare to dream that we might possibly see the first female president in our lifetimes because I’d truly believed it would happen that November.
Turns out, the American electorate proved they are more comfortable with a man who brags about grabbing a woman’s pussy than they are with a person who has a pussy grabbing the world’s most powerful office.
In the wake of this new, faux-1950s conservatism spawning from a presidential administration manned by Trump, Pence and Bannon, the three horsemen of the Trumpocalypse, male republican legislators have found renewed vigor in their attempts to throw more obstacles in women’s paths and send us back to the starting line faster than you can say executive order. Now the scenes of the biweekly meetings at which The Second Wave ladies lament the various agitations women’s libbers faced like abortion rights, sexual objectification on TV, and equal pay, serve as fresh reminders that the hurdles before us had never actually been cleared.
On the bright side, if I dare suggest there is one to an era of government-sanctioned misogyny, the throat-punch upset on Election Day set the stage for me to live my art and learn what it really means to organize for a cause.
The day after inauguration, exactly one year after I’d written my first fictional protest scene, as thousands mobilized for the Women’s March on Washington, DC, I proudly attended Connecticut’s March of Solidarity. It was both a sad anniversary and an exciting moment of reckoning. When I arrived in Hartford, on my own, unsure of where I was headed, I spotted people carrying rally signs and followed, quickening my pace the closer I got. As I power-walked through Bushnell Park, my adrenaline surged at the distant clamoring of crowds swelling around the steps of the state capitol. My head bobbed in time to the steady thud of drums from a marching band. As I milled through a forest of humans foliated with angry, funny, provocative signs of resistance, trying to get as close as possible, I had to pause to imbibe the synergy. Unseasonably warm and sunny that January day in New England, I was convinced Mother Nature had delivered the gorgeous weather to us as her gift of solidarity.
The march was indeed awe-inspiring, a flowering of relief as two months of disappointment, despair and fear of future unknowns dissipated in the crowd of thousands who shared my anxiety and my hope. As an LGBT woman, I’d never felt safer in a mass of strangers than I did that day. After years writing about poignant events from an abstract perspective, I finally got the chance to live and breathe one as an active participant. My mind was blown bigly by the overwhelming sense of harmony and purpose I felt standing with thousands of others as we spoke out against oppression and demanded our rights and our children’s in peaceful protest.
What we accomplished that afternoon is an intangible thing, but I know we accomplished something. “Hear Our Voices” was the marchers’ mantra, and it continues to resound as the momentum created that day is still inspiring phone calls to politicians in record numbers and plans for future resistance marches. I like to imagine that if Alice and Leslie and their intrepid pussy posse of 1970s activists were real and alive today, they would’ve boarded a bus to DC with flasks of wine and stashed grass and flashed the women’s empowerment fist out the windows as I cheered them on from the lawn of the Connecticut state capitol. Maybe in my next novel, I should have my heroine already be the president of the United States instead of just wishing for it.
Jean Copeland is an author, English teacher and activist from Connecticut. Her debut novel, The Revelation of Beatrice Darby, won the 2016 Alice B Lavender Award and the Golden Crown Literary Society “Goldie” for debut author. She is also the author of The Second Wave, available now, and Summer Fling coming in 2017.
- Twitter & Instagram: @jeaniecopes