What a Woman (Can) Want
Author of The Legend of Jesse Smoke
Many years ago, when I first started teaching, I would give my students the following riddle:
A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies instantly, and the son is taken to the nearest hospital. The doctor comes in takes one look at the patient and exlaims “I can’t operate on this boy.”
“Why not?” the nurse asks.
“Because he’s my son,” the doctor responds.
Please explain how this is possible?
Students would discuss all the possibilities, including that the man in the car who was killed was the adoptive father, or the Doctor was the real father and the adoptive father did not know about him and neither did the boy; or that the doctor was the boy’s real father and the man killed in the car had kidnapped him as an infant. They went around and around. Of course it’s an old riddle now, but even now it can still work magic in some populations. I tried it this past spring in an American Literature class and it took them forty-five minutes of discussion before they got it. Years ago, my students never got it. I had to tell them.
Of course the answer to the riddle is simple: the surgeon is the boy’s mother. Easy enough, but it takes so long to get it, even these days. Why? There is something in the human brain that will not see outside the box of certain pre-conceived notions; certain patterns of thought. It is not ignorance; not really related to intelligence either. It’s just that like a sleeper under a blanket, who thinks it’s dark because there is no light, the brain can only see what we have conditioned it to see. The conditioning is a kind of blanket.
Having always been interested in this “condition,” I have often thought I should write a book about some of the great women we have never been taught to know — women who truly changed the world. Clara Shortridge Folz, for instance. No one seems to know that it was her idea to give those people who couldn’t afford it the right to legal counsel. The whole idea of a public defender originated with her. Many know of the case that made it constitutional law — Gideon v Wainright. But that case was a culmination of work begun many years before by Clara Foltz — a single mother with five children who had to take on the entire California legal profession, and persue her own case to the California Supreme Court no less than three times to attend law school, to take the bar exam, and to have the right to practice law in California.
Clara Shortridge Foltz, see, was as important to American Jurisprudence as Clarence Darrow. There is precisely one book about her (A very good book called Woman Lawyer, by Barbara Babcock, Stanford University Press, 2012), and she is included in a few others. Most of us, though, have never heard of her. Women have been making inroads into the professions for a long time. Most of my adult life. And the blanket is starting to be withdrawn. Just this morning I read an article in the Washington Post that claimed “an historic move, two female players signed by minor league baseball team.”
Historic, sure, but it should not be too much of a surprise. Women have been catching up to the men atheletically and then some. In the 1964 Olympics, I read somewhere, women were supposedly “30 years or more behind men” in what they could do atheletically. I presume that meant records they were setting or breaking in the various events. In the last Olympics they were thought to be only about five years behind. I don’t know how accurate these statistics are, but I do know from my own observation that women are becoming far better atheletes than ever before. In Golf, Tennis, Basketball. In Fast pitch softball there are women who I believe could strike out Bryce Harper. This phenomenon has always interested and enthralled me.
All of my life I have been lucky to know really great women. So I wanted to write about one. I thought about starting my book about great women we should all know about, but before I got going on that, I realized I’d rather address the issue in a novel. In fiction. “The truth is better offered in disguise,” as George Garrett once said. So that is how The Legend of Jesse Smoke came into being. I wanted to create a woman who is good enough and strong enough to challenge the very pinnacle of male dominance and strength: Professional football.
What would happen, I wondered, if a woman demonstrated the kind of talent Joe Montana, or Peyton Manning had? what would happen if a woman could throw a football 70 yards in the air, and do it accurately? What if she had a quick release, and could move on her feet in the pocket better than any male ever did? What if she was smart and knew not only how to read a playbook, but how to memorize it? And what if she had the kind of heart most women have — the heart of a champion. How would it play out if a woman like this, a great athlete came upon the scene? I named her Jesse Smoke.
I started looking into the rules and discovered that no rule specifically says a woman cannot play professional football. In fact, the Minnesota Vikings signed a female kicker during training camp one year and brought her in for a try-out. So I know it’s possible.
Then it really got going in my mind. Not just the reactions on the team, or in the league, but this culture. How would a woman who plays in the NFL be received by the national media, by the general public?
Think of it. What would the conservative pundits say about this challenge to a male dominated and aggressive sport such as football? How long would it take for the on-line and social media rumors and lies to arise that would challenge everything reported by the media about this Jesse Smoke? How long would it take for doubt about her authenticity; for attacks on her feminity and her masculinity to dominate the airwaves and social media? What would our reaction to this kind of phenomenon reveal about that blanket I spoke of earlier?
I played a lot of football when I was a young man — mostly sandlot. What I came to see was the “maleness” of the action came in two forms. The first has to do with a kind of artful use of space and time. I played quarterback, and I was slightly built. I could throw accurately, sometimes astonishingly accurate, but not very far — maybe 40 yards. So the game, for me, was about finesse; about balance and grace. It’s the same for many of the so called “skill” players in the game: balance and grace. That kind of game is still integral to football, and beautiful to watch. But the other form is of course brute strength and total physical agression. The “war-like” nature of male dominance: you “beat” an opponent; drive him into the ground with all your might; push him out of the way, enforce your physical will on him. That too, is very much alive in the game. And, in truth, you need both to fully participate in the sport.
It is that second form, however, that “male” strength and dominance that most people see and remember about football. I wanted to create a female character who is artful and has balance and grace, but also one who challenges the traditional attributes of the game, who can stand up in the face of the brute force and aggression.
The one thing I wanted to keep in my mind throughout the writing of this novel was that blanket I mentioned earlier. What would happen if we could lift the thing, let in the light and stop seeing the differences between men and women as embedded in our biology? What if much of what we determine about ourselves is just habit? How much of our interior bias can be removed? What happens to feminity if it is to compete with masculinity? And what do those terms mean anymore?
My novel may not be the answer to those questions, but it was sure a hell of a lot of fun to ask them.