DARLA

by Carolyn Brown

I still remember what Darla wore that day, in the summer after my college graduation, when she walked into the U.S. Senate committee meeting room where I sat among a dozen other young women in my tweedy suit and plain, long-sleeved blouse. (I wore long-sleeved blouses despite Washington D.C.'s swampy heat because my friend's older sister had warned us that our cuffs always had to show below our jacket sleeves to prove we weren't wearing anything risque.)

Darla took her chair at the head of the table, President of the Capitol Hill Women's Political Caucus. She wore a silk pants-suit the color of creamed coffee, with absolutely no sign of a shirt underneath. Her skin was coppery-tan, glowing as though the sun itself were inside her. Her hair was shoulder length and curly, obviously as untamable as mine though she had achieved what the fashion magazines call "tousled" while mine - though aggressively cut - was just a mess. This woman was in charge. She was about ten years older, smart, and beautiful. But most of all she was unapologetically alive - 100% herself and unlike any mold currently in use.

As a wary visitor to the Women's Political Caucus, I watched Darla chair the meeting with grace, intelligence, and respect for everyone in the room - including a woman who rambled off on absurdly long tangents from the subject at hand. The subject at hand was a fundraiser celebrating Jeannette Rankin's birthday. Of course, I had no idea who Jeannette Rankin was - until I surreptitiously read the flyer explaining that Rankin was the first woman in Congress and the only dissenting vote when the U.S. decided to enter World War I. I had never read Betty Freidan or Gloria Steinem or any other famous feminists. I had never thought about the women who weren't mentioned in the standard-issue history books. I barely knew Elizabeth Cady Stanton from Elizabeth Dole. I'm not kidding.

I had spent four formative years in a male game preserve that passed for a major university, where being a woman felt more like a shortcoming than a strength. I knew I was different from men, and since they ruled the world I was going to have to work my butt off to win on their terms. That meant making sure no one saw that I had inconvenient emotions and debilitating bodily functions - and a whole different way of being. I even cut off my wild hair because it took too long to manage when I needed to be fast in and out of the shower, and out the door. Short hair was fast and easy and always the same.

By the time my first Women's Political Caucus meeting ended, I was sold - not only on women's politics but on Darla as some sort of role model. I didn't ask her if she wanted the job; in fact, I didn't consciously call her a role model or mentor or anything else. But that night, I joined the Capitol Hill Women's Political Caucus. Soon after, I started reading feminist books, supporting women politicians, and networking with savvy women from all over the country. In one sense, this was all new material - the facts, the philosophies, the political campaigns. But the more I read, the more I felt I was filling in background material to things I somehow had known all along.

I fell into a cluster of women my age who were interested in women's politics. Their ideals and their support balanced the reality I saw every day both at work "downtown" and in politics - that men ran the big show. Sure, we read Kate Millet's Sexual Politics and Carol Gilligan's In A Different Voice, and we believed that women had the ability to do anything. But we also knew that any scheme the girls dreamed up over a bottle of wine had to pass muster with the guys in charge. So, without conscious decision, we learned to speak men's language, laugh at their jokes, and generally play nice enough to get invited back.

Though Darla was not a regular part of this cluster of women, she was an invisible guide. Ten years older and ten years more confident, she led us through monthly Caucus meetings and symbolized for us the idea that a woman could succeed in a man's world and still be a woman. I saw Darla at meetings or jogging along the Potomac River, and got my booster shot of her energy, but I can't say we became friends. I barely knew her, and she barely knew me. If we had any substantial one-on-one conversations in Washington D.C., I don't recall them now. And yet, her influence took hold.

Three years later, I left Washington D.C. for San Francisco, abandoning government, women's political struggles, and all that seriousness. With a low-stress job, I pretty much dedicated myself to enjoying life. One foggy morning, I came upon Darla on Market Street, marching under the Planned Parenthood banner to protect American women's access to abortion. Seeing her that day was like running into your next-door neighbor on the subway in Moscow. A messenger from home. Shortly thereafter, Darla and I had dinner on Russian Hill, and she gave me a box of books she was ready to give away but not throw away. Honored, I read one or two and shelved the rest.

The only one I remember was called Womanspirit. The pages were warped from a bathtub or river or lake. The book talked about women tapping into their spiritual strength and intuition. It offered exercises and meditations, which I skimmed through quickly. You might call the book a wake-up call from Darla. I heard it, but barely woke up. I did try one of the meditations a few times - one in which you picture a female spirit guide and ask her your unanswerable questions. The woman I pictured looked a lot like Darla, though her hair was black, not blonde. After I put the book away, I rarely remembered to ask my spirit guide for help, but when I did, she always came.

Darla and I quickly lost touch again, separated more by the differences in our lifestyles and interests than by the difference in our ages. We reconnected a few years later completely "by accident" when she phoned the agency where I worked to find out how to apply for a grant. As anonymous voices on the phone, we launched into a long discussion about the children's shelter she worked for and the foundation I represented. Only when I asked for her name and address to mail the grant application did I discover her identity, and she mine.

Since then, we have truly become friends. She still leads the way for me in many respects, like inviting me to a weekend women's retreat last summer where I delved into some crucial questions about who I really am and who I want to be. She takes my crisis phone calls in the middle of the work day. She's helped me understand and trust my true strength as a woman. But the most surprising thing about our friendship now is that I see the love and respect goes both ways between us. Darla says she depends on me as much as I do on her. And, this summer, I'll stand next to her in my bridesmaid best when she says "I do" once and for all to a man who loves her as much as I do.


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