“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” — Alice Walker, author
It’s Feb. 29 and we’re in the early rounds of The Telegram Spelling Bee in St. John’s.
A girl strides to the microphone and faces the audience at Holy Heart Theatre.
You could hear a pin drop.
“Your word is ‘respect,’” the pronouncer says, enunciating with precision.
For a moment the girl looks nonplussed. Is that it? Is there some trick?
Then she realizes it’s just a straight-up word.
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” she says.
“That’s correct,” I say, as head judge.
I wondered if she knew how much power that word contains; how Aretha Franklin took it from a man’s song in 1967 and made it her own.
Made it ours.
When I was a girl, my mother gave me a book called School Day Treasures, which she had ordered from the Regal Catalogue. If you remember Regal, you’ll understand why my edition is considered “vintage.”
You used it to record the highlights of your school years — career aspirations, any prizes won, who your friends were. Each page was a pocket where you could keep diplomas, class photos and report cards.
It listed career possibilities for boys and girls, and they were strikingly different.
Boys had exciting, daring options, like fireman, policeman, astronaut, soldier.
The first option for girls was mother, followed by nurse, teacher, actress, airline hostess, model, secretary, artist.
Interestingly, “father” was not offered as a career choice for boys.
I didn’t notice the discrepancies at the time, since all the women I knew were mothers, teachers, nurses.
And even though my parents didn’t put limitations on me, as a youngster I dutifully checked the boxes I thought I could reasonably fit into: mother, teacher. (Once I clued in that being a flight attendant might let me see the world, I began ticking “airline hostess,” as well. They had cool clothes.)
My mother, Vera, loved to draw clothing designs, a hobby that was pooh-poohed by her grandfather, who lived with the family. Such frippery — and frankly, education itself — was sometimes seen as wasted on girls in 1930s and ’40s outport Newfoundland.
My mother grew up isolated, in a place only accessible by sea. She didn’t see a car until she went to the hospital in Come By Chance to have her tonsils removed in the 1940s.
The oldest of her clan, she would have to mind the younger children whenever her mother was waylaid by childbirth. She turned to recipe books to learn to cook for her siblings.
Again, her grandfather wasn’t impressed. When his daughter would return home with her new baby, he’d greet her with relief. “Thank God you’re back,” he’d say (as my mother recalls the story). “Ver’s a poor cook.”
Years later, with a brood of her own, my mother turned out to be a good cook and a skilled seamstress, and sewed clothing for all of us, sometimes of her own design.
I often wonder what else she might have accomplished if she had been given encouragement as a girl; if her sky had no limit.
Who knows? Maybe she could have had her own fashion house in Paris.
In 1967, Otis Redding acknowledged that “Respect” — a song he had written — was no longer his, and gave a grudging nod to Aretha Franklin.
In an interview with NPR in the States, his biographer, Mark Ribowsky, recalled him saying, it was “a song that a girl took away from me.”
Rolling Stone reported, “Franklin wasn’t asking for anything. She sang from higher ground: a woman calling an end to the exhaustion and sacrifice of a raw deal, with scorching sexual authority…”
Our daughter is grown. No one ever tried to clip her wings, and she is soaring.
But in many parts of the world women and girls are being held back by strictures of someone else’s design, and are being denied basic rights, including economic independence, access to education and reproductive freedom.
The Fraser Institute reported this week that between 2016 and 2018, 54 countries actually stepped up their economic oppression of women.
Women and girls deserve a better world. They deserve respect.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s managing editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: pam_frampton