There is a particular joy to imagining a story set in the world of your childhood. For me, childhood means the ‘70s and ‘80s. And sure, the world and all the details in it are imaginary, but that doesn’t dampen the joy of building a scene rich with Rubix cubes, Cabbage Patch Dolls, He-Man action figures, and Care Bears. A Wonder Woman doll that looks absolutely nothing like Lynda Carter and a Snoopy Sno-Cone machine that would require a bodybuilder to actually turn the crank. As I’m writing, I can still hear the squawk of a shaky pair of tweezers in Operation.
My memories of those decades are all tied up in toys. I am only slightly ashamed to admit that I had a three-story Barbie Dreamhouse complete with a hot tub that involved a pressable plastic pump to make the water bubble. I would sit on the lime shag carpet in my room, maybe sipping a Capri Sun, and move Barbie through her many rooms. I would inhale my Strawberry Shortcake doll’s sweet chemical hair —although I was more of a Blueberry Muffin girl—and arrange all her fruit-flavored roommates into their giant strawberry house.
Those memories rose to the surface as I started a book set in the time and place—Montgomery, Alabama—where I grew up. I set out to write about a female lawyer, at a time when a woman in the courtroom was rare, so I knew I’d be digging into some of the finer points of law, which would be a challenge. It felt like a comforting counterpoint to know the domestic settings—the bedroom furniture and the pine walls and, yes, the toys—so viscerally. After all, I knew this world. But as I wove together my own memories with the current events of those decades—the slow march of the civil rights movement, the fraught rise of women in the workplace, the fight for the ERA, the chipping away at all those longstanding, restrictive barriers—what I felt most was the shock of realizing exactly what had been going on outside the walls of my bedroom, as my little plastic people ruled their domains.As I wove together my own memories with the current events of those decades…what I felt most was the shock of realizing exactly what had been going on outside the walls of my bedroom, as my little plastic people ruled their domains.
Do you know when married women in Alabama gained the right to sell their own property without needing their husband’s signature? 1977.
Or how about this one: if you, as a mom, wanted to bring a lawsuit against someone who injured your child, you were out of luck until 1979. Only fathers could do that. Although—good news!—there was an exception if the father was dead, mentally incompetent, or committed to a mental hospital. (For real.)
But none of this was unique to Alabama. In Louisiana, women weren’t granted full rights to serve on a jury until 1975. In Tennessee and Wisconsin, until 1975, married women were legally obligated to change their surname to match their husband’s.
Until 1978 when the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed, it was fine to fire or refuse to hire someone because she was pregnant or a new mother.
It was 1993 before spousal rape was acknowledged as a crime in all fifty states.
It’s easy for women raised in the ‘70s and ‘80s to perhaps feel that the Dark Ages of women’s legal rights was long ago. I always knew there was a time when women were basically treated like livestock, but that was back in the time of wagons and log cabins, right?
It was toys that brought home how frighteningly recent the still shaky notion of gender equality is in our country. I can feel the satisfying spin of my finger in a plastic rotary phone in a way that I can’t feel a law. I can still summon the chalky taste of Pez more vividly than I can imagine a court case. Those textures make history concrete. They make it my history.
It was always my history, of course. But growing up in my house, we didn’t talk much about the world outside our four walls, much less outside of our city. I was raised in a church where women weren’t allowed to say a public prayer, much less give a sermon, and when I asked my mom if it ever bothered her, she said, “I don’t like public speaking anyway.” I remember, sometime in high school, stumbling across an essay by Linda Ellerbee in one of my mother’s magazines—Good Housekeeping? Ladies Home Journal?—that explained what it meant to be a feminist. It was the first time I’d ever considered the word as more than an insult. I grew up in Montgomery, and yet I don’t recall a single moment in school where any teacher mentioned the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the Civil Rights Movement.
Many things were unspoken while I played with my toys.
I like to think that we speak more in our house, my husband and I. We’ve usually got more questions than answers, but we voice them. I think of my own child playing with his Avengers action figures and stuffed animals, and I’d like to think his memories won’t be quite as oblivious as mine. Back when he was really small, he loved plastic football guys. Before every pretend game, the plastic men in their huddles would yell, “Are we going to tackle mean? No! Are we going to tackle nice? Yes! Do we give anyone concussions? No!”
He has had tornadoes and hurricanes sweep through his plastic worlds. He has a rainbow-colored monkey who, it turns out, invented the cure for stuffed animal Covid. He has a stuffed bear named Lovey Monkey because at the time he got it, he wasn’t distinguishing very well between bears and monkeys. It became a bit of a family joke. One day he told us, “Look, Lovey Monkey was born a bear, but he feels like a monkey. He would rather you call him a monkey and treat him like a monkey. It’s fine. He was only a bear on the outside.”
His stuffed animals take up half his bed. They have elected officials and extensive back stories. He will surely carry the smell and feel of them with him forever. I hope he does. I hope he remembers the world he’s created, where tiny pigs are rock climbers and a yellow bunny plays professional basketball and monkey scientists save lives. A world where every animal can do anything—everything—no limits.
Even decades from now, I don’t really expect the real world will mirror his bed. But maybe the textures will help him remember. Maybe the feel of Sarge’s rubbed-off nose and the soft fringe of Raffie’s tail will be what brings it back to him—the freedom. The power. The concrete feel of endless possibilities.