Freda Love Smith is a lecturer and advisor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University. She is a rock drummer and co-founder of the Blake Babies, Antenna, Some Girls, and the Mysteries of Life, is a staff writer for Paste Magazine, and has published short stories in journals such as the North American Review, SmokeLong, Bound Off and Riptide. Her first book, Red Velvet Underground: A Rock Memoir, with Recipes, was published on November 1, 2015 by Agate/Midway.
(Photo Credit: Rebecca Dudley)
VOICES is a new Talkhouse series in which artists will discuss current events through their own unique lens. For each article written, the publication donates to a charity of the musician’s choosing. Freda chose Planned Parenthood.
— Brenna Ehrlich, Talkhouse Music Editor-in-Chief
Hear me roar
I was five, she was six, and my neighbor and I knew every word to Helen Reddy’s early ’70s radio hit “I Am Woman.” See us, hear us, young she-lions, roaring our hearts out on my modest Indianapolis, Indiana lawn: “I am STRONG, I am INVINCIBLE.” Like all kids, then and now, we understood more than grownups realized. Our kindergarten teacher read to us about Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman; our anguish at the terrible injustices of the past had already been awakened. And we knew it mattered that our mothers had jobs — that we were allowed to run around the neighborhood in jeans, loud and free. Prices had been paid. “But look how much I gained!” we yelled, our promising futures stretched out before us.
I know too much to go back and pretend
I was seven, he was five, and my brother and I jumped at the sight of the green Chevy truck pulling into our driveway. Our mom’s boyfriend was home, which meant that every toy must be off the floor, the house must be perfect or terror would follow. The she-lion in me had taken some hits, and over the years it grew harder and harder to fall asleep — as the dark, hot middle of the night was worse even than the bright, cold rage of day.
It’s wisdom born of pain
We were fourteen, and my best buddy Dee and I lay sprawled on my bedroom floor, listening as the radio announcer told us that the Equal Rights Amendment had failed to be ratified by the required number of states and had reached its final deadline. The ERA — which simply sought to guarantee equal rights under the law for men and women — was dead in 1982. What a bewildering world.
Dee and I were ferociously political, we hated Ronald Reagan, we’d marched with our mothers on Washington the year before on “Solidarity Day” in the wake of his shocking firing of more than ten thousand striking air traffic controllers. We mocked Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly; we believed it impossible that these narrow-minded old people could fuck up the world that we intended to inherit. But the death of the ERA, like the firing of the air traffic controllers, revealed the steely imperial forces at work. We battled daily with leering, bra-snapping boys in middle school, but the future was ours, not theirs. Right?
After the news, the station went back to music. “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder was the number one song in the country, and it did nothing to inspire, a weak and wistful sigh of resignation. Thankfully, Dee and I would soon discover the Clash.
I’ve been down there on the floor
I was twenty. He was thirty-five. His face came into focus a couple of inches from mine. I kind of knew him, and admired him. He’d been on the Boston music scene for years, while I was a cocky young drummer, new to the scene, hard-partying and confident. I freely walked the streets of Boston at night and prided myself on my ability to drink boys under the table. His fingers pinched into my left bicep and he shook my arm. “Hey there,” he said. “Come on. Get up.” Where was I? Whose bedroom was this? I was slumped against a wall. I’d run into him at a party; were we still there? I slid back into the darkness of my blackout. Then I felt my pants around my ankles and I knew, even if I couldn’t remember. My eyes opened. He laughed. And then he left. We crossed paths again many times, and I wanted to smack him, throw a drink in his face, say something to his wife, rip the nervous smile off his face. But I did nothing except shake and sweat. It took a few years for that to stop. And I never again tried to drink anybody under anything.
I’m still an embryo
I was forty-nine. It was November 8, 2016. I wore a pantsuit and an “I Voted” sticker. It was impossible to concentrate on work, so I scrolled through pantsuit selfies on Facebook before clicking through to an NPR piece claiming that the most comforting song of all time was the ’70 track “Ooh Child” by the Five Stairsteps. I listened, and I blubbered, but these were tears of hope. One by one each of the above memories — most of which had been well-buried — arose in my consciousness, and formed an incomplete circle that could be closed by this historic moment, the election of our first woman president. And — more significantly — by the defeat of a dangerous, reprehensible bully. All these former selves of mine needed him to lose: the strong little girl on the lawn, the timid abused child, the discouraged feminist teenager, the humiliated young woman.
And then it was November 9.
Trump was all of them. He was imperious Reagan, the bra-snapping middle school bully, the sneaky rapist, and the punishing step-father — smug, unscathed, triumphant. My pantsuit sat crumpled in the corner for weeks.
With a long, long way to go
On a quiet Sunday afternoon a month after the election, I finally found the heart to listen to “I Am Woman” while I did some recipe testing. I hadn’t spent much time cooking since November 8 — I’d lost my appetite in general, and gone off meat entirely. Suddenly meat seemed miserable and violent and patriarchal and I couldn’t stomach it. But we must eat! We are grief-stricken, we are enraged, but we must keep our strength, so I set out to come up with a plant-based protein bar. I had just registered to attend the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, and I thought it might be helpful to have a backpack full of portable homemade food.
What better soundtrack for this project than a ’70s feminist icon? I messed around with protein powder and peanut butter and nuts and seeds, and cranked Helen Reddy’s 1971 debut album, I Don’t Know How to Love Him. The album includes an early version of “I Am Woman”— sans a third verse and the triumphant backing vocals of the later hit. The song sits buried among pleasant, jazzy covers (“Our House” by Graham Nash, “Crazy Love” by Van Morrison). Reddy wrote “I Am Woman” because she couldn’t find a song to cover that expressed the way she felt about the burgeoning women’s movement and her personal commitment to it. “I Am Woman” seemed destined for obscurity, but a year after its release the song was selected to run behind the opening credits for the 1972 film Stand and Be Counted. Reddy’s record label wanted to be prepared with a radio-ready single, in case the movie hit big; they insisted she write another verse to bring the short song up to a more standard length, and sent her back into the studio with some of L.A.’s top musicians to record the version we know. The movie was not a hit. And the song limped around the bottom of the Billboard charts while Reddy promoted the hell out of it, appearing on every TV talk show and variety show that would have her. Her manager spent hours a day on the phone to radio stations, urging them to play the song. The turning point, though — according to Reddy’s autobiography, The Woman I Am — came when “women began calling radio stations and requesting the song, thereby forcing airplay.” By the end of 1972 it was number one. The ERA had just passed Congress to be submitted to the states for ratification. Hillary Rodham was primed to graduate from law school.
If I have to, I can face anything
She was sixty-nine, and she was conceding her run for the presidency. She looked composed, a smile drawn tightly on her face:
“…and to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.” Cut to sobbing little girls in the room, putting their arms around each other.
See me standing toe to toe
The kitchen is a place I turn to when I need a sense of achievement, and although it took me a half-dozen attempts to come up with a good protein bar, I finally found what I was looking for. A meal for emergencies. A meal for survival. The hit single version of “I Am Woman” was my soundtrack throughout, and it infused the process with mixed emotions, from stirring inspiration to crushing disappointment to full-on rage. I’ve let the she-lion in me sleep for far too long. I’m doing the things many of you are doing — I donated to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. I’m trying to be more conscious about what I read. I’m paying particular attention to the voices of black woman activists, such as Women’s March on Washington administrator ShiShi Rose, who wrote a compelling call-to-action on the group’s Facebook page, reminding me to be aware of my privilege: “For some people, their outlook of this country deeply changed on November 9th. For the rest of us, this is how it has always looked.”
And I’ll be in Washington on January 21, roaring again, as best I can. I’ll see you there. If you’re hungry, hit me up for a protein bar. I’ll pack extra.
PROTEIN BARS FOR INVINCIBILITY
½ cup coconut oil
1 cup raw walnuts, chopped
½ cup raw pistachios, chopped
½ cup raw pumpkin seeds, chopped
¼ cup raw sunflower seeds
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup ground flaxseed
¼ cup protein powder or powdered soymilk
1 (scant) cup salted, crunchy peanut butter
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons brown rice syrup (or other liquid sweetener, like agave syrup or honey)
1 ½ cups unsweetened puffed cereal (I used a combination of crisp rice and puffed millet, but any grains will work)
Line a 9 x 9-inch baking pan with parchment paper.
In a large skillet over medium heat, melt coconut oil. Add walnuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds and stir constantly for 3-4 minutes, until nuts and seeds brown a little and smell toasty. Turn off heat and add salt. Stir well to combine.
Transfer mixture to a large mixing bowl and add flaxseed, protein powder, peanut butter, and rice syrup. Stir well. Stir in puffed cereal. (Mixture will be thick and hard to stir. But you are STRONG.)
Press mixture firmly and evenly into baking pan and refrigerate 2-3 hours. Cut into bars and wrap individually. These might get a bit melty in the heat; best if stored in the fridge or packed for winter marches.
(Photo credit: Stacee Sledge)