Love — it don’t come easy
In South Africa in the early 70s we had women’s lib, people’s lib and gay lib. We had a few local heroes. Fewer role models of note. Many of us wed and then we fled. Why? I guess we were just products of our time.
By Wanda Hennig
First published in Cosmopolitan, July 1989.*
I remember the day I got married. Not the weather, which is unsurprising as August is typically a balmy winter month in Durban.
What I remember is driving through town with my cousin, the mother of my flower girl. She was busy divorcing the Arab doctor she’d met and married while modelling in Ireland. Fine, till she went with him to the family home in Iran and became veritably imprisoned by his culture, tradition and 1,000 relatives. She had escaped by returning home to South Africa on holiday: permanently. Now the Grey Street crowds brought him to mind and had her muttering about mistakes, marriage and men in general.
I remember asking myself for the umpteenth time what I’d got myself into. I remember wondering what would happen if I were suddenly to opt out and leave town. I remember reassuring myself that it would all be over within, at a random guess, eight months. I had no illusions. My marriage definitely wouldn’t last.
We got married at night. We asked the priest to make it as late as possible and to keep the service short. I don’t know why I say “we” because in retrospect there was no negotiation. The decisions were all mine, right down to the groom’s purple trousers and black velvet Beatles jacket. I had been to a Catholic school so church seemed more significant than any other place to get things done. I wanted a party for my friends so scared off all but the closest “oldies” with threats of an ear-bashing from the mobile disco. I wouldn’t have my hair done as that was contrived. I wouldn’t go on honeymoon as that was a silly middle-class convention.
I got angry at my husband-to-be before the wedding because he was with the MC who, par for the times, arrived sporting a handsome borrowed dinner suit, Superman T-shirt and takkies. They were swigging Dutch courage while I was tarting up and trying to disguise my seven-month-pregnant cleavage with a fabric rose.
I realise now that I was envious of him, as I’d have been more comfortable at the pub. And I was scared. I needed reassurance. Instead I remained angry during the reception because, unquestioning and committed, he was having a good time while I endured purgatory, wondering what I was doing at the centre of all the fuss.
After the wedding I was furious with myself for having wasted the occasion. I took it out on my new husband, who spent what was left of the night on the couch in the lounge.
I know it all sounds awful. I come across as a miserable bitch with a capital B — ungrateful and spoilt rotten.
But to tell you the truth, the only person who didn’t enjoy the event was me. The wedding album show someone smiling and serene. Whoever said the camera never lies should have got life for fraud! Nobody out there was aware of my inner turmoil. I didn’t put it into words. In fact, I wouldn’t have known how as I didn’t understand it myself.
Only years later did I realise that in my conflict I was being buffeted along by the inconsistencies of the time. I was caught as if in a high-speed washing machine with all the colours running — and I was not alone. Many of us who slipped the noose on in our early 20s, in the early 70s, were in the same precariously bobbing boat. Representing the swirling fabrics were long-established conventions (my marriage!) — worn out like last year’s favourite sweatshirt that retains a certain comfort and so is guaranteed a place in the drawer for another season. These had been variously diluted by the “flower power” philosophies of freedom and the ostensible liberation of the pill (it gave the means — when we remember to take it — but in the end, sexual double standards remained). Then there were the welcome rumblings of feminism — and last but not but by no means least, all manner of unresolved personal hangups.
My marriage didn’t end after eight months. Doomed to failure from the start (through no man’s fault), it limped along for eight years. During that time, several other friends and acquaintances also tied the knot. At one time, there were six couples who met regularly for dinner on Saturday nights. We did the rounds of each other’s flats. Then someone moved up in the world to duplexes and houses.
We made love, we made war. Some of us made babies. I remember telling my ex I would have another child when I was in a position to support us financially. He could then be a house-husband – and I could be fulfilled. One problem: I was collecting degrees while he was collecting work experience. While the value of education had been repeatedly stressed, for many of us the career remained some esoteric vagary. We had no doubt that we would work but primarily, we were developing options. We each eventually found a niche but through trial-and-error rather than planning and goal-setting.
So life went on. Until eventually, all but one couple moved apart.
Some opted for repeat marriages, some went to other towns, some have moved into careers and lifestyles where men remain periphery to the real action.
I hadn’t given more than a fleeting thought to the pattern until I bumped into the former husband of a still-best friend in the baggage queue at Jan Smuts recently. It struck me that he was the best-looking man in the concourse, as personable as he is attractive. And that professionally, many of my mother’s ilk would dub him a good catch.
It then dawned on me that among our old group of couples these qualities with the norm. And yet in each case, the woman became disillusioned and left.
That’s when I started wondering what it was that we’d been looking for – and what we hadn’t found. Was there a common thread? I hear a persistent echo of the words “find ourselves”.
I called my friend Paula in Johannesburg, the one who ditched Jan Smuts’ Mr Eligible. Remarried with two young kids, she works hard, plays hard and manages to put more quality time into childcare than the average stay-at-home mum. (Names and places have been juggled to protect innocent spouses who are no longer involved.)
We’d chatted a couple of weeks previously about her latest business venture. “I have nightmares that I’ll end up destitute and in the gutter,” she confided at the time. “In the unlikely event that it doesn’t work, you’ve got your (very successful) husband to fall back on,” I’d challenged — and waited for the predictable: “That’s not how I am. I could never allow myself to depend on him financially. If I fail, I fail.”
Assertiveness. Independence. Options. Ah-ha. A picture began to take shape, so I asked her to turn back the clock and tell the story of why she wed and why she fled. “There have to be enough benefits to make you stay — otherwise you go,” she declared, before pondering the finer points.
So what went wrong?
“It’s difficult to recall exactly how I felt at the time. I know I always believed in marriage. At varsity, I had many intellectual, social and spiritual partners — but none where the sexual side was also present. Until I met John, who seemed to meet all those needs. I remember critically weighing him up and thinking, he likes animals, he likes children, he’s kind to his parents, he’s just and fair. For such qualities, I could admire and respect him. He was good-looking, which appealed to my hunter instincts (you identify someone with certain criteria, you aim – and to get him is an ego-boost!). The physical attraction grew. I was 24, which was an acceptable age to marry. With no other reference, I believed sex-equals-love-equals-marriage. There was the prospect of a honeymoon in Europe. Simply, two and two edit up to four and for both of us, that was it.”
“The physical attraction wasn’t sustained. There were romantic moods, but there was a barrier that didn’t allow me to totally unleash in the relationship and I felt frustrated.
“Also, I started to feel a spiritual abandonment. Intellectually and socially he was holding me.
Emotionally, he was quite supportive. He could share things like my work problems. But I had an existential longing. At a spiritual level, I couldn’t explore with him visions of the future, concepts of God, politics and the meaning of life.
“It made me very restless. I found myself looking to my career for total fulfilment — then I started having mental intrigues with other men. But it took me a while to undermine what I had chosen because in conventional terms, there was nothing wrong with the relationship or with him.
“I just felt I would be able to explore myself more freely on my own. And essentially, I felt it was dishonest to stay because I was no longer committed to making future plans.”
Although she didn’t leave for another man, she met her present husband around this time.
“He gave me a glimmer of spiritual attachment. We began an affair and really, one should not make the mistake of underestimating physical disloyalty. It undermines the basis of a marriage. You’re less able to share at other levels and the bond essentially breaks.”
Paula says she moved out comparatively easily once the decision was made. She headed for a new town, a new career and (“I’m a bit of a hunter”) on the horizon was a new love object to conquer. Now free, she could explore the relationship she’d tentatively began while married. There was a lingering post-divorce depression that lasted about two years.
“But I didn’t have a large investment in the marriage. I had no children. My career put me on an equal footing financially. Typically, John was very understanding. If he’d ranted and cried and pleaded with me to stay, maybe I would have reconsidered but he took no charge of my life, so I took complete charge. I know total independence sounds ideal but for a marriage to survive, there has to be mutual responsibility. Passive love isn’t enough.”
NO LOCAL HEROES
Those days — the late 60s and early 70s down on the tip of Africa — our young white English-speaking identities were rooted in the UK and the States as we had no local heroes. We wallowed in the Stones, planned pilgrimages to Carnaby Street and ached to be at Woodstock. People smoked grass and grew their hair. (The movie Withnail and I said it all!) Friends headed for India and the guru trail. Returned with lingering symptoms of hepatitis. We read what we could of Germaine Greer, Shulamith Firestone and Betty Friedan who were voicing what many of us felt at gut level. The closets were opening on gay lib. Men’s lib, however, was light years away.
Jim, one of the husbands in our group, was stunned when his wife said she was divorcing him.
“I was shattered, and bitter for years. Through other relationships and friendships with women, I eventually came to understand that while I was doing everything by the book, the texts needed updating. My mother never worked. She cooked and sewed and as long as my father provided financially and helped around the house, she seemed happy. It took me years to appreciate how different Vicky was. I reckon had we met 10 years later, when we were both older, wiser and more patient, things could have been very good.”
Said a Durban psychologist, “Early in any relationship, it’s not the real person that one sees but a product of one’s unconscious. You read into your partner qualities that you believe should be there. A woman who has thrown off the traditional stereotypes of her gender will often presume a man feels the same way, simply because she is attracted to him. She sees what she expects to see. It’s the same for the traditional man. Many women are married by the time the reality sinks in.”
She adds that the 60s and 70s were notable for the lack of relevant role models. Who did we have to emulate? Significant mothers were the exception. Career women with few and far between. Twiggy and The Shrimp come to mind, both looking good — and seemingly gormless.
And so we floundered hopefully on.
I recall a debate with a mate. The ultimate body-mind dilemma. It was a tug of war between breasts and brains. She was tall, glamorous and popular. But she had a problem. Her chest was as flat as the proverbial pancake. She liked a certain man who showed no interest. She was sure he would, if only she had boobs. But she also had a brain. And she wanted a career. She knew an Honours degree was a step in the right direction. She’d inherited a small sum of money. Enough to enhance either boobs or brain but not both.
She chose to spend the money developing her mind, which I think says something about direction. Today she is rich and becoming famous. She reckons she made the right choice. She can’t remember the name of her one time infatuation. But many people remember hers!
NO CINDERELLA AFFAIRS
Back to my story.
I had never thought seriously of marriage. The ones I’d seen, including my parents’, were no Cinderella affairs with fairytale endings. My mother, I was sure, was only there for the security and the way she used my father appalled me. But, having set up and then cancelled an illegal abortion, which seemed kind-of sordid (the legal option being the financially impossible a-la-London route), it seemed unfair to load nonconformity and the possible hang-ups of illegitimacy on a child. All in all, marriage seemed the simplest thing to do.
Besides, Bruce was a marrying kind. I would have recommended him to anyone keen on a considerate well-meaning, dependable spouse.
The long and the short of it, we got married. He got involved in his job. I carried on at varsity and smug as it may sound, outgrew him.
I think the marriage might have survived had we gone to live overseas after the ’76 Soweto riots. There was a mass exodus of close friends, many of whom later returned. I was very keen to go, not necessarily to stay, but simply for comparison so we could have options in choosing a future. For several months I had disturbing dreams alternating between guns and anguished faces on remaining here — and of desolate isolation in a strange land. Bruce stalled year after year, saying he needed more work experience to make him viable.
What he couldn’t accept was that he wasn’t on his own. I came to realise that the nothingness in my dreams was actually symbolising the state of my marriage. He would never see us as a working unit and me as a companion. He had been too well programmed into the traditional male role of provider, which ultimately fulfilled no need in me as I knew I could provide for myself.
One night I lay in the depths of depression. He was next to me. I suddenly thought of myself alone and 60 years old. And decided I could not be lonelier than I was at that very minute. The next day, I phoned the lawyer and have subsequently found fulfilment in my work, my daughter, my lifestyle and serial monogamy.
WOMEN IN ACTION
So what went wrong? In plain and simple terms, we all chose honest-to-goodness traditional men in the mould of our fathers, but we were not our mothers.
My friends and I (and many others) were caught betwixt in between. We wanted lovers, friends and partners but our men had only learned to be providers.
We met them as students. We married them and they slotted into their prepared roles. Fine, had we merely wanted to live off them, but we wanted to live with them.
It was in the early 70s that Women in Action, a feminist organisation spawned in the psychology department of the University of Natal, put out the country’s first comprehensive handbook on women’s rights. As we’d suspected, they were far more wrongs than rights and predictably, Fair Lady magazine agreed to sponsor publication.
I remember bristling when compiling the section on women in sport to discover that not only disinclination but also a statute relating to my sex precluded me from a career in boxing or wrestling. Not surprising, at a time when you needed a sex change to enter the Comrades Marathon. More serious matters relating to abortion and marital injustice were the obvious focus and many words were flung at relevant parliamentary ears.
South Africa was changing. We were being steadily sensitised to the realities of political injustice by police action on campuses and in townships. After the 1975 International Women’s Year Convention in Grahamstown, Women in Action formed the springboard for the birth of Women for Peaceful Change.
“We realised that our problems were luxurious compared to the gut-wrenching issues affecting black women, and that people’s liberation was more relevant than women’s liberation,” says Dr Phillipa Clark, recently retired Durban psychology lecturer and a founder member of both organizations.
This added another dimension to the debate as women, for the first time in any numbers, began uniting across colour lines. If one didn’t join in, one felt guilty. Either way, one was not left untouched.
As Bob Dylan had been vocalising for some years, times they were a-changing. In retrospect, no wonder we women were in turmoil, caught as we were in so many riptides. I guess we were just products of our time.
© Wanda Hennig
* Reading this 30 years on, it is a reminder that any piece of “memoir” writing reflects that particular time. As we change, our stories, perceptions and interpretations change. Our truth changes. No point being self-critical, disparaging. The “offending” bits gives food for thought, for reflection, for new writing.