Women with bullhorns are in the streets crusading against oppression by men. With a fervor reminiscent of Joan of Arc, all they are missing is her white horse.
Until recently, I doubted the abuse of women to be so pervasive as to warrant wholesale gender rebellion. There is no fundamental flaw in my male character, I fumed, that demands reformation.
But, as more reports surface about women, particularly young girls, who were forced to wage private battles against sexual harassment, another story comes to mind that gives me pause.
The year is 1962. A teenager is shoehorned into the back seat of an old Ford as it labors up a mountain road in backwoods Arkansas. A weekend trip with older boys, their cigarette smoke wafting, makes him feel more grown up than his 13 years.
As they crest the hill, they overtake a bareback rider shrouded in evening mist, her horse the color of pale cream. Silhouetted against the deep green of a pine forest, her blond hair spills over a plaid shirt and down to her faded jeans. When the car passes, the boy cranes his neck to look at her. Roughly his age, she returns his smile.
But, just as quickly, a whoop erupts from the front seat. The driver U-turns and approaches the girl head-on to have a closer look. Cat calls rain down as the car breezes by. Her eyes and those of her mount grow round with fear. Tears begin streaming down her face as she kicks her horse into a canter searching for an escape.
The boy knows what’s happening is wrong, but is too timid to come to her defense. He cannot rationalize his behavior by casting the others as the sole provocateurs. He had his chance to intercede. He could have protected her, but lacked the courage.
The car pivots and returns again. By the time it pulls even with her she is riding at a full gallop. Holding fast to his bridle, she leans forward against the stallion’s shoulders in unison with each stride. Her hair trails like a jet stream. Never has the boy seen anyone as bold and beautiful.
When their eyes meet for the last time he feels sick with shame. She looks hurt, betrayed. But, her fear is now supplanted by determination. Outnumbered, vulnerable, and alone, she forges on. She will not be intimidated.
Fifty years later, the message still resonates. While it may not always be possible to tame aggression, the step to oppression is not inevitable. Good men can always intercede. They need only muster the bravery the boy could not. The brand of courage taught that day by the girl on the white horse.
I often wonder what became of that girl. I would like to apologize to her on the boy’s behalf. And I will if our eyes ever meet, again.