1969 was a character-defining year—for the country, for my generation, for women, for me. It was deeply overshadowed by the Vietnam War, which had become about pride versus patriotism. Who were we if we stayed in Vietnam? What were we if we left? With the country divided, everyone had to choose.
My novel, The Fourteenth of September, recasts those times from a woman’s point of view—those who were “in it” with the men, with all but their lives on the line. I call my book a “coming of conscience novel,” and with the 50th anniversary of its real-life events upon us, it’s clear our once-again divided country faces a collective coming of conscience moment where integrity trumps consequences.
It’s time again for everyone to choose.
My generation’s character was formed in the six months that kicked off with the televised “game show” of the first Draft Lottery on December 1, 1969. (The first number drawn was 258: September 14.) It concluded with the gunning down of Kent State students the following May.
We were being targeted by a government that was supposed to protect us. All bets were off. I don’t know anyone who went through those months who doesn’t remember it like it was yesterday, and who didn’t have to make at least one decision of conscience: to go to Vietnam or Canada, to help a guy cheat on his test so he wouldn’t flunk out of college and be drafted, to ostracize ourselves from our WWII generation parents who still believed that this war was their war, to regretfully stop talking to white friends because they had to sit at the Black Power table, to make a fateful decision about a surprise pregnancy.
While the world leapfrogged ahead, we scrambled in its wake to catch up, learn new rules, new mores, new goals. We were the first generation raised to follow our passion versus just make a living, to break the bonds of old cycles, to change the world. We took it seriously.
Though it often felt like the worst of times, in 1969 we were also moving forward with feminism, the fight for affordable college, the beginning of the end of the war, the eventual lowering of the voting age to 18, a path to the volunteer army, advances in civil rights that led to more diversity today, breakthroughs in attitudes and health care that helped redefine women’s lives. It was a time of activism and turmoil—some laudable, some frightening—but we were always moving forward.
Throughout the sixties we were shattering institutions to make things better. Today, we’re tearing things down—from climate change to international diplomacy—with no vision for replacement. Another generation will need to pick up the pieces, not a legacy but the hamster wheel of history.
I recently taught a Women’s Studies class at my alma mater, the real-life inspiration for my novel’s fictional setting. I described the historical scene: the straight, white world of their own university 50 years before.
I focused on female sexuality. I took the students back to the days of humiliating questions to get birth control pills from the health center, when condoms were unreliable rubbers, the dorm conversations about rhythm and pulling out, how easy it was for a mistake to happen. And of course, the unreported assaults.
I hadn’t included the underground abortion culture of the time in my novel, but in the class, I shared stories of two of my roommates and the peril and anguish of their illegal procedures—one back-office, one back-alley. I hadn’t gone through it myself, but was “in it,” much like the war.
The students were stunned. They viewed back-alley abortions and the Draft Lottery as equally barbaric, impossible to fathom, as if it had occurred long ago on a different planet. And yet, it had happened when I was a student “only” 50 years before, sitting in the same lecture hall on the same campus. And it could happen again.
Fifty years from now, the future cannot look like the world we already changed. Defending Roe v. Wade is a coming of conscience decision we all have to make.