When I read the recent New York Times story by Mattie Kahn about Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, after more than forty years, I stopped feeling shame for a presentation I made in my college freshman communication class because I chose to wear a blazer the color of fuchsia.
Two bastions of the pink hue are in the news—Whitmer, who unabashedly embraces what she calls her power color, and Barbie, the doll and Greta Gerwig’s movie, that has made an endearing, mind-opening Pepto Bismol-colored splash.
When I read that Whitmer’s senior aides dressed a Barbie doll like their boss and featured “Lil’ Gretch” on social media wearing the governor’s signature color of fuchsia, I reeled back to when I was 19 in 1978, standing in a small room on the campus of Purdue University making a presentation to three male freshman. I winced at the memory, as I have every time I failed to squelch it during the last four-plus decades. But then I read that Whitmer boldly embraces wearing hot pink, and my shoulders reared back, I sat taller and kept reading. And remembering.
Communication 114, or Com 114, is a speech class that most freshman at Purdue are required to take. The course is for students majoring in everything from engineering to retailing—which I was in at the time I took it, but later switched to mass communication and became a writer. Our class was divided into teams, and I was the only female with three males. We were each to make a presentation to the other three as the teaching assistant (TA), a graduate student, observed and graded us.
As a retailing major who had worked at J.C. Penny during high school and then for a locally-owned, high-end clothing shop during college, I chose to make my presentation on fashion, marketing, and retailing. I made a poster to accompany my talk, as it was before the advent of PowerPoint. I wore my favorite linen blazer—a striking, solid fuchsia confection. Whenever I wore it, I received compliments. I knew I looked good in it.
I stood at the end of the table in the tight, sterile white room as the three males, probably engineering and computer science majors, peered up at me, expressionless. I must have looked like the female creature from the magenta lagoon. They could see that I was not the slide rule carrying type. At least that is how I always looked back on that day.
I made my presentation, pointing at my poster during key moments. Then I asked if there were questions. My three testosterone team mates, one in a striped rugby shirt and all three with Donny Osmond hair, sat motionless. One shifted in his chair. An uncomfortable silence ensued. The TA scribbled in her notebook. I finally sat down. I wanted to run.
But I had to listen to the other presentations. Probably about nuclear science or how to create your own hard drive. I don’t remember, but I do remember that I had to pretend I was interested. I wanted to cry.
A few days later. I received my critique from the TA. She wrote, “Always consider your audience when making a presentation.”
My heart sank even deeper into an abyss of insecurity and inadequacy. Self-deprecating thoughts ricochet in my head: How could I be so stupid as to talk about fashion in front of three guys? How could I have worn a color that shouted in neon, “I am female!”
As the 1980s rolled out, I read about the female power suit in Glamour magazine, and I bought one for job interviews. I saw this suit on women in movies like Working Girl with Melanie Griffith, Baby Boom with Diane Keaton and Mr. Mom with Teri Garr. I read that a woman needed to wear a dark skirt, matching blazer, and white blouse with a bow tied at the neck to resemble men in the work world and be taken seriously. Each time I saw such an image, I recalled standing before three apathetic men wearing FUCHSIA! And each time my self-esteemed withered.
I did not talk about it.
Until I read Governor Whitmer’s words in Kahn’s story. Whitmer said the dark suit “muted” women. “It’s all baloney. It’s about controlling women.” My heart lifted. I instantly stopped taking the blame.
When I read of Whitmer’s $500 hot pink suit made by Argent and produced in collaboration with the feminist collective Supermajority that she wore when she was first elected, I felt additionally vindicated. For her second inauguration she again wore fuchsia. The more I read, the more liberated I felt.
I never told anyone about what I had always thought of as my “failure in fuchsia.” I decided to tell my husband, who had been the one who sent me Kahn’s story on Whitmer and had been a Purdue engineering major who enjoyed taking Com 114 back in the day with a TA he liked. He remembered the class with warm nostalgia. As my shocking pink story sunk in, my husband sat dumbfounded. With what looked like a combination of guilt and sadness (or was it pity?) on his face, he managed to say, “That’s not good.”
When the TA said to consider my audience when making a presentation, she was not considering me. The topic I chose for my talk was one I enjoyed—fashion and retailing. Very Barbie. Very me. The TA was basically saying, “Don’t be yourself.”
Kahn wrote, “Ms. Whitmer does love fuchsia,” and “her mother, an assistant attorney general in Michigan, also favored the shade.” My mother, a housewife, loved pink so much that when I was born in 1959, the same year Barbie came into this world, my parents built a new house in small-town Frankfort, Indiana, with pink aluminum exterior siding. My mother’s name was Rosemary, and my middle name is Rose, so pink follows suit. As Julia Roberts, aka Shelby, in the movie Steel Magnolias stated, “Pink is my signature color.”
The adage in writing is to “write what you know.” For Com 114, I presented what I knew. I presented myself. In the Barbie movie Will Ferrell, who plays the fictionalized CEO of Mattel, angrily says, “No one rests until this doll is back in a box!” The TA wanted me in a box. A box of male conformity. Thanks to Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Greta Gerwig and Barbie, after more than forty years I am finally out of the box.
I’m with you, Governor Whitmer. “We’re going to continue to be fierce and feminine in our fuchsia.”