I was a freshman at Whittier College in 1971 when Jane Fonda came for a “little” visit. Well, this caused a stir. For one thing, Jane Fonda was about “causing stirs” and what better place to make a statement than Richard Nixon’s alma mater (1934). I remember it well! I didn’t know; however, that LIFE magazine had sent a reporter. It came as a complete surprise when a friend called to tell me he’d seen my picture–and that he thought I looked pale.
Allow me to provide a little landscape to what I was thinking leading up to college.
If you’re close to my age or older you will remember that beginning in the mid-60’s the war was brought to us via on-the-spot Saigon news bureaus and the colloquialism, “living room war,” entered the American lexicon. For several years the nightly news televised coverage of the war, including combat footage. Following the Tet Offensive and the beginning of American troop withdrawals in 1969, television coverage began to change, reporting a greater emphasis on the human costs. It’s widely remembered that Walter Cronkite closed a news report on the Tet Offensive by expressing the view that the war was unwinnable. As the “most trusted man in America” openly expressed a lack of confidence in leadership, a larger segment of the American public shifted support to the anti-war movement.
While college campuses across the country erupted in protests in opposition of the war, students at my high school loosely organized sit-ins, walk-outs and protracted silences (I seem to remember book drops, too!) protesting the quality of cafeteria food and bargaining for the loosening of dress code restrictions. But those silly actions stopped almost over night. May 4, 1970, one month before I graduated from high school, news of the Kent State shootings quickly spread across campus and settled on edgy and impressionable college-bound teenagers. Students who entered high school certain the war couldn’t possibly continue into their young adulthood were a summer away from college and the young men were beginning to seriously consider the impact of their draft lottery numbers. These were the things my friends and I were talking about.
There were many messages coming at me during my first year of college. Whittier was a relatively quiet and conservative campus, but free speech areas were common meeting grounds for debate and anti-war voices regularly clashed with those in support of the President and reinforcing Cold War ideology. And then Jane Fonda came to campus.
At the end of 1970 she spoke out against the war at a rally organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and volunteered to raise funds on their behalf. She then started a tour of college campuses to share her perspectives, as well as raise money. This was more than a year before she visited Hanoi and reached the height of her controversy.
I really don’t recall what impressions I held before I walked into that room, but I do remember being curious. I wasn’t bored or just looking for something interesting to do, I really wanted to see for myself and to hear what she had to say. I recall that the official position from top college administration was that we were NOT to go and that we would not be given valid excuses for missing any classes. I also remember professors saying the exact opposite.
I have thought so many times about my initial impressions. I thought she was pretty. To my barely nineteen-year-old self she seemed sophisticated and I probably wouldn’t have used the word then, but now, I’d say she had “presence.” I also clearly remember thinking she was speaking reasonably, and that somehow I’d been given the impression she’d sound more militant. She had a point of view, and she expressed it passionately. I do remember thinking she seemed rather ordinary, speaking as a private citizen, not a public figure or actress.
I also remember enjoying a conversation rather than listening to a speech. She had opinions, but didn’t deliver them with as much persuasion as I might have expected. The exact content I have long forgotten, but I clearly remember being so glad I was hearing her for myself, not having someone else interpret for me. Beyond these few recollections, I’m hazy. I would actually love to get back inside that 19-year old head and take a look around. Was there much in there? I really don’t know.
I have a strong interest in this volatile era, and I’ve read numerous books, faithfully followed television and movie documentaries, and attempted to soak up a mammoth amount of history in an attempt to better understand and reconcile my weak memory with properly documented information. I could never read or study enough; however, to say that I have a very good grasp of more than the basics. It was a complex and very contradictory period in American history.
My brief 1971 encounter with Ms. Fonda was a long, long time ago. But whenever I look at the picture and see a mini-skirted teen-aged me, I think about how I didn’t know it then, but I was just emerging as a person who values and appreciates political history, but also needs a variety of opinions and the opportunity to consider multiple perspectives before forming strong opinions of my own. I have always asked questions when I don’t understand, and If I can investigate and add to my knowledge of a subject by listening to what others have to say, I feel enriched.
I didn’t seek out Jane Fonda because I love controversy. I simply wanted to understand. I am energized when listening to people who may think differently than I do and I don’t always need resolution or consensus. I value the sharing of ideas, and it isn’t always possible to resolve differences in opinion, but it is important to me that differences in opinion be respected. It’s not unusual for me to change my mind on a matter after considering new information–I’m often more comfortable with that than others around me. I think there’s a richness in developing a flexible mind and I hope to never lose that. My core values and beliefs don’t change, but surrounding information may shift with new information!
Nineteen-year-old Debra was seeing and hearing for herself, standing in the back row, not too close—just taking it all in and figuring out what resonated and what did not. Sometimes critical thinking is simply listening to hear without discarding information that may not fit a previously held belief. I don’t ever want to lose curiosity or to stop asking questions, and moving into a new decade and realizing that I’m getting older only opens up a whole new freedom to discard any need to be the expert, and instead delivers fresh experiences, new ways of thinking along with valuing others’ viewpoints and perspectives. With that in mind I can’t imagine ever being bored.