I walked into a business the other day and, on a white board, there was a riddle:
A boy and a doctor were fishing.
The boy was the doctor’s son,
but the doctor was not the boy’s father.
Who is the doctor?
A riddle. That’s all it was. A device to occupy one’s mind. A few words to challenge one’s thinking. A puzzle to solve. Yet, I felt like a balloon nearing a needle. Every molecule in me was screaming. Still, I kept my mouth shut. I know I should not have. I should have asked the young woman at the counter to erase it, but I didn’t want to be that woman. You know the one. The 50-something white woman complaining in public, being all irrational and emotional about a little riddle. She was so extra, she would say that evening when recounting the horrible day that started with me and went downhill from there. So, I kept my mouth shut. I have been thinking about it ever since.
The first time I heard that riddle, I was seven. It was the focus of an episode of All in the Family that aired on October 7, 1972—fifty years ago almost to the day (https://youtu.be/RzSA6hOe8IA ). Archie Bunker was a blue collar, conservative, racist, misogynist. Once a week, he would argue with his daughter and son-in-law on social issues. To the show’s credit, it made little girls like me angry. Angry at the patronizing way he treated his daughter. Angry every time he voiced his belief that we were less than, that we were here to serve men. The adults found him funny. That made me angry too. It was often pointed out to me that I took things too seriously as a child. Things seemed serious to me as a child. The 60’s and 70’s in this country were serious times.
In this particular episode, Archie ridiculed his son-in-law for sewing a button on his own shirt. Archie asserted that repairing his clothing is his wife’s job. Archie’s daughter asks a riddle that befuddles everyone until the last minutes of the program.
A man and his son are in a car accident.
The man is killed.
The son is rushed to the hospital and taken into surgery.
The surgeon walks in and says,
“I cannot operate on this boy. He is my son.”
How is that possible?
For thirty agonizing minutes, suggestions are made. In the end, Edith, Archie’s wife, figures it out. The surgeon is the boy’s mother. I was seven. I don’t recall if my parents knew the answer. I remember wanting the people on TV to know the answer. As an adult, I understand the writer’s intent. At least, I hope I do. Beyond making money, I think they wanted people to be outraged. They wanted to expose social injustice and get people talking about it. Regardless of their intent, this riddle has stayed with me for most of my life as a benchmark. Here is where we were. When I was seven, people couldn’t imagine a female surgeon. A lifetime of benchmarks, reminding me of my place in the world. Watching the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment to ratify at 14 because things were already equal (hardly!), and we didn’t need it in writing (seriously?). Being asked in a public forum at 30 how my husband would feel about me being a high school principal and all the nights out that required. At 35, being asked by one of my student’s fathers when I would be quitting my job as it was obvious that I was pregnant. Being second to my husband on financial documents. Counseling a young principal that she had rights and should not let her employment fears diminish this special time in her life. Following the fall of Roe, crying as I spoke to my daughter of my fears about her living in other states where she might not have autonomy over her body and medical decisions.
As I scrolled through my heavily feminist TikTok feed throughout last week, that whiteboard kept coming to mind. I felt shame for reacting so strongly to a little riddle. In a world where Mahsa Amini died in custody while being re-educated because she wore her hijab improperly, the riddle nagged at me. In a world where women are denied competent medical care based on the religious beliefs of politicians, that riddle squeezed my heart. In a world where women can be jailed for miscarriages, the riddle festered. Here’s the truth, I also felt ashamed for not speaking up. The riddle was such a small thing, but I lacked the courage to speak up. I worried about how I would be perceived. I could have done it rationally, but I didn’t want to make a big deal about such a little thing.
The truth is that the little things add up. A riddle here. A veiled sexist comment there. Watching female leaders criticized for interrupting while their male counterparts are lauded for their decisiveness and conviction. It is only a small leap to blaming a rape and murder victim for their poor decision to jog at night. It grows exponentially. One minute I am fourteen and being told not to make waves. The next minute, I am fifty-seven and the mother of a young woman who is being told that senators and congresspeople are the best people to make her medical decisions. I wish I had made more waves—nothing but waves. A typhoon of waves. Young women are watching. For all I know, that female receptionist was offended too but did not feel she could speak up. For all I know, she was waiting for a someone to ask her to take down that reminder that even today people don’t say, “That’s not a riddle. That is obvious and demeaning. It needs to go.”