Josna Rege

88. Sisters, Pick Up Your Sisters

In 1970s, Britain, Politics, Stories, United States, women & gender on December 31, 2010 at 11:24 am

vermontguardian.com photo by Christopher Parker

Hitchhiking was a way of life for young people in the Sixties and was still a fairly common practice in the Seventies, when we were old enough to do it. Andrew and I had many memorable experiences hitchhiking around England in 1971, the summer after we graduated from high school and, back in the States, we regularly picked up hitchhikers in our old milk truck, whose bench seats could—and often did—accommodate up to eight passengers as we trundled up and down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston on our way to and from work.

Both as hitchhikers and as drivers, our rides were overwhelmingly enjoyable. When people picked us up they shared food and fellowship with us, and, in the privacy of their vehicles, also shared their hopes and dreams with perfect strangers. We did have one hairy experience, though. Once, in that Summer of 1971, a lorry driver picked us up on a cold, rainy afternoon somewhere in Cambridgeshire, after we had been waiting for a long time. Overjoyed to be taken in out of the rain, we bundled into the lorry’s cab with him, dripping wet, and listened politely as he talked.

Or rather, ranted. As he got into full spate, we became progressively more uncomfortable, since he was soon on the topic of “these long-haired layabouts,” all of whom ought to be taken out and shot. I stole a look at Andrew, who was squeezed right up against our hospitable hippie-hater on the front seat, and was relieved to find that his long, damp locks were safely tucked into the collar of his turquoise corduroy shirt. Still, it would only be a matter of time before the jig was up and we could only breathe freely again when he dropped us off at last, his run taking him in a different direction.

As the decade wore on, horror stories about the dangers of hitchhiking took hold of the popular imagination. Strangely enough, although I would have thought that the dangers for hitchhikers themselves, especially women, were far greater than the dangers for the motorists who picked them up, most of these stories featured attacks on hapless motorists and people became afraid of picking up travelers thumbing a ride at the side of the road. Whether or not they were urban legends (and in those days before the Internet, there was no snopes.com to verify or dismiss such rumors), stories circulated in which motorists stopped to pick up a lone woman only to be jumped by her male accomplice hiding behind a bush, and these deterred many people even from giving rides to women. In many states, laws were passed prohibiting hitchhiking on all public roadways, and even in liberal Massachusetts it is now illegal to hitchhike on turnpikes and highway ramps. In many states with particularly tyrannical car cultures, just being a pedestrian renders one suspect.

In this increasingly forbidding climate, the women’s movement in the mid-Seventies came up with an inspired campaign to protect both female hitchhikers and female motorists: a bumper sticker campaign with the slogan, “Sisters, Pick Up Your Sisters.” If women picked up women, the reasoning went, both parties would be safer, since the perpetrators of violence on either side were almost exclusively male. I don’t know how widespread the campaign was, but for several years the bumper sticker was quite a common sight around the Greater Boston area. It was a terrific idea, and one that I would like to see revived.

One would think that with gasoline prices rising again, hitchhiking would be making a comeback, along with carpooling and ridesharing, but after all this time it would require a change in our individualistic culture. I still pick up a woman occasionally, if there’s room in the car, if it’s safe to pull over and stop, and if I’m not in a hurry; a lot of ifs, but every time I take the trouble to do so, the experience turns out to be such an interesting one that I ask myself why I don’t do it more often.

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  1. This is an interesting one, mainly because it is completely out of my experience. I did not live in this country until the early 70’s, and in Southern California I was encouraged never to pick up strangers or accept a ride from anyone I did not know well. Some of those horror stories actually came true not far from here in the late 80’s when a highway patrolman in his official car stopped a young woman just off the freeway and raped and murdered her. That probably finished what was left of public trust in the whole idea of hitch-hiking and probably severely damaged people’s trust in the Highway patrol for many years. Luckily later generations of drivers and passengers have gradually forgotten those stories and trust has slowly been restored to our thinking. However, in this part of the country anyway, there seem to be fewer and fewer hitch-hikers along highways and we have more and larger freeways now which forbid any stopping except in emergencies.
    In some ways, I envy you living in what sounds like a much friendlier place.

  2. I do remember that campaign but I cannot remember more than a handful of rides from “sisters” as I hitched into and around Boston in my teens and early 20s. Perhaps fewer young women owned cars ? I do not remember seeing many women drivers passing me by. I do remember making sure the driver had pants on and the door had a working latch on the inside. You just hoped the guy’s conversation wasn’t too disgusting and that he kept on course – no side streets or sudden changes in direction. The first time I owned a car it was such a junkheap that I could not stop without stalling completely and I owned for 6 shirt weeks.. 8 years later I became part owner of working vehicle when I got married but there weren’t, as you noted, many hitchhikers left.

    But I had stopped hitching before that, after a friend of the family’s younger sister was found brutally murdered. She was last seen by room mates as she hitched from Central Square in Cambridge to her job as a waitress on Boylston Street in Boston. She was the same age as me but we had never met. Her older sister, our friend, was devastated.

  3. Dear Marianne, Dear Norah, You both rightly point to the very real dangers of hitchhiking for women alone, and I wouldn’t want to dismiss or underestimate that risk in any way. Your stories of young woman attacked and killed by the Highway Patrol officer and your friend who was murdered are terribly sad. That’s the main reason I thought the Sisters, Pick Up Your Sisters campaign was so inspired. Every time I saw a woman hitchhiking alone I felt it my duty to pick her up for her own protection. I think you’re probably right, Norah, that not as many women had their own cars back then (wow, that makes me feel old); and on a lighter note, Marianne, when you say that “in some ways” you envy me living in a friendlier place, do you mean that for all its frenetic freeways and maniacal highway patrol officers, you’d rather live in sunny Southern California? x J

  4. Those days do seem long over! I had a few scary times when hitchhiking, but many rides were a lot of fun. I was more often doing the picking up rather than the hitching, and eventually would only pick up women. I don’t remember if that was in response to the Sisters campaign or if I just came to a personal decision after a few hitchhiking males assumed that my willingness to pick them up was a sign of my “availability.” I never suffered serious consequences, happily. Actually, the scariest ride was when I was living in the mountains outside of Boulder. My boyfriend and I hitched a ride with a very cheerful guy who barely watched the road as we wound perilously down the mountain and we listened to him rave on and on about how badly his car needed a brake job and he hoped he’d make it to the mechanic’s before they failed. Even my boyfriend, who thought me a bit of a wuss when it came to mountain driving, was pretty shaky when we were finally released from the car in Lyons. We’d changed our story so he’d let us off miles early so we could find a safer ride!

    • A close call, Sarah! That must have been terrifying, barrelling down those mountain roads with a maniac cheerfully informing you that his brakes were on the verge of failing. I read your response to Andrew, who enjoyed it too.

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