A few months ago, a saleswoman at Macy's tried to wheedle me into renewing my expired store credit card by offering a deep discount on the towels I was buying. So I dug it out of my wallet, where it was nestled between an expired press pass to the Texas state Capitol and an expired library card from Manchester, N.H., and happily handed it over.
She looked at it, puzzled. "But this isn't your name," she said.
The card said Daniel Collins. That's my husband, who I believe has never been to Macy's, or bought a towel, in his entire life.
I flashed back to a moment when I was living in Connecticut. I have no idea what year it was, except that it is very possible Richard Nixon was still president. I was in the Macy's in New Haven when a woman with a clipboard came up to me and asked me if I wanted to apply for a credit card.
"Absolutely," I said instantly.
She took up her pen. "What's your husband's name?" she asked.
I wish I could tell you that I made a speech about equal rights and headed for the door, but I just let her fill out my application. This was an era when women still needed a male co-signer to get credit. In some places, you needed a husband or father to even get a library card.
Anyway, I was proud of being newly married and dumb about the women's movement. I worked as a reporter in the Connecticut state Capitol, where the male legislators and male lobbyists and male reporters met in a place called the Hawaiian Room to drink. When a female journalist demanded that she be admitted, too, the media were barred completely. The guys in the press room blamed it all on the one woman, who, I am sorry to say, was not me. My only reaction was to wonder why anyone would want to go to the Hawaiian Room, which was in the attic, with steam pipes along the ceiling festooned with limp plastic leis.
I'm telling you all this because on Monday we celebrated Women's Equality Day, the anniversary of the 19th Amendment and women's right to vote. That was in 1920, and there's no longer anyone around who can tell us what that felt like to be disenfranchised because of your sex. But there are plenty of people who recall the time when women couldn't get credit in their own name.
Next year, if we're in the mood, we can celebrate the 40th anniversary of the day that Kathryn Kirschbaum, then the mayor of Davenport, Iowa, was told that she could not have a Bank of America card without her husband's signature.
The great thing about Equality Day is that it works in two ways. We can mull both how far we've come and how far we have to go. The one thought feeds the other. The idea of having 50 women in the U.S. Senate, or 250 female CEOs in the Fortune 500 seems less far-reaching if you contemplate the fact that in the 1960s, a spokesman for NASA said "talk of an American spacewoman makes me sick to my stomach." Now, one of the two American astronauts on the International Space Station is a woman, and that is so routine that we're not even aware of her name. (It's Karen Nyberg.)