I suppose looks are deceiving. My grandmother seemed harmless, but she used to lock my sisters in the basement if they screwed up their Acts of Contrition. And that was when she was in her bridge club and support hose years. Lord only knows what she was capable of in her Joan Crawford/Aileen Wuornos prime. It’s a wonder my happy-go-lucky grandfather lived long enough to bury her.
I had to remember that last week when I watched Matt Lauer interview the adorable Sara Jane Moore. It’s become a cliché that the 1970s were “a very different time.” Indeed. I was in grade school, but I had two police citations and a few dozen drunks under my belt by the time I was nine, some recreational drug usage by eleven, my teenage sister dated her high school English teacher, and my best friend’s sister got pregnant at 13 by her 27-year-old cousin. Granted, there wasn’t a lot of gunplay at school, but on balance, it really was a very different time.
Still, even by the standards of an age where smoking was allowed in hospital rooms and a sandwich was something that occasionally accompanied one’s business lunch martinis, the thought of a matronly 45-year-old accountant and mother packing a .38 revolver and attempting a kill shot on the President Of The United States was fairly remarkable.
As a country, we weren’t used to our ladies being such public lunatics back then. It just wasn’t proper. The Sara Jane Moore-President Ford Assassination Attempt was one of the more extreme manifestations of this bizarre trend called “feminism,” to which Old School America was struggling to acclimate.
If this strange new breed of woman insisted on not being like our wives and mothers and sisters of yore–all gin and benzodiazepine during the day, and gin and tranquilizers at night when the husband and kids were home, and pliable and obedient all the time–then hopefully they’d limit this “Women’s Lib” thing to reading Cosmo and watching Maude on the black-and-white in their sewing rooms. We had certain expectations of our women of a certain age. It was hard enough listening to Bella Abzug or that mouthy Betty Friedan, but at least they looked like middle-aged women.
A traditionally masculine society wasn’t used to fearing its women. Men were still coming to grips with the surreal horrors of the next generation of the femme fatale–the Homicidal Sex Kitten. With the Patty Hearsts and Manson Girls of America, men were learning, if not to be utterly terrified of any woman under 25 who wasn’t Karen Carpenter, at least to recognize the warning signs that could save their lives. X carved in forehead = Stranger Danger. Beret and sub-machine gun? Sexy but smells like trouble, maybe.
In 1975, it was because of this perceptional evolution that none of us were all that surprised when waifish, crazy-eyed redhead Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme–herself a Manson Family alum–was arrested for dressing like a nun and drawing a Colt .45 on President Gerald Ford in a park in Sacramento.
But when a woman Time magazine described as “dumpy, determined” drew down on the President in San Francisco just a few weeks later (it was a rough September for Ford) it was a wake-up call that we really weren’t safe anywhere, from anyone. If a plump, middle-aged clone of your Aunt Lavelle could brazenly go after a President, then no man could be sure he was safe from any member of the fairer sex. Agnes from the checkout counter at the Piggly-Wiggly? Kindly Mrs. Farquar from your daughter’s Sunday School class? The widow Carnacky who sold handmade wind chimes for charity and read to the blind Wednesday afternoons at the VA hospital? Bets off. Suddenly, it was conceivable that any one of them was capable of planting a machete in your skull when you weren’t looking.
It’s not a widely-lauded event in the canon of women’s studies, but Ms. Moore’s attempt on the President’s life was a defining moment in female empowerment no less significant than Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs “Battle Of The Sexes.” That a member of society who only a little over a half-century before wouldn’t have been allowed to vote for a President could now attempt to kill one is an achievement that gets short shrift in the pantheon of feminist accomplishment. Women had fought long and hard to earn the respect of a male-dominated world. To be capable of inspiring fear as well was something that their mothers and grandmothers could only dream of.
Released from prison in late 2007, a little over a year after the passing of Gerald Ford, Ms. Moore says she’s glad that she didn’t kill the President and concedes that attempting to murder the leader of the largest country in the free world was probably “wrong,” and attributes her action to “the tenor of the times.” (It’s a puzzle to imagine that it could be anything else. An accidental President and generally lovable bumbler, Gerald Ford was not a man who inspired any extreme degree of emotion, much less blood hatred, and two assassination attempts in a single month. To plan to stalk and slay this affable, soft-spoken President would be like setting out to murder Tom Bosley.)
Still, Ms. Moore says she has no regrets; that if it hadn’t been her, it would have been someone else. White haired and bespectacled, she is as pleasant and benign as one would expect from a woman entering her ninth decade. She accepts her notoriety, and save for an ill-fated escape attempt in 1979 (“If I’d known I was going to be caught so fast I would have stopped somewhere for a burger and a beer”), she served her sentence without complaint.
As a society, though, we tend to frown on things like attempted murder, especially the kind that get the Secret Service involved. So while Ms. Moore has earned her paragraph in the history books, that shout-out from Helen Reddy might not come in her lifetime. If they took a poll, though, she’d probably be America’s favorite female would-be Presidential assassin.
FUN FACT: Had Ms. Moore succeeded in murdering the President, she would have been responsible for a milestone in Vice Presidential history—Nelson Rockefeller would have have been the third consecutive President who had a stint as VP on his resume.