I was sitting at my typing computer, watching the green letters race across the screen in front of me, when suddenly a black shadow in the shape of a human was cast over my desk.
"Who are you?" I gasped.
"I am The Darkside of Women's Liberation," the shadow intoned ominously.
"I am lung cancer, heart disease, ulcers, hypertension, crime, suicide and, yea, verily yea, I am stress."
I was speechless. After all, I had seen this very same creature on all the talk shows and read about in her The Wall Street Journal. Now here she was in my very own office.
The Darkside had come visiting just as I was reading the latest HEW report on women and smoking. Lunc cancer would soon surpass breast cancer as a No. 1 killer of women. I had copied this study and mailed it from my own no-smoking zone to a friend's polluted post.
But the quote from the surgeon general had grabbed my attention: "Cigarette smoking, an early sign of woman's social emancipation, is now a major threat to her personal health and her ability to bear healthy children."
It was only a matter of moments, I knew, before the headlines would translate that sentence into: Lung Cancer -- The Price of Equality. Emphysema -- The Curse of Women's Lib.
"Have you come to talk about smoking?" I asked the specter.
She glared at me, announcing: "I am The Darkside warning you that if you live like a man, you will get sick like a man. I am The Darkside warning you that equality may be bad for your health."
For a few minutes I rifled through my files searching for a feminist stance in favor of smoking, some old picket demanding equal access to lung machines. But instead of a word from Ellie Smeal or Sarah Weddington, I found only Virginia Slims.
"Are you related, then, to the 19th-century doctors who told women that their uteruses would atrophy if they left their homes for jobs?" I asked benignly.
The Darkside glared and changed subjects: "Stress. Scientific studies prove stress kills."
I quaked. For years we had been reading about the health hazards of the homemaker. Housewife's disease was actually listed in psychiatric yearbooks with symptoms: "inertia, hand-trembling, headaches, heart palpitation, dizziness."
Housewives, we were told, were more likely to suffer depression. They were also likely to pop pills, take to their beds with illness and report mysterious aches and pains.
But now women working outside their homes are given a disease to call their own: stress. The Woman Executive in her dressed-for-success suit is, we are told, more to be pitied than scorned.
I looked again through the files. A 1977 study from the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety ranked 130 occupations. The jobs with the highest incidence of mental illness were traditionally female ones: nursing, waitressing, secretarial.
"This is the disease of liberation?" I asked The Darkside.
"Equality," evaded The Darkside, coughing as a cover-up and moving right along, "may be bad for your cardiogram." She cleared her throat and stated, "Middle-aged working mothers who are clerical and sales workers and dissatisfied are twice as likely to develop heart disease as housewives."
Ah, yes, heart disease. Her figure was accurate. But there are other figures. The Framingham study showed that women who work more than half their lives are no different from housewives. Among working women, it is the clerical workers who are at greatest risk. Stress is greater among working women with families.
"What are you saying?" I asked The Darkside respectfully. "If you want a long life, don't be a dissatisfied clerical worker with a family?"
The specter hovered menacingly over my computer. I tried yoga breaths and meditation to dispel her. So, I thought, the health experts tell us women have the choice between depression and stress. They tell us working women in particular can choose a long and alone life or a short and full one. They tell us the less control you have on the job, the greater the risk of heart disease.
I suddenly looked up at the specter more suspiciously. "Aren't you the Darkside of Incomplete Change? The Shade of Semi-Liberation?"
The figure disappeared for a moment like a puff of smoke. But then she came again, darkening my office, saying gruffly, "Crime. Equality is a criminal opportunity employer."