“There was a rumor I might be queer. It killed my career.”
This was Zelda Gilroy talking. About why she’s not an actress anymore. Zelda. The same Zelda who was so in love with Dobie Gillis. There was nothing the brilliant little imp Zelda wouldn’t do for Dobie. Remember? Dobie, with the dull normal intelligence, a poet, whose parents ran a grocery store and who was in love with Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld)–and any other girl who wasn’t Zelda.
Zelda was so cute and smart and articulate. And masochistic when it came to Dobie, whom she sat behind in class. Once, when Zelda was trying to make Dobie jealous, she said to Dobie’s beatnik friend Maynard G. Krebs, “Kiss me or I’ll break your neck.” He told her to break his neck.
This was the same adorable Zelda who used to jump out of nowhere, twitch her nose, and say, “Hi Poopsie.” Zelda. The smartest girl in the class, with the preppy clothes, who did everything she could to put a damper on Dobie’s crushes so she could keep him for herself.
It turns out that Zelda, whose real name is Sheila Kuehl, is queer. And she’s now a Harvard-educated lawyer working for women’s rights in West Los Angeles. She came to Chicago to address a group of feminist Chicago-area attorneys over dinner in the DePaul Law School faculty dining room.
“What we do at the California Women’s Law Center is train hundreds of attorneysOso they know the law on sexual harassment and discrimination in employment,” she told them. She crinkled her eyes every time she made a connection with the women, who were sitting at three large round tables. They were charmed.
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, 1959-’60 season.
Episode 11: To get Zelda off his back Dobie spreads a rumor that Zelda has come into a lot of money.
Sheila Kuehl was fascinating all evening. She talked about how repressive sex laws affect physically disabled people who can only perform sex in a particular way. The women in the audience were transfixed–but too polite to ask for an example.
She explained some of the new disability jargon. “Abies” are able-bodied people. Abies often oppress those with disabilities. “Tabbies” are temporarily able-bodied people, who should know better than to oppress anyone they may end up like someday.
“And the word ‘kids’!” she said, joking about women who have developed a renewed affection for the word “girl.” “Someday children will demand to be called ‘children,’ and when they get radical they’ll retake the words ‘kids’ for themselves.”
Kuehl rattled on a mile a minute. Logical and witty. Just like Zelda used to be. Exactly like Zelda used to be. Except Kuehl has put on a little weight and her hair is short and reddish blond. No more bouncy brunette ponytail.
“Speech is a terrible weapon,” she said, explaining that the First Amendment is being used “to get around the rules” and as a detour for overt sexual harassment.
“A guy calling one woman a bitch is an opinion, a thought, an idea. Speech [like this] is experienced by women as a sexual assault. That’s why it feels so terrible. It’s likeO
rape. Speech is action. The doing of the thing.
“I’m beginning to think the whole Constitution just doesn’t work for us.”
Someone mentioned the ACLU and the women rolled their eyes. Kuehl said that she gives the ACLU money when people attack it. And when people stop attacking it, she stops giving money and attacks it instead.
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, 1960-’61 season.
Episode 52: Zelda invents a secret engagement to Dobie in order to put a snooty girl in her place.
Episode 70: Zelda helps Dobie win a school jazz contest.
Episode 73: Dobie is glad to get rid of Zelda for a while when she tutors Chatsworth with his homework.
“There’s a lot of energy expended keeping people down,” said Kuehl. Tools oppressors use include discrimination, violence, and “the tool of credibility–calling people lie tellers.” Sexual harassment, she said, is the most effective tool.
Someone suggested that we should try to “increase the liability” for various forms of sexual harassment. “How can we create the notion of real harm?”
Kuehl was pessimistic. She pointed out how people hate overlitigiousness. And how sensitive people have become to the scarcity of judicial resources.
Then a law professor from the University of Chicago broached an idea: could “women’s reproductive labor” ever be vested with value as “property” in the way jewelry, cattle, land, and money are?
Everyone shook their head, murmuring, “Doesn’t look hopeful.”
“Not right now.”
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, 1961-’62 season.
Episode 81: Zelda becomes jealous when the most beautiful girl in school becomes interested in Dobie.
Episode 84: Dobie uses the heredity factor to discourage Zelda’s interest in him.
Episode 85: Dobie and Maynard stow away on a boat headed for South America in order to escape from Zelda, who is trying to get Dobie to marry her.
Episode 98: Dobie decides to marry Zelda, and once again Maynard comes to the rescue.
Episode 105: Dobie decides to follow the advice given in one of Robert Browning’s poems and finds that it costs him his new girlfriend and Zelda as well.
Kuehl was picking up steam. “Let’s say a woman gets out of her car in the parking lot and walks into work. And a building crew next door starts yelling.”
There was silence while the group pondered the woman’s options. She can’t get her employer to do anything because her employer has no control. One of the women expressed hope that public nuisance and public decency laws can be used in the future to combat this kind of harassment.
“I’m always having pissing matches with Nat Hentoff,” Kuehl said. More silence. “I tell him calling me a bitch is an effective way of diminishing me as a woman. If I call [a man] a ‘dickhead’ I haven’t harmed him or diminished his status. It’s not effective hate speech. His speech has bullets. The threat of violence is always there.
“Men don’t get it. I mean, if a woman gets on an elevator on ten, and it stops on six and there’s a guy, how does she feel? Instantly terrible. I ask guys in my Gender and Law class, ‘How did you prepare yourself against rape today?’ And they say ‘Huh?’
“A woman who had a cross burned on her lawn–and there is an element there beyond trespass–said she gained 20 pounds. And the men laughed.”
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, 1962-’63 season.
Episode 129: Zelda gets Maynard to agree to marry her, hoping Dobie will come to the rescue and take his place.
Episode 132: Zelda tries to train Dobie’s memory so he won’t be a dope, in order to discourage the attentions of a girl who feels secure with him because he is a dope.
Kuehl is involved in a clemency program that files petitions for mercy for women convicted and jailed for killing their abusive mates. Women are victimized not only by their men and society, Kuehl said, but by juries, who in trying to follow intricate “objective” instructions padded with legalese, “turn themselves into law pretzels.”
“If you make any of these stories into TV movies, the audience would be on their feet cheering. Telling the truth helps.” She shrugged. “I never think courts are there for anything but regulating the status quo.”
Kuehl kept the glib remarks coming.
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, a dialogue.
Dobie: Zelda! That was unprincipled, treacherous, foul, mean, contemptible, and low!
Zelda: Sure was, Poopsie. But I forgive you.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mary Croke.