Women’s Liberation: The Next Great Moment in History Is Theirs
November 27, 1969
One evening not too long ago, at the home of a well-educated and extremely intelligent couple I know, I mentioned the women’s liberation movement and was mildly astonished by the response the subject received. The man said: “Jesus, what is all that crap about?” The woman, a scientist who had given up 10 working years to raise her children, said: “I can understand if these women want to work and are demanding equal pay. But why on earth do they want to have children, too?” To which the man rejoined: “Ah, they don’t want kids. They’re mostly a bunch of dykes, anyway.”
Again: Having lunch with an erudite, liberal editor, trained in the humanist tradition, I was struck dumb by his reply to my mention of the women’s liberation movement: “Ah shit, who the hell is oppressing them?”
And yet again: A college-educated housewife, fat and neurotic, announced with arch sweetness, “I’m sorry, I just don’t feel oppressed.”
Over and over again, in educated thinking circles, one meets with a bizarre, almost determined ignorance of a fact of unrest that is growing daily, and that exists in formally organized bodies in nearly every major city and on dozens of campuses across America. The women of this country are gathering themselves into a sweat of civil revolt, and the general population seems totally unaware of what is happening; or, indeed, that anything is happening; or that there is a legitimate need behind what is happening. How is this possible? Why is it true? What relation is there between the peculiarly unalarmed, amused dismissal of the women’s rights movement and the movement itself? Is this relation only coincidental, only the generally apathetic response of a society already benumbed by civil rights and student anarchy and unable to rise to yet one more protest movement, or is it more to the point in the case of women’s rights, is it not, in fact, precisely the key to the entire issue?
Almost invariably, when people set out to tell you there is no such thing as discrimination against women in this country, the first thing they hastily admit to is a minor degree of economic favoritism shown toward men. In fact, they will eagerly, almost gratefully, support the claim of economic inequity, as though that will keep the discussion within manageable bounds. Curious. But even on economic grounds or grounds of legal discrimination most people are dismally ignorant of the true proportions of the issue. They will grant that often a man will make as much as $100 more than a woman at the same job, and yes, it is often difficult for a woman to be hired when a man can be hired instead, but after all, that’s really not so terrible.
This is closer to the facts:
Women in this country make 60 cents for every $1 a man makes.
Women do not share in the benefits of the fair employment practices laws because those laws do not specify “no discrimination on the basis of sex.”
Women often rise in salary only to the point at which a man starts.
Women occupy, in great masses, the “household tasks” of industry. They are nurses but not doctors, secretaries but not executives, researchers but not writers, workers but not managers, bookkeepers but not promoters.
Women almost never occupy decision — or policy-making positions.
Women are almost non-existent in government.
Women are subject to a set of “protective” laws that restrict their working hours, do not allow them to occupy many jobs in which the carrying of weights is involved, do not allow them to enter innumerable bars, restaurants, hotels, and other public places unescorted.
Women, despite 100 years of reform, exist in the domestic and marriage laws of our country almost literally as appendages of their husbands. Did you know that rape by a husband is legal but that if a woman refuses to sleep with her husband she is subject to legal suit? Did you know that the word domicile in the law refers to the husband’s domicile and that if a woman refuses to follow her husband to wherever he makes his home, legal suit can be brought against her to force her to do so? Did you know that in most states the law imposes severe legal disabilities on married women with regard to their personal and property rights? (As a feminist said to me: “The United Nations has defined servitude as necessarily involuntary, but women, ignorant of the law, put themselves into voluntary servitude.”)
Perhaps, you will say, these observations are not so shocking. After all, women are weaker than men, they do need protection, what on earth is so terrible about being protected, for God’s sake! And as for those laws, they’re never invoked, no woman is dragged anywhere against her will, on the contrary, women’s desires rule the middle-class household, and women can work at hundreds of jobs. In fact, a great deal of the wealth of the country is in their hands, and no woman ever goes hungry.
I agree. These observed facts of our national life are not so shocking. The laws and what accrues from them are not so terrible. It is what’s behind the laws that is so terrible. It is not the letter of the law but the spirit determining the law that is terrible. It is not what is explicit but what is implicit in the law that is terrible. It is not the apparent condition but the actual condition of woman that is terrible.
“The woman’s issue is the true barometer of social change,” said a famous political theoretician. This was true 100 years ago; it is no less true today. Women and blacks were and are, traditionally and perpetually, the great “outsiders” in Western culture, and their erratic swellings of outrage parallel each other in a number of ways that are both understandable and also extraordinary. A hundred years ago a great abolitionist force wrenched this country apart and changed its history forever; many, many radical men devoted a fever of life to wrecking a system in which men were bought and sold; many radical women worked toward the same end; the abolitionist movement contained women who came out of educated and liberal 19th century families, women who considered themselves independent thinking beings. It was only when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were not allowed to be seated at a World Anti-Slavery Conference held in the 1840s that the intellectual abolitionist women suddenly perceived that their own political existence resembled that of the blacks. They raised the issue with their radical men and were denounced furiously for introducing an insignificant and divisive issue, one which was sure to weaken the movement. Let’s win this war first, they said, and then we’ll see about women’s rights. But the women had seen; in one swift visionary moment, to the very center of the truth about their own lives, and they knew that first was now, that there would never be a time when men would willingly address themselves to the question of female rights, that to strike out now for women’s rights could do nothing but strengthen the issue of black civil rights because it called attention to all instances or rights denied in a nation that prided itself on rights for all.
Thus was born the original Women’s Rights Movement, which became known as the Women’s Suffrage Movement because the single great issue, of course, was legal political recognition. But it was never meant to begin and end with the vote, just as the abolitionist movement was never meant to begin and end with the vote. Somehow, though, that awful and passionate struggle for suffrage seemed to exhaust both the blacks and the women, especially the women, for when the vote finally came at the end of the Civil War, it was handed to black males — but not to women; the women had to go on fighting for 60 bitterly long years for suffrage. And then both blacks and women lay back panting, unable to catch their breath for generation upon generation.
The great civil rights movement for blacks in the 1950s and ’60s is the second wind of that monumental first effort, necessary because the legislated political equality of the 1860s was never translated into actual equality. The reforms promised by law had never happened. The piece of paper meant nothing. Racism had never been legislated out of existence; in fact, its original virulence had remained virtually untouched, and, more important, the black in this country had never been able to shake off the slave mentality. He was born scared, he ran scared, he died scared; for 100 years after legal emancipation, he lived as though it had never happened. Blacks and whites did not regard either themselves or each other differently, and so they in no way lived differently. In the 1950s and ’60s the surging force behind the renewed civil rights effort has been the desire to eradicate this condition more than any other, to enable the American black to believe in himself as a whole, independent, expressive human being capable of fulfilling and protecting himself in the very best way he knows how. Today, after more than 15 years of unremitting struggle, after a formidable array of reform laws legislated at the federal, state, and local level, after a concentration on black rights and black existence that has traumatized the nation, it is still not unfair to say that the psychology of defeat has not been lifted from black life. Still (aside from the continuance of crime, drugs, broken homes, and all the wretched rest of it), employers are able to say: “Sure, I’d love to hire one if I could find one who qualified,” and while half the time this is simply not true, half the time it is, because black life is still marked by the “nigger mentality,” the terrible inertia of spirit that accompanies the perhaps irrational but deeply felt conviction that no matter what one does, one is going to wind up a 35-year-old busboy. This “nigger mentality” characterizes black lives. It also characterizes women’s lives. And it is this, and this alone, that is behind the second wave of feminism now sweeping the country and paralleling precisely, exactly as it does 100 years ago, the black rights movement. The fight for reform laws is just the beginning. What women are really after this time around is the utter eradication of the “nigger” in themselves.
Most women who feel ‘”niggerized” have tales of overt oppression to tell. They feel they’ve been put down by their fathers, their brothers, their lovers, their bosses. They feel that in their families, in their sex lives, and in their jobs they have counted as nothing, they have been treated as second-class citizens, their minds have been deliberately stunted and their emotions warped. My own experience with the condition is a bit more subtle, and, without bragging, I do believe a bit closer to the true feminist point.
To begin with, let me tell a little story. Recently, I had lunch with a man I had known at school. He and his wife and I had all been friends at college; they had courted while we were in school and immediately upon graduation they got married. They were both talented art students, and it was assumed both would work in commercial art. But shortly after their marriage she became pregnant, and never did go to work. Within five years they had two children. At first I visited them often; their home was lovely, full of their mutual talent for atmosphere; the wife sparkled, the children flourished; [the husband] rose in the field of commercial art; I envied them both their self-containment, and she especially her apparently contented, settled state. But as I had remained single and life took me off in various other directions, we soon began to drift apart, and when I again met the husband we had not seen each other in many years. We spoke animatedly of what we had both been doing for quite a while. Then I asked about his wife. His face rearranged itself suddenly, but I couldn’t quite tell how at first. He said she was fine, but didn’t sound right.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Is she doing something you don’t want her to do? Or the other way around?”
“No, no,” he said hastily. “I want her to do whatever she wants to do. Anything. Anything that will make her happy. And get her off my back,” he ended bluntly. I asked what he meant and he told me of his wife’s restlessness of the last few years; of how sick she was of being a housewife, how useless she felt, and how she longed to go back to work.
“Well?” I asked, “did you object?”
“Of course not!” he replied vigorously. “Why the hell would I do that? She’s a very talented woman, her children are half grown, she’s got every right in the world to go to work.”
“So?” I said.
“It’s her,” he said bewilderedly. “She doesn’t seem able to just go out and get a job.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. But beneath the surface of my own puzzled response I more than half knew what was coming.
“Well, she’s scared, I think. She’s more talented than half the people who walk into my office asking for work, but do what I will she won’t get a portfolio together and make the rounds. Also, she cries a lot lately. For no reason, if you know what I mean. And then, she can’t seem to get up in the morning in time to get a babysitter and get out of the house. This is a woman who was always up at 7 a.m. to feed everybody, get things going; busy, capable, doing 10 things at once.” He shook his head as though in a true quandary. “Oh well,” he ended up, “I guess it doesn’t really matter any more.”
“Why not?” I asked.
His eyes came up and he looked levelly at me. “She’s just become pregnant again.”
I listened silently, but with what internal churning! Even though the external events of our lives were quite different, I felt as though this woman had been living inside my skin all these years, so close was I to the essential nature of her experience as I perceived it listening to her husband’s woebegone tale. I had wandered about the world, I had gained another degree, I had married twice, I had written, taught, edited, I had no children. And yet I knew that in some fundamental sense we were the same woman. I understood exactly — but exactly — the kind of neurotic anxiety that just beset her, and that had ultimately defeated her; it was a neurosis I shared and had recognized in almost every woman I had ever known — including Monica Vitti, having her Chiaparellied nervous breakdown, stuffing her hand into her mouth, rolling her eyes wildly, surrounded by helplessly sympathetic men who kept saying: “Just tell me what’s wrong.”
I was raised in an immigrant home where education was worshiped. As the entire American culture was somewhat mysterious to my parents, the educational possibilities of that world were equally unknown for both the boy and the girl in our family. Therefore, I grew up in the certainty that if my brother went to college, I too could go to college; and, indeed, he did, and I in my turn did too. We both read voraciously from early childhood on, and we were both encouraged to do so. We both had precocious and outspoken opinions and neither of us was ever discouraged from uttering them. We both were exposed early to unionist radicalism and neither of us met with opposition when, separately, we experimented with youthful political organizations. And yet somewhere along the line my brother and I managed to receive an utterly different education regarding ourselves and our own expectations from life. He was taught many things but what he learned was the need to develop a kind of inner necessity. I was taught many things but what I learned, ultimately, was that it was the prime vocation of my life to prepare myself for the love of a good man and the responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood. All the rest, the education, the books, the jobs, that was all very nice and of course, why not? I was an intelligent girl, shouldn’t I learn? make something of myself! but oh dolly, you’ll see, in the end no woman could possibly be happy without a man to love and children to raise. What’s more, came the heavy implication, if I didn’t marry I would be considered an irredeemable failure.
How did I learn this? How? I have pondered this question 1000 times. Was it really that explicit? Was it laid out in lessons strategically planned and carefully executed? Was it spooned down my throat at regular intervals? No. It wasn’t. I have come finally to understand that the lessons were implicit and they took place in 100 different ways, in a continuous day-to-day exposure to an attitude, shared by all, about women, about what kind of creatures they were and what kind of lives they were meant to live; the lessons were administered not only by my parents but by the men and women, the boys and girls, all around me who, of course, had been made in the image of this attitude.
My mother would say to me when I was very young, as I studied at the kitchen table and she cooked: “How lucky you are to go to school! I wasn’t so lucky. I had to go to work in the factory. I wanted so to be a nurse! But to be a nurse in Williamsburg in 1920! Maybe you’ll be a nurse…” I listened, I nodded, but somehow the message I got was that I was like her and I would one day be doing what she was now doing.
My brother was the “serious and steady” student, I the “erratic and undisciplined” one. When he studied the house was silenced; when I studied, business as usual.
When I was 14 and I came in flushed and disarrayed my mother knew I’d been with a boy. Her fingers gripped my upper arm; her face, white and intent, bent over me: What did he do to you? Where did he do it? I was frightened to death. What was she so upset about? What could he do to me? I learned that I was the keeper of an incomparable treasure and it had to be guarded: it was meant to be a gift for my husband. (Later that year when I read A Rage to Live I knew without any instruction exactly what all those elliptical sentences were about.)
When I threw some hideous temper tantrum my mother would say: “What a little female you are!” (I have since seen many little boys throw the same tantrums and have noted with interest that they are not told they are little females.)
The girls on the street would talk forever about boys, clothes, movies, fights with their mothers. The 1000 thoughts racing around in my head from the books I was reading remained secret, no one to share them with.
The boys would be gentler with the girls than with each other when we all played roughly; and our opinions were never considered seriously.
I grew up, I went to school, I came out, wandered around, went to Europe, went back to school, wandered again, taught in a desultory fashion, and at last! got married!
It was during my first marriage that I began to realize something was terribly wrong inside me, but it took me 10 years to understand that I was suffering the classic female pathology. My husband, like all the men I have known, was a good man, a man who wanted my independence for me more than I wanted it for myself. He urged me to work, to do something, anything, that would make me happy; he knew that our pleasure in each other could be heightened only if I was a functioning human being too. Yes, yes! I said, and leaned back in the rocking chair with yet another novel. Somehow, I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t really know where to start, what I wanted to do. Oh, I had always had a number of interests but they, through an inability on my part to stick with anything, had always been superficial; when I arrived at a difficult point in a subject, a job, an interest, I would simply drop it. Of course, what I really wanted to do was write; but that was an altogether ghastly agony and one I could never come to grips with. There seemed to be some terrible aimlessness at the very center of me, some paralyzing lack of will. My energy, which was abundant, was held in a trap of some sort; occasionally that useless energy would wake up roaring, demanding to be let out of its cage, and then I became “emotional”; I would have hysterical depressions, rage on and on about the meaninglessness of my life, force my husband into long psychoanalytic discussions about the source of my (our) trouble, end in a purging storm of tears, a determination to do “something,” and six months later I was right back where I started. If my marriage had not dissolved, I am sure that I would still be in exactly that same peculiarly nightmarish position. But as it happened, the events of life forced me out into the world, and repeatedly I had to come up against myself. I found this pattern of behavior manifesting itself in 100 different circumstances; regardless of how things began, they always seemed to end in the same place. Oh, I worked, I advanced, in a sense, but only erratically and with superhuman effort. Always the battle was internal, and it was with a kind of paralyzing anxiety at the center of me that drained off my energy and retarded my capacity for intellectual concentration. It took me a long time to perceive that nearly every woman I knew exhibited the same symptoms, and when I did perceive it became frightened. I thought, at first, that perhaps, indeed, we were all victims of some biological deficiency, that some vital ingredient had been deleted in the female of the species, that we were a physiological metaphor for human neurosis. It took me a long time to understand, with an understanding that is irrevocable, that we are the victims of culture, not biology.
Recently, I read a marvelous biography of Beatrice Webb, the English socialist. The book is full of vivid portraits, but the one that is fixed forever in my mind is that of Mrs. Webb’s mother, Laurencina Potter. Laurencina Potter was a beautiful, intelligent, intellectually energetic woman of the middle 19th century. She knew 12 languages, spoke Latin and Greek better than half the classics-trained men who came to her home, and was interested in everything. Her marriage to wealthy and powerful Richard Potter was a love match, and she looked forward to a life of intellectual companionship, stimulating activity, lively participation. No sooner were they married than Richard installed her in a Victorian fortress in the country, surrounded her with servants and physical comfort, and started her off with the first of the 11 children she eventually bore. He went out into the world, bought and sold railroads, made important political connections, mingled in London society, increased his powers, and relished his life. She, meanwhile, languished. She sat in the country, staring at the four brocaded walls; her energy remained bottled up, her mind became useless, her will evaporated. The children became symbols of her enslavement and, in consequence, she was a lousy mother: neurotic, self-absorbed, increasingly colder and more withdrawn, increasingly more involved in taking her emotional temperature. She became, in short, the Victorian lady afflicted with indefinable maladies.
When I read of Laurencina’s life I felt as though I was reading about the lives of most of the women I know, and it struck me that 100 years ago sexual submission was all for a woman, and today sexual fulfillment is all for a woman, and the two are one and the same.
Most of the women I know are people of superior intelligence, developed emotions, and higher education. And yet our friendships, our conversations, our lives, are not marked by intellectual substance or emotional distance or objective concern. It is only briefly and insubstantially that I ever discuss books or politics or philosophical issues or abstractions of any kind with the women I know. Mainly, we discuss and are intimate about our Emotional Lives. Endlessly, endlessly, we go on and on about our emotional “problems” and “needs” and “relationships.” And, of course, because we are all bright and well-educated, we bring to bear on these sessions a formidable amount of sociology and psychology, literature and history, all hoked out so that it sounds as though these are serious conversations on serious subjects, when in fact they are caricatures of seriousness right out of Jonathan Swift. Caricatures, because they have no beginning, middle, end, or point. They go nowhere, they conclude nothing, they change nothing. They are elaborate descriptions in the ongoing soap opera that is our lives. It took me a long time to understand that we were talking about nothing, and it took me an even longer and harder time, traveling down that dark, narrow road in the mind, back back to the time when I was a little girl sitting in the kitchen with my mother, to understand, at last, that the affliction was cultural not biological, that it was because we had never been taught to take ourselves seriously that I and all the woman I knew had become parodies of “taking ourselves seriously.”
The rallying cry of the black civil rights movement has always been: “Give us back our manhood!” What exactly does that mean? Where is black manhood? How has it been taken from blacks? And how can it be retrieved? The answer lies in one word: responsibility; therefore, they have been deprived of serious work; therefore they have been deprived of self-respect; therefore, they have been deprived of manhood. Women have been deprived of exactly the same thing and in every real sense have thus been deprived of womanhood. We have never been prepared to assume responsibility; we have never been prepared to make demands upon ourselves; we have never been taught to expect the development of what is best in ourselves because no one have ever expected anything of us — or for us. Because no one has ever had any intention of turning over any serious work to us. Both we and the blacks lost the ballgame before we ever got up to play. In order to live you’ve got to have nerve; and we were stripped of our nerve before we began. Black is ugly and female is inferior. These are the primary lessons of our experience, and in these ways both blacks and women have been kept, not as functioning nationals, but rather as operating objects, but a human being who remains as a child throughout his adult life is an object, not a mature specimen, and the definition of a child is: one without responsibility.
At the very center of all human life is energy, psychic energy. It is the force of that energy that drives us, that surges continually up in us, that must repeatedly spend and renew itself in us, that must perpetually be reaching for something beyond itself in order to satisfy its own insatiable appetite. It is the imperative of that energy that has determined man’s characteristic interest, problem-solving. The modern ecologist attests to that driving need by demonstrating that in a time when all the real problems are solved, man makes up new ones in order to go on solving. He must have work, work that he considers real and serious, or he will die he will simply shrivel up and die. That is the one certain characteristic of human beings. And it is the one characteristic, above all others, that the accidentally dominant white male asserts is not necessary to more than half the members of the race, i.e., the female of the species. This assertion is, quite simply, a lie. Nothing more, nothing less. A lie. That energy is alive in every woman in the world. It lies trapped and dormant like a growing tumor, and at its center there is despair, hot, deep, wordless.
It is amazing to me that I have just written these words. To think that 100 years after Nora slammed the door, and in a civilization and a century utterly converted to the fundamental insights of that exasperating genius, Sigmund Freud, women could still be raised to believe that their basic makeup is determined not by the needs of their egos but by their peculiar child-bearing properties and their so-called unique capacity for loving. No man worth his salt does not wish to be a husband and father; yet no man is raised to be a husband and father and no man would ever conceive of those relationships as instruments of his prime function in life. Yet every woman is raised, still, to believe that the fulfillment of these relationships is her prime function in life and, what’s more, her instinctive choice.
The fact is that women have no special capacities for love, and when a culture reaches a level where its women have nothing to do but “love” (as occurred in the Victorian upper classes and as is occurring now in the American middle classes), they prove to be very bad at it. The modern American wife is not noted for her love of her husband or of her children; she is noted for her driving (or should I say driven?) domination of them. She displays an aberrated, aggressive ambition for her mate and for her offspring which can be explained only by the most vicious feelings toward the self. The reasons are obvious. The woman who must love for a living, the woman who has no self, no objective external reality to take her own measure by, no work to discipline her, no goal to provide the illusion of progress, no internal resources, no separate mental existence, is constitutionally incapable of the emotional distance that is one of the real requirements of love. She cannot separate herself from her husband and children because all the passionate and multiple needs of her being are centered on them. That’s why women “Take everything personally.” It’s all they’ve got to take. “Loving” is just a substitute for an entire [illegible] being and interest. The man, who is not raised to be a husband and father specifically, and who simply loves as a single function of his existence, cannot understand her abnormal “emotionality” and concludes that this is the female nature. (Why shouldn’t he? She does too.) But this is not so. It is a result of a psychology achieved by cultural attitudes that run so deep and have gone on for so long that they are mistaken for “nature” or “instinct.”
A good example of what I mean are the multiple legends of our culture regarding motherhood. Let’s use our heads for a moment. What on earth is holy about motherhood? I mean, why motherhood rather than fatherhood? If anything is holy, it is the consecration of sexual union. A man plants a seed in a woman; the seed matures and eventually is expelled by the women; a child is born to both of them; each contributed the necessary parts to bring about procreation; each is responsible to and necessary to the child; to claim that the woman is more so than the man is simply not true; certainly it cannot be proven biologically or psychologically (please, no comparisons with baboons and penguins just now — I am sure I can supply 50 examples from nature to counter any assertion made on the subject); all that can be proven is that some one is necessary to the newborn baby; to have instilled in women the belief that their child-bearing and housewifely obligations supersedes all other needs, that indeed what they fundamentally want and need is to be wives and mothers as distinguished from being anything else, is to have accomplished an act of trickery, an act which has deprived women of the proper forms of expression necessary to that force of energy alive in every talking creature, an act which has indeed mutilated their natural selves and deprived them of their womanhood, whatever that may be, deprived them of the right to say “I” and have it mean something. This understanding, grasped whole, is what underlies the current wave of feminism. It is felt by thousands of women today, it will be felt by millions tomorrow. You have only to examine briefly a fraction of the women’s rights organizations already in existence to realize instantly that they form the nucleus of a genuine movement, complete with theoreticians, tacticians, agitators, manifestos, journals, and thesis papers, running the entire political spectrum from conservative reform to visionary radicalism, and powered by an emotional conviction rooted in undeniable experience, and fed by a determination that is irreversible.
One of the oldest and stablest of the feminist organizations is NOW, the National Organization for Women. It was started in 1966 by a group of professional women headed by Mrs. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, the book that was the bringer of the word in 1963 to the new feminists. NOW has more than 3000 members, chapters in major cities and on many campuses all over the country, and was read, at its inception, into the Congressional Record. It has many men in its ranks and it works, avowedly within the system, to bring about the kind of reforms that will result in what it calls a “truly equal partnership between men and women” in this country. It is a true reform organization filled with intelligent, liberal, hard-working women devoted to the idea that America is a reformist democracy and ultimately will respond to the justice of their cause. They are currently hard at work on two major issues: repeal of the abortion laws and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (for which feminists have been fighting since 1923) which would amend the constitution to provide that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” When this amendment is passed, the employment and marriage laws of more than 40 states will be affected. Also, in direct conjunction with the fight to have this amendment passed, NOW demands increased child-care facilities to be established by law on the same basis as parks, libraries, and public schools.
NOW’s influence is growing by leaps and bounds. It is responsible for the passage of many pieces of legislation meant to wipe out discrimination against women, and certainly the size and number of Women’s Bureaus, Women’s units, Women’s Commissions springing up in government agencies and legislative bodies all over the country reflects its presence. Suddenly, there are Presidential reports and gubernatorial conferences and congressional meetings — all leaping all over each other to discuss the status of women. NOW, without a doubt, is the best established feminist group.
From NOW we move, at a shocking rate of speed, to the left. In fact, it would appear that NOW is one of the few reformist groups, that mainly the feminist groups are radical, both in structure and in aim. Some, truth to tell, strike a bizarre and puzzling note. For instance, there is WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy From Hell), an offshoot of SDS, where members burned their bras and organized against the Miss America Pageant in a stirring demand that the commercially useful image of female beauty be wiped out. There is Valerie Solanas and her SCUM Manifesto, which Solanas’s penetrating observation on our national life was: “If the atom bomb isn’t dropped, this society will hump itself to death.” There is Cell 55. God knows what they do.
There are the Redstockings, an interesting group that seems to have evolved from direct action into what they call “consciousness-raising.” That means, essentially, that they get together in a kind of group therapy session and the women reveal their experiences and feelings to each other in an attempt to analyze the femaleness of their psychology and their circumstances, thereby increasing the invaluable weapon of self-understanding.
And finally, there are the Feminists, without a doubt the most fiercely radical and intellectually impressive of all the groups. This organization was begun a year ago by a group of defectors from NOW and various their feminist groups, in rebellion against the repetition of the hierarchical structure of power in these other groups. Their contention was: women have always been “led”; if they join the rank and file of a feminist organization they are simply being led again. It will still be someone else, even if only the officers of their own interesting group, making the decisions, doing the planning, the executing, and so on. They determined to develop a leaderless society whose guiding principle was participation by lot. And that is precisely what they have done. The organization has no officers, every woman sooner or later performs every single task necessary to the life and aims of the organization, and the organization is willing to temporarily sacrifice efficiency in order that each woman may fully develop all the skills necessary to autonomous functioning. This working individualism is guarded fiercely by a set of rigid rules regarding attendance, behavior, duties, and loyalties.
The Feminists encourage extensive theorizing on the nature and function of a leaderless society, and this has led the organization to a bold and radical view of the future they wish to work for. The group never loses sight of the fact that its primary enemy is the male-female role system which has ended in women being the oppressed and men being the oppressors. It looks forward to a time when this system will be completely eradicated: To prepare for this coming, it now denounces all the institutions which encourage the system, i.e., love, sex, and marriage. It has a quota on married women (only one-third of their number are permitted to be either married or living in a marriage-like situation). It flatly names all men as the enemy. It looks forward to a future in which the family as we know it will disappear, all births will be extra-uterine, children will be raised by communal efforts, and women once and for all will cease to be the persecuted members of the race.
Although a lot of this is hard to take in raw doses, you realize that many of these ideas represent interesting and important turns of thought. First of all, these experiments with a leaderless society are being echoed everywhere: in student radicalism, in black civil rights, in hippie communes. They are part of a great radical lusting after self-determination that is beginning to overtake this country. This is true social revolution, and I believe that feminism, in order to accomplish its aims now, does need revolution, does need a complete overthrow of an old kind of thought and the introduction of a new kind of thought. Secondly, the Feminists are right: most of what men and women now are is determined by the “roles” they play, and love is an institution, full of ritualized gestures and positions, and often void of any recognizable naturalness. How, under the present iron-bound social laws, can one know what is female nature and what is female role? (And that question speaks to the source of the whole female pain and confusion.) It is thrilling to contemplate a new world, brave or otherwise, in which men and women may free themselves of some of the crippling sexual poses that now circumscribe their lives, thus allowing them some open and equitable exchange of emotion, some release of the natural self which will be greeted with resentment from no one.
But the Feminists strike a wrong and rather hysterical note when they indicate that they don’t believe there is a male or female nature, that all is role. I believe that is an utterly wrong headed notion. Not only do I believe there is a genuine male or female nature in each of us, but I believe that what is most exciting about the new world that may be coming is the promise of stripping down to that nature, of the complementary elements in those natures meeting without anxiety, of our different biological tasks being performed without profit for one at the expense of the other.
The Feminists’ position is extreme and many of these pronouncements are chilling at first touch. But you quickly realize that this is the harsh, stripped-down language of revolution, that is, the language of icy “honesty,” of narrow but penetrating vision. (As one Feminist said sweetly, quoting her favorite author: “In order to have a revolution you must have a revolutionary theory).” And besides, you sue for thousands and hope to collect hundreds.
Many Feminists, though, are appalled by the Feminists (the in-fighting in the movement is fierce); feel they are fascists, “superweak,” annihilatingly single-minded, and involved in a power play no matter what they say; but then again you can find feminists who will carefully and at great length put down every single feminist group going. But there’s one great thing about these chicks: if five feminists fall out with six groups, within half an hour they’ll all find each other (probably somewhere on Bleecker Street), within 48 hours a new splinter faction will have announced its existence, and within two weeks the manifesto is being mailed out. It’s the mark of a true movement.
Two extremely intelligent and winning feminists who are about to “emerge” as part of a new group are Shulamith Firestone, an ex-Redstocking, and Anne Koedt, an ex-Feminist, and both members of the original radical group, New York Radical Women. They feel that none of the groups now going has the capacity to build a broad mass movement among the women of this country and they intend to start one that will. Both are dedicated to social revolution and agree with many of the ideas of many of the other radical groups. Each one, in her own words, comes equipped with “impeccable revolutionary credentials.” They come out of the Chicago SDS and the New York civil rights movement. Interestingly enough, like many of the radical women in this movement, they were converted to feminism because in their participation in the New Left they met with intolerable female discrimination. (“Yeah, baby, comes the revolution.… Meanwhile, you make the coffee and later I’ll tell you where to hand out the leaflets.” And when they raised the issue of women’s rights with their radical young men, they were greeted with furious denunciations of introducing divisive issues! (Excuse me, but haven’t we been here before?)
The intention of Miss Firestone and Miss Koedt is to start a group that will be radical in aim but much looser in structure than anything they’ve been involved with; it will be an action group, but everyone will also be encouraged to theorize, analyze, create; it will appeal to the broad base of educated women; on the other hand, it will not sound ferocious to the timid non-militant woman. In other words…
I mention these two in particular, but at this moment in New York, in Cambridge, in Chicago, in New Haven, in Washington, in San Francisco, in East Podunk — yes! believe it! — there are dozens like them preparing to do the same thing. They are gathering fire and I do believe the next great moment in history is theirs. God knows, for my unborn daughter’s sake, I hope so.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 27, 1969