Thomas v. Hill: Of Human Bondage

Female Trouble

The Hill/Thomas hearings were a blast of clarity for the women’s movement — all those male Democrats cozying up to Clarence Thomas, seducing Anita Hill into testifying and then, repelled by any association with a women’s cause, abandoning her. Another sorry revelation: a major­ity of women told pollsters they doubted Hill. We need those women to elect feminists to public office, to storm Washington before Roe v. Wade is overturned. We’ve got to acknowledge what attracts them to the status quo.

Hill passed a lie detector test. She had nothing to gain and everything to lose by testifying. She spoke credibly, weaving a story about Thomas he then proceeded to act out. Hill described a man who was crude, inept, driven. He asked for a date but couldn’t take no for an answer. He hammered away, wanting to know why he was being turned down. He used his authority to feel big at the expense of making a woman feel small.

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Even during the first round of hearings, he was a bull, refusing to discuss his legal positions, guilt-tripping the white Senate with depictions of the racial discrimination he’d made a career of dismissing but then evoked as the cross he had to bear. After Hill’s claims were made public, Thomas breathed fire and charged. The righteousness, the self-pity, the insistence that he was the target of a conspira­cy! This man toughed his way through by crying foul, readily strong-arming. He raised himself at the expense of women, imagining a pack of feminists sicking him, lump­ing the women’s movement with establishment racism.

And the majority of women said he was telling the truth. 

The majority of women also want the right to choose abortion. Women believe they’re supposed to control what happens inside their bodies — this much the women’s movement has achieved. But women still aren’t sure they have a right to the world. Hill said that sexual harassment happens, that it hurt her, and that Thomas derived plea­sure from humiliating her. She described ordinary sexism, the way society operates. To believe Hill requires taking sexism seriously, and a lot of women don’t.

There are homophobic gays. There are blacks who under­mine black civil rights. Thomas and Hill did that at the EEOC, discrediting affirmative action, eroding protection from bias. Nonetheless, the vast majority of gays and blacks admit they’re dealt injustice, and they resent it. But many women — let’s say, conservatively, a third of them — ­deny the existence of sexism. A large number of women are organized against the interests of women. No other disad­vantaged group contains a sizable segment militating to limit its own freedom and opportunities.

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The women’s movement proffers dignity, selfhood, and independence. It encourages women to admit the truth of their experience. Not everyone, however, wants these op­portunities, and, even if they do, other longings may be more intense. Traditional roles offer women stability, safe­ty, a feeling of being needed and approved. The rub is the price: fewer rights than men and a willingness to be seen as less entitled to those advantages. But who has not at some time paid too much for a hunger?

If you have ever pleaded for love and acceptance — had to plead because you were being denied, overlooked — then you know what it feels like to trade off your dignity for a burning desire. You tell yourself a story: It’s really not so bad, this begging. It really doesn’t cost me that much, and anyway, who cares, I must have love and acceptance or I won’t be able to endure life. At the same time, a secret voice bleats: It’s no good, acceptance on terms that squeeze you into a shape that’s false. It’s better to do without acceptance, if that’s the only way you can get it. Then you tell that voice to shut up.

That’s what Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill have done throughout their careers. Thomas knew he could play cat and mouse with Hill, because her opportunism was so like his own. She would stick with him no matter what, just as he had cleaved to archconservatives, no matter how much he had to downplay the injuries of racism. When Hill was being harassed by Thomas, she told herself that sexism wasn’t all that hurtful. She was so used to making expedi­ent gestures that, only a few months before testifying against Thomas, she claimed she was pleased he’d been nominated to the Supreme Court. Unless Thomas and Hill soft-pedaled the seriousness of racism and sexism, they would have had to make war on the people they counted on to shelter and esteem them.

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It’s not for nothing that Hill and Thomas, two emotional conservatives, are also political conservatives. Political conservatism enforces the social systems that quiet anxi­eties about change. It’s impossible to know that indepen­dence is more appetizing than security until you’ve tasted independence. People who have made radical changes in their lives — left an abusive spouse, broken a drug depen­dency, committed themselves to AIDS activism — invari­ably say that they acted when their condition became intolerable. They discovered that passivity didn’t guarantee security and that the changes that had once seemed so risky were less dangerous than staying put.

But security isn’t the only factor attracting women to the status quo. Sexism is fueled by a deep dislike of women that both women and men feel. Mothers — mostly the pri­mary parent — are all-powerful to both sexes during early life; in reaction, retaliation, women are devalued in the culture. The dislike of women isn’t just intense but eroti­cized. Women as well as men enjoy the degradation of women — sexism gives women a chance not only to be victims, but also fellow tormentors of other women, stand­ing shoulder-to-shoulder with males. People’s feelings about the degradation of men are more confused, a greater sense of transgression infusing enjoyment. The degraded position is equated with being female, females being the ones who lack social power. Thus when a male is beaten, overpowered, he’s seen as losing his man­hood, called a pussy, a cunt.

Most people were embarrassed when they thought Thomas was be­ing humiliated, because he was per­ceived as a symbol of manhood. At the same time people liked seeing Hill described as a liar, a fantasist, a fanatic. Talk about pornography! To many, the hearings were yummy s&m, including the cat fight of four women defending the boss and lashing Hill for being ambitious and willful.

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Anyone who doubts that some women relish female pain need only recall the gloating of J. C. Alvarez as she evoked a lovelorn, jealous Hill. Part of the reason so few Dem­ocratic senators came to Hill’s de­fense was that they enjoyed watch­ing her get it. Hill was a perfect target because she wasn’t entirely powerless; people could victimize her without feeling guilty. She had tried to get up in the world and had succeeded, profiting from her rela­tionship to Thomas. She deserved to be smacked down for playing the game and then complaining — being a bad sport. More irritating to her detractors: she declared that hurting women was wrong.

Throughout the hearings, the divided nature of human response was simplified or denied. Lost were distinctions between sexual harassment and harmless flirting. Flirting disappeared from public discussion, as if all inviting lines might conceal nasty messages. But every woman knows the difference between sex play that’s welcome and being hit on while radiating don’t. That don’t is the crux of sexual harassment. Still, the workplace is undeniably erotic, an atmosphere charged by shared plans and projects, by daily contact. It’s not harassment if both people say yes.

The Bush gang kept insisting that Thomas was decent and therefore couldn’t like pornography or enjoy degrading women. But no one explained why indulging in a polymor­phous fantasy life would make someone indecent. No one mentioned that people can behave decently most of the time and still, on occasion, binge on aggression. That’s what much of the country did when watching senators and witnesses go after Hill.

In order for people to believe that Thomas abused Hill and that his actions were harmful, they have to admit that sexism is wrong and be willing to give it up. But people will be reluctant to do this as long as they think they have to forfeit some part of their erotic life. The idea runs deep that feminism is the end of sex. It’s one reason feminists are accused of hating sex. Another reason is that some feminists — Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin foremost among them — are puritanical, waging campaigns against pornography and eroticism. These people work against their own long-term interests, because the more sexual attitudes are openly exposed, the better chance there is to address them.

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Taking control and surrendering it, cross-dressing as a vacation from identity — all the kinky pursuits Thomas allegedly enjoyed — are basic in the human beast. We’re creatures of drives, appetites, aggressions, desires to escape into fantasy. Ending sexism in society doesn’t mean people can’t play roles in bed, in their heads. That’s where the role playing belongs. If people felt less shame about indulging these impulses in sex, maybe they wouldn’t be as pressured to act them out everywhere else. ❖


On the Progress of Feminism

The light of liberation can be blinding

The women’s movement has been under fire from the moment it drew its first breath. It’s enemies and detractors are many, though often they pose, in their own minds, as supporters — “Yes, yes, there is much justification in what you are saying, but good God! those awful women you put on tv!” … “Well, I’m willing to support you people, but you’re just gonna have to do a lot better in the way of propaganda. That mimeographed Marxism. Jesus.” … “Look, I’ve always believed in women’s liberation. I take my wife out to eat all the time, but my God, what’s going now is just incredible. These strident, man-hating bitches you people have for spokesmen.” … “You people.” If I hear “you people” just once more …

Those who have responded with open fear and anger to the movement — no doubt out of the illness of middle-class libertarianism — are too numerous to articulate properly on the sociological scale that will ac­curately place the many combinations of anxious self-interest they represent. (And, indeed, it is not now my intention either to castigate or to proselytize.) But there many who declared themselves partisans from the start, many who claimed to see in the women’s movement a hope of salvation denied elsewhere in the cultural politics that domi­nates our social passions, many who responded to the cause of justice for women with quick support and ready alliance, who are now beginning to separate themselves from the movement. For many of those partisans­ — both men and women, but most especially the men — are striking out now, in boredom and irritation, at the many apparently unwholesome aspects of the movement — and in that quick partisanship and early souring lies an instructive tale, one that is crucial to both an increased understanding of and a renewed faith in the movement that seeks to alter radically the psychic lives of men and women.

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I have a story to tell, a story that contains all the dramatic el­ements involved in this signifi­cant play of life:

Recently, I was visiting old friends in Berkeley, a couple who are both radicals of many years’ conviction, people who literally feel that the oppression of other people limits and corrodes their own lives. This conviction happens to be the best part of these people. Unlike many radicals whose radicalism is the worst part of them — that is, their radicalism is often rendered in mean-spirited and righteous be­havior, an arrogant excuse for emotional deficiency — in these people the disgust with capitalism and the social inequities that follow from the system is neither shallow nor fanatical: it has produced an extension of spiritual generosity, a genuine disavowal of worldly accumulation without an absurdly false asceticism, and, more often than not, an emotionally developed desire to understand what the other person is all about. It was, in fact, this man and this woman who introduced me, two years ago, to women’s liberation, and it was, at that time, the man’s understanding and persuasive elo­quence that I found most af­fecting. “I am just now beginning to understand,” he had said softly, “that my wife’s oppression has forced me into certain molds of behavior and all of a sudden I see a whole world of be­havior that has been denied me …” (It was after that conversation that I began, very fast, to feel a great number of connec­tions being made inside me.) Things went quickly for them. The woman became an active member of a women’s collective (that is, a group of women who meet regularly to talk, and also to plan women’s liberation ac­tions.) The man helped organize demonstrations and started a couple’s group.

Now it was two years later. I had seen them only once in the intervening time, and we were naturally anxious to see one another again. When I arrived at the house in Berkeley I found some changes. My friends, together with their two children, now occupied the lower half of the house they lived in; the upper half was occupied by three mari­tally estranged feminists and their collective five children; together, all five adults and seven children were attempting some variant of cooperative liv­ing.

Richard was out when I got there at 8 p.m. but Eva wel­comed me heartily and pulled me inside to the kitchen for coffee and kisses and laughter and words that tumbled one after another in some vague sem­blance of sentences meant to communicate meaning. After a while, one of the feminists from the top floor came down and joined us at the table. She was the estranged wife of a promi­nent New Left radical, life with whom she acidly described: “He was the intellectual and I was the earth mother.” It became quickly clear that she was now, heart and soul, given over to the women’s movement. Within minutes we were all embroiled in serious, fastmoving movement talk — and within the hour I was being told I was a revisionist … It seemed I had too loose an idea of what constituted properly revolutionary behavior.

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When Richard came home he walked into the kitchen; I was very glad to see him and leaped out of my chair to hug him hello. He responded, was friendly for a few minutes, and then left the room. I expected him to return and so I simply sat down again, resumed the conversation, and it was 1 a.m. before I realized Richard had gone to his room with no intention of returning to the kitchen.

We, the three women, con­tinued to talk movement talk until 3 a.m. Movement talk, of necessity, is composed of a constant intertwining of personal experience, tactical speculations (regarding acti­vity in and out of the move­ment), and theoretical projec­tions, all being fed continually through the mill of observation and analysis. Naturally, the men in our lives are part of the mate­rial we supply for model cases and situations. Naturally.

I wasn’t able to speak to Rich­ard, who seemed abnormally preoccupied, until late the next day, and then I asked him why he hadn’t come back into the kitchen the night before. He looked at me for a long minute, and then he burst out; “I’ve gotten to hate women. I can’t stand them gath­ering in cliques, the way they do now. I just can’t stand the con­stant cliqueishness. It reminds me of my mother, for God’s sake. When I was a kid, my mother and her friends would gather in the kitchen like that, pushing the men — me and my brother and my father — out with their eyes and their sudden silences … Jesus. Now it’s the same thing all over again. When I walk into my own kitchen I feel the invisible curtain suddenly coming down between me and the women. Suddenly, I am the enemy incarnate, I am the fucking oppressor, I’m the one to be watched and to be shut out …” He gestured in disgust. “It’s useless now. I really don’t know what to make of the movement any more, and certainly I don’t feel part of it at all.”

I was stunned by his outburst. A great blot of sympathy began spreading in me. But very quickly my sympathy began to be outlined in anger, and the outline thickened until it covered half the blot … and then I realized that both my sympathy and my anger were for Richard and for the women. For him and for me, for the cause and for the movement, for the depth of meaning sealed into this incident and for the insight it holds into the nature of the struggle that lies still so far ahead of all of us.

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What is happening to Richard is happening to men (from liberals to revolutionaries) all over this country who have considered themselves spiritual partisans of the women’s movement and feel, bewilderedly and angrily, that the movement itself is now beating them over the head daily with an indiscriminately wielded club marked “male chauvinist pig.” (A really unhappy example of this: John Leonard’s recent, startling battle in the Times with some of my sisters.) The entire action is amazingly reminiscent of the time only 10 years ago when thousands of white middle-­class liberals who had fought with patience and sincerity in the black civil rights movement were suddenly being called “ofay motherfuckers” by LeRoi Jones and Stokely Carmichael and told to get the hell out of their move­ment. It was as difficult then to sort out the right and the wrong of the matter as it is now, because the right and the wrong were then, and are now, all mixed up with the ugliness of emotional need so swollen and so distorted as a result of having been told so long it does not exist that blacks then, and women now, could not take in all at once both the full impetus of their previous condition and their roaring need to see it change­ and still retain their full capacity for humanist behavior. It is al­most as though the very act of declaring oneself ready to do battle for one’s humanity trans­forms one into something other: like the good and innocent men who go to war to fight for the sweetness of civilization and re­turn killers.

But of course that is the whole sickening trickery in life — the idea that one cannot fight for one’s humanity without, ironically, losing it — and it is a piece of trickery that the blacks some­times seem helpless against and the women now sometimes seem helpless against, and, in the final analysis, that trickery is the real enemy, and the very essence of the thing we must continually be on our guard against. For what shall it profit a woman if she gain an end to slavery in mar­riage and in the process lose her soul?

However, a liberal who was out­raged 10 years ago at the sheer “unreasonableness” of the blacks and is outraged now at the sheer “unfairness” of the women is a fool, and possessed of the kind of impatience that calls all of his early allegiance into ques­tion. For how is it possible that a man in one breath should proclaim his genuine under­standing of woman’s deeply subordinate position in our society, and in the very next exclaim savagely against the forceful and sometimes “unreasonable” ex­pression of rage now rising in women, an expression which inevitably accompanies the up­rising of those who suddenly real­ize they have been cheated of their birthright, and which dies down only slowly and with the healing passage of time that brings real change and increased understanding? Does a woman suddenly understand the need to reverse the behavior of over 2000 years, and presto! That  understanding  makes her saintly? Or is it exactly the opposite? “Ye shall know truth and it shall turn you into a monster. And only after a long siege of fever shall you become human again.” After all, why did it take Moses 40 years to cross the goddamn desert? Because God instructed him that he was not to return slaves to Canaan.

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Many women are acting ugly now because they feel ugly. For a long, long time these women acted sweet when they didn’t necessarily feel sweet. They did so because deep in their being, in a place beyond conscious thought, they believed their lives depended upon their being sweet. Now, when they think of that time, of all that life spent on their knees, they feel green bile spreading through them. and they feel that their lives now depend upon calling men “male chauvinist pig.” That sweetness, then, was infantile, and this viru­lent aggression, now, is infantile. But a people are not kept for generations as children and sud­denly, simply upon coming to re­alize that they have lived as chil­dren, become fully humanist adults, capable of measured proportion. That measured proportion is the kind of behavior that is learned, and it is learned only in a specific way: through the reinforcement of a repeated personal experience which per­ceives humanism, finally, as the only true and necessary and satisfying expression of the sell. A people who have only just begun to emerge from a state of sub­jugation are in no position to be even-handed in this manner, and it takes much patience and un­derstanding and good will on the part of the strong ones both in the subjugated group and in the group holding the power to provide an atmosphere of stabili­ty in which the frightened bravado on both sides of the fence can dissipate itself without increasing the chaos that is al­ready intrinsic in the situation.

John Leonard was appalled by the out-of-focus fury of the sis­terhood over his review of a number of feminist books, a fury that ended up saying a man shouldn’t be reviewing feminist books. Leonard, a long-time supporter of women’s liberation, flew into a rage and in reply said that in that case “Moby Dick” should be reviewed by whales, and ended, in his turn, with an attack on the stupidities of the women’s movement. It was so obvious to him that the feminists’ response was an outrageous at­tack upon every civilized notion that allows a reviewer of in­telligence and decency to call the shots as he sees them.

Leonard was right and he was wrong; the women were right and they were wrong. If I were in Leonard’s place, I would have done precisely what he did — and regretted it five years later. On the other hand, I am in the feminists’ place: I would not have done what they did, but I can see exactly why they did what they did.

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Women’s liberation is being called by many names today. It is called “the movement,” it is called “the cause,” it is called “the revolution.” Often, the lan­guage — as language does­ — begins to take on a life of its own, and then the idea of women’s liberation and the terms of description by which it is known begin to grow dangerously distant from each other. Even more important, those terms of description sometimes harden into dogma, and dogma in time becomes a kind of shorthand —  first for explanation and then for response. When that happens, experience is on its way to becoming institutionalized and the life at the center of that expe­rience is slowly sucked away.

The liberation of women is, in my view, at one and the same time, all of the things it is called, and none of those things. For me, feminism is, more than any other single thing, not a movement, not a cause, not a revolution, but rather a profoundly new way of interpreting human experience. It is a vital piece of information at the center of a new point of reference from which one both re-interprets the past and predicts the future. In that sense, it is parallel to the great cultural movements that have so altered the shape of the 20th century — Freudianism and existentialism. Feminism is a piece of emotional and intellectual insight that allows us to see that women’s lives represent the effects of a piece of culture that has come to be known as “sexism”: a determination — based on fear and the existential struggle for power­ — that women shall be declared natural inferiors, and taught that they are natural inferiors. The consequences of this insight, if it is perceived instantly, are as far-­reaching as Freud’s discovery of sexual repression and the exis­tentialists’ discovery of noth­ingness. For each woman and each man contains within herself and within himself a microcosm of the universe in feminist terms — just as each person also contains within himself and within herself a microcosm of sexual neurosis and existential angst — and thus feminism also is nothing less than a new form into which one pours old knowledge, thereby re-vitalizing and setting into motion anew the sources of psychic energy responsible for growth and change and altered behavior.

The conversion to feminism is also very much like the conver­sion to Freudianism and existen­tialism: for a long time one sees nothing, and suddenly one sees it all — whereupon absolute hell breaks loose. A woman suddenly sees herself in feminist terms (just as a prospect for psycho­analysis suddenly sees that his behavior is the response to repression); she grasps the fun­damental idea in a flash (and that, by the way, is the last thing she is going to grasp in a flash); immediately she is surrounded by the “panic and emptiness” of a world in shambles, on the one hand, and the drunken exhilara­tion of a world overflowing with new possibility on the other. Ut­terly dislocated, a newly con­verted feminist is then like the man in Plato’s parable who, coming out of the cave of igno­rance, is blinded by the light and must grope slowly and painfully toward some coherent re-assembly of the world — a groping, I might add, that is further re­tarded by the fact that the man is eager to accept each new ob­ject he stumbles on as the ultimate object, the one that really defines this giddy and fearful new atmosphere he now finds himself in.

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But more significantly and more directly, the newly converted feminist bears a striking resemblance to the novitiate into psychoanalysis who — for an amazingly long time — is over­whelmed by the fact that his fa­ther never made him feel loved and that his desire for his mother deeply affected his ability to love other women, as well as by this amazing discovery of a world within himself of emotional scars, complicated repressions, unbelievable defenses — all busily going into operation every time a stranger says hello all explained by an erudite world theory, all passionately seen as part of an enormous puzzle, there simply to be worked out — and shazam! on the very day the last piece of the puzzle is in place, those compul­sions formed by that unanalyzed self begin to wither and die, one sheds the worn-out skin of defen­sive behavior, and a whole, new creature is born inside the famil­iar but now psychoanalyzed body.

All that is romantic fancy, as the unhappy analysand is quick to learn; should he actually piece the entire puzzle together, he has just begun his trip, and it is one of the cruelest journeys in the world — that journey that must be taken from the stunning point of initial conversion, quick understanding, and unquestioned belief in the miraculous powers of the language of faith, to the disenchanting point of realization that insight must be reinforced by and ultimately (through the formerly impotent tools of intelligence and will) replaced by an act of hard, drudging work in which the emotional habits of a lifetime are slowly and continually chipped away — inch by inch, moment by moment, day by painful day — in order that the analysand’s life may perhaps ­begin to resemble that glorious possibility of existence glimpsed in the rarefied atmosphere of the analyst’s office, hour after cathartic hour.

For the feminist, it is exactly the same. The woman who suddenly sees that she has been forced by cultural decision to remain a half-formed creature, never to have known actual au­tonomy or direct power, is as overcome by her revelation as is the new analysand by his. So violent is the nature of her insight that she is able in a shot to gather into her previously resistant understanding a new explanation for almost every identifiable piece of behavior that characterizes her life. She is able quickly to see her life — down to its smallest detail — as a microcosmic example of the larger and more theoretical idea: sexism. She sees the cultural and political system under which she has grown, suddenly, not as the familiar capitalist West but as a patriarchy in which men have direct power and women do not; in which women have been kept, essentially, as children, and men have assumed the responsibilities and the rewards of adulthood. When the feminist comes to see her life in this light, it is inevita­ble that she should see men — all men, the men in remote places of power as well as the men in her immediate life — as agencies of her victimization. It is also inevi­table that she be overwhelmed by an uncontrollable and very unhappy fury — just as the analysand is overtaken by a furious anger against his parents when he first realizes what they did to him.” It is only with enor­mous difficulty that the fe­minist — like the analysand — can get past the point of initial understanding and primary response­ — for indeed, if she does not, she, like the psychiatric patient who cannot stop explaining his behav­ior in terms of how his mother or father affected him in early childhood, is lost to genuine change. Man-hating, for the feminist, then becomes a waste of energy and a force for retar­dation rather than progress. It is exactly like taking a trip down an unknown country road in the middle of the night. One goes a short distance and falls into a ditch. One steps on the gas pedal, again and again, but to no avail. The force of acceleration makes it feel as though the car is moving, but in fact the wheels are only spinning. One must get out of the car, lift it from the ditch, and proceed down the road — to the end of the trip.

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For in the final analysis, feminism, for me, is the journey deep into the self at the same time that it is an ever increasing understanding of cultural sexism … and, more than anything, the slow, painful reconstruction of that self in the light of the feminist’s enormously multiplied understanding.

Let me explain what I mean. Recently I was walking through midtown Manhattan with another woman. We had just had lunch and we were speaking warmly with one another. This woman is over 50. She is very beautiful, she has two broken marriages behind her, a grown son, an amazingly gentle nature, and a terrifying history of alcoholism. She does not call herself a feminist, and yet she is certainly deeply af­fected by the women’s move­ment; she is, in my view, a per­fect candidate for feminist con­version. As we were walking, she said to me: “You know, I’ve been reading Ti-Grace Atkinson, and I’m beginning to think perhaps she’s right, perhaps separatism is the answer for us. I realized, as I was reading her, that love, being in love, had always been to me exactly what alcohol had been. I mean, when I was in love, it was just like being high; I would experience exhila­ration, a sense of strength, and a marvelous conviction of freedom … do you know what I mean? And then, after a while, love­ — like alcohol — would begin to wear off, and the high would end in depression … Perhaps, then, I should abstain from love as I have abstained from alcohol.”

I felt a terrible rush of confu­sion and unhappiness as she spoke. “No,” I said hotly, “no.” It seemed to me that the lesson to be learned from that experi­ence is not that we must stop loving men, but that we have all been taught a corrupting version of romantic love and we must learn better how to love. That high of love is like something on the cover of the Saturday Eve­ning Post. It is falling in love with the ritual of love, not with a human being, and experiencing the emptiness that follows when ritual is perceived to be without substance; and women do it a thousand times more often and more easily than men because “falling in love” is what women wait to do. Imagine a bride as she is prepared for the ordinary American marriage: there she is draped in masses of queenly white, surrounded by adoring subjects, (family, friends, neighbors), ready to worship at her prize-winning feel, intent on absorbing every detail of this high-mass ceremony: the gather­ing of gifts, silver, wedding rings, honeymoon plans, dressmaker details, wedding-hall plans … the actual man who is actually being married slowly recedes into the unreal background … delicious! Suddenly it’s over. They are married and it is all over. Nothing remains but to prepare for the next high: having a baby. In one sense or another — ­given higher or lesser degrees of spiritual and intellectual pre­tension — thousands of people marry in precisely this manner, mistaking circumstance for per­sonality. Although we alone are not the victims, we, the women, are the ultimate victims of these marriages — because marriage is so damnably central to a woman’s life — and precisely because we are the more genuine victims, it is incumbent on us to understand that we participate in these marriages because we have no strong sense of self with which to demand and to give sub­stantial love, it is incumbent in us to make marriages which will not curtail the free, full func­tioning of that self. If giving up “romantic” love, then, is the price that must be paid for a new kind of marriage, let it be a price we pay gladly, and once and for all have done with the hellish lies attached to the whole damned business so that we can look for­ward with pleasure to a new, free, full-hearted, eminently proportionate way of loving. That, for me, is the feminist lesson to be learned from the re­alization that love is an institu­tion of oppression, as Ti-Grace so accurately puts it.

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breaks my heart to hear a woman speak of “ripping off” a man, or another calling a man she lives with — and has every intention of continuing to live with — a “male chauvinist pig” 29 times a day, or another reveling in the open hostility she displays toward every man she sleeps with. It breaks my heart because I know equally well the confusion and the despair and the frustra­tion behind such a woman’s words. I know that her emotional wheels are spinning, and that she can’t see her way past her present position. And I know also that somewhere inside her, perhaps well below the conscious level, she apprehensively feels that displaying the same emotional vic­iousness toward men that they have displayed toward her may be suspicious proof of the females crippled ability to assume respon­sibility for the making of her own life.

And I want to say: have faith, my sister. The place in which we now find ourselves is unavoid­able, but soon it will prove insup­portable; soon it will prove emotionally unsatisfying, and with that emotional dissatisfaction comes another leap toward un­derstanding, and with that, the automatic courage to press fur­ther and be off down that road once again. It is insufficient to the cause to concentrate on man-­hating; it exhausts your energy and makes you lose sight of the real aim of the struggle. It is not the action that will return your life to you; it is not the way to the end of that road, and the end of that road is all that counts.

None of which is to say that the fight against sexism is not very real, or that it must not be fought daily by the  woman’s mo­vement — in the courts, in the streets, in the offices, in the bedrooms — or that those in power are anywhere near ready to relinquish that power. It is only to say that I believe that the thrust of feminism should not be the reforming of old institutions so much as the creation of new ones:

— I do not wish to batter down the doors of male institutions, crying “Let me in!”, so much as I simply wish to walk away from those institutions, thereby causing them to fall, as women make of themselves human beings who simply will not participate in the male scheme of civilization.

— I wish to see every feminist take a solemn vow: “Let there never be another generation of women for whom marriage is the pivotal experience of psychic development.”

— I wish to see every feminist say to herself: “Yes, the pa­triarchy has taken my life from me, but also I have given it. I am not going to waste the rest of it in an avalanche of reproach. I am going to fight the patriarchy, but my real energy goes to the hard drudging work of making myself human — as well as humane. Men may have taken my life from me — but they cannot give it back to me. Only I can do that, fighting inch by inch to reverse the emotional habits of a life­time.”

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All much, much easier said than done — especially for us, the women between 30 and 40, the truly brave and sacrificial transitional generation. But it is, I believe, the only true direction that we — as women, as human beings, as intimate possessors of the final understanding of “liber­ation” — can travel. Yes, men are also in chains. Yes, “powerful oppressor” is, for most men, a painful farce. Yes, it is the sexual liberation of everyone that is required. But history has now passed the ball to us, the women, and it is our liberation that is demanded, our liberation that must be of paramount con­cern, our liberation that will, by default, insure the liberation of all. And it will come, all of it, not so much through the develop­ment of a political dogma or a revolutionary apparatus or a sweeping commitment to fem­inist ideology, as through the slow, irreversible conversion to a new psychology of the self on the part of thousands of women today, and millions more tomor­row. Against that force, the operating principles of the old male civilization will be utterly helpless. Against that force, the denial of female autonomy will be as a leaf in the wind.

It is for these reasons that I believe that the heart and soul of the feminist movement is the small, anonymous consciousness­-raising group. It is here that the real work is being done, here that feminism struggles to life, here that it takes hold with rooted strength, transforming the soul of a woman, biting deeply and slowly — like acid on metal — ­into the ready heart beneath the encrusted surface, so that it becomes forever impossible for that woman to turn back on what she now knows or to make whole again that old, false self.

The existence of the women’s movement as a source of support and strength for thousands of women who will come slowly to feminism is invaluable. On the other hand, the movement is also a source of apprehension in that it nurtures the irresistible ten­dency toward doctrinaire indict­ments, the easy out of man-hating, the often false solidarity of ideological “sisterhood.” In the short time since it first came into existence, the movement has already spawned hundreds of party hacks, women who are now “movement women,” women whose line of defense grows more rigid with each passing day, women who have often ex­changed one crudely held ideology for another.

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To travel down that ideological road is not fatal — nothing can be fatal to the feminist movement, for it is alive in all its parts and its desire for more life is omnivo­rous, feeding itself on anything and everything — and often, it seems the only real road to be on. But, it seems to me, in the end it is regressive and danger­ous to a movement that prides it­self on having as its ultimate goal the humane treatment of all human beings.

For myself, I can only say: I fight the polemicist in me daily. I fight not to destroy it, but merely to hold it in balance. To hold it in balance. And I must fight, because it is such a temptation for me to simply surrender to it. The excitement, the energy, the sheer voluptuous sweep of feminist ideology is almost erotic in its power to sway me. My mind grows vividly sharp, my responses come quickly, my illu­minations and connections are ir­resistible, as one piece of the puzzle after another begins to fall swiftly into place no sooner do I allow a single sentence to domi­nate my being: “Everything in man’s experience makes him an oppressor, everything in woman’s experience makes her a victim.” That’s all. Just a single sentence. No more than that. And yet …

Something in me holds back, some part of my soul struggles up in painful confusion to say softly: no, that’s not entirely true. That is certainly not en­tirely true. I cannot say to a man who has loved me: “You god­damn sexist” (as I have said) without feeling a terrible, numbing pain as I look upon his dismayed face and the whole of our deeply woven experience together flashes before me. No, I cannot say I am a total victim as I feel the energy of life rushing through me and I exult in my growing independence. I cannot say these things — and I think it is the best part of my feminism that will not allow me to say them.

Feminism has within it the seeds of a genuine world view. Like every real system of thought it is able to refer itself to everything in our lives, thereby rescuing the old, forgotten knowl­edge that is locked deep inside each of us. But if, in the end, in our ideological lunge toward retribution, we use it as a means of abdicating our responsibility to be true to every part of our expe­rience — we are lost. ❖


Women on the March: “We’re a Movement Now!”

“Why not?”

“‘Cause I go to sleep in the school. But I don’t like to lie down.”

“What do you like to do?”

“I like to draw.”

“What does your mother do?”

“She works.”

“What does she do at work?”

“I don’t know, but she works.”

“And your father, what does he do?”

“He goes for interview.”

Mrs. Dorothy Pitman, the chairman of the Committee for Community Controlled Day Care, was busy telling reporters how centers like the one on West 80th Street could free welfare mothers to go back to work.

Lucy Komisar, the famous and constant gadfly in the haunts of men, would later petulantly accuse Deputy Mayor Richard Aurelio of paying attention to the day care needs of poor women alone. And Betty Friedan was to drop a couple of comments about the rich women who’d joined the demonstrators because “they know that all women are poor.” But the day began with West 80th Street hold­ing its own on behalf of poor mothers.

Soon the not-so-poor mothers began wandering into the park. They were young women like Mrs. Carolyn Marshall McKee, mothers educated enough to feel frustrated in domesticity but also poor enough to have to drag their young progeny along on their own adventures.

Mrs. McKee wore her son, age one-and-three-quarters (“by last count”) strapped to her back. In her blue workshirt and bell bottom pants, she looked ready for action on the front, wherever that was. And she kept repeating the phrase, “I’m ready.”

A pretty young woman, she explained that she had had her ambitions “shot down” twice in her short life, once at Mount Holyoke College, where she had been studying pre-med, and the second time when she had learned she was pregnant.

“Like, I got married and I went to the doctor and he said, ‘You’re pregnant,’ and I said, ‘Shit!’ And the doctor said, ‘Nobody ever said that before.’ I worked up until the week I had the baby.”

Doug, her young son, was meanwhile going into ecstasies over a string of lollipops that hung from a branch just above his head.

Mrs. McKee went on to explain that she’d been doing some “consciousness raising” with the Radical Feminists. She had learned that there were “two fronts you have to fight on,” one within yourself and the other with the outside world.

“It’s as sort of a sense of the future,” she said, looking thoughtful. “Now it’s really coming back.” Breaking into a smile, she looked around at the beginnings of the Women’s Strike.

“I really really feel good,” she said with a nod, “I feel good today.”

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Which is what every demonstrator who was asked about her feelings would repeat throughout the day. There was no great unity of styles or goals in the Women’s National Strike for Equality. There were the three basic demands: free abortion on demand, 24-hour daycare for all mothers, and employment, pay, and promotion opportunities for women equal to those for men. But no one seems to harp much on these demands. The common bond was the demonstration itself, their presence in the streets together, sharing defiant sisterhood.

Mrs. Friedan would speak about her “rich women, who know all women are poor,” while Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s Human Rights Commissioner, would emphasize the plights of black women forced to leave their children untended as they went off to clean the homes of the rich. But for that day, at least, neither of these feminists seems disturbed by their disparate constituencies.

Mrs. Friedan looked almost tearful as she accepted Mayor Lindsay’s proclamation declaring August 26, 1970, Equality for Women Day in New York City. And though Richard Aurelio, the Deputy Mayor who presented it to her, disappeared abruptly thereafter, walking out on a promised dialogue with the feminists, Mrs. Friedan seemed overjoyed. Only Lucy Komisar shouted at his disappearing posterior from the other end of the car that served as a platform. She later trapped him up against a fence in City Hall Park to tell him that the Mayor had said nothing about daycare centers for non-poor mothers. Aurelio looked pained and quickly backed off again.

(No one seemed aware of the fact that the Mayor’s Assistant for “Women’s Affairs” is a man. His name is Marvin Schick, and he was assigned to deal with women’s problems several months ago, a task which fit in with his general liaison work with the Human Rights Commission. A member of Women in City Government United told me her group was pleased with Schick’s work on behalf of women but unhappy that a man had been selected to do it. Schick is an orthodox Jew who every morning recites the Hebrew prayer, “Blessed art though, king of the world, that thou has not made me a woman.” He chuckles good-naturedly when asked about the prayer and explains that it is merely a way of expressing thanks for being able to perform the religious duties of a man. According to Schick, most women’s liberationists do not understand that prayer.)

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The counter-revolutionaries were reading off the names of people they’d chosen for “Adam’s Rib” awards. Calling themselves “Men Our Masters,” they held up pink signs which said “MOM.”

One of their group strayed into enemy ranks. They quickly started challenging her. Trembling all the while, she tried to stand up to them.

“What are you fighting against?” A feminist asked her.

“The idea of putting sex down … One man today lit my cigarette for me. I thought it was wonderful,” the MOM girl replied without much spirit. Her heavy make-up was beginning to streak in the heat, and she looked forlorn.

“Why can’t you light your own fucking cigarettes?” the feminist asked impatiently.

“Why are you cursing” asked the MOM girl. “That’s very, uh — ”

“Unladylike,” the feminist suggested with a knowing nod.

“Don’t you think there’s room for both?” an interested male bystander asked the MOM girl.

“She’s putting us down,” said the girl, her sign hand shaking. “Why do you feel unliberated?” she addressed her tormentor.

“I don’t feel unliberated,” came the answer. “Why are you against us?”

“Because we don’t like your ideals.”

“What do you do? Do you work?” another feminist asked.

The MOM girl saw her enemies closing in on her. She started to look for an opening in the throng behind her.

“I’m a bookkeeper,” she said, “and I make a good salary, just as good as a man does.”

“Have you ever come up against job discrimination?”

“No,” said MOM girl, beginning to look really uncom­fortable.

“Would you like to become an accountant?” asked the male bystander

“I could if I wanted to,” said the miserable girl, “but I don’t want that responsibility.”

With that she turned around and shoved back toward her friends, consciousness still unraised.

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There were more encounters to come and some already ac­complished before the eager press could get there to record them. Some Media Women had invaded the New York Times early that morning, going to the offices of Abe Rosenthal and John Oakes. Lindsay van Gelder of the Post, four and a half months pregnant, but defiant as ever had gone to Rosenthal’s office. She later said that he treated her group with respect, “was not paternal,” and frequently admitted the Times’ failings.

Mrs. van Gelder said her group had complained about the paper’s hiring and promotion of women, about its women’s page (“as if everything else in there is for men”), and about its extensive columns of engagement announcements.

“We told him that if they were all going to leave those in, they ought to at least show us the men, so we can have something to drool over,” said Mrs. van Gelder.

She was chattering happily about her triumph to the women who are about to invade the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School on the fourth floor of the Pan American building. Barred from the main elevators, this group circumvented the guards and appeared, some 50 strong, at the Katharine Gibbs reception desk. Reporters, sensing a good fight in the offing, had flocked to the school.

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The determined women had their encounter with Alan Baker, the director of the school, and the dialogue went like this:

Baker: Actually, in 1911, women couldn’t get responsible jobs at all … Women were actually called typewriters. (Katharine Gibbs’s) idea was, lets get women good jobs.

NOW Woman: On the average, secretaries with college degrees earn 60 percent less than men with college degrees.

Baker: We agree with you entirely … I think what you’re all overlooking is that you’re talking with people who are working for women …

Young Women’s Lib Member: Why did Katharine Gibbs start this school? Because she couldn’t get a job?

NOW Woman: At what age does a girl become a woman?

Baker: I think you’re more qualified to answer that than I am … We don’t expect our girls to wear white gloves or hats anymore. I think we stopped that in about 1964 or ’65.

NOW Woman: I’m talking about an air of subservience … Do you train people to be office wives?

Young Liberationist: How many of your secretaries have gone on to other jobs?

Baker: I think what you should all recognize is that you’re putting me in the position of defending the system.

NOW Woman: You’re fortifying it with your ads! (Those things that say: Now that you’ve got a college degree, come to Katharine Gibbs and learn how to type.)

Young Liberationist: What are your plans for accepting men?

Baker: We have some which we can’t announce at this point … I think we’re all victims of the system.

Liberationist: Were you ever a secretary?

Baker: Well, I was a secretary, but they called it administrative assistant. (Many groans here.) … We have had many complaints and many criticisms about our advertising.

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Liberationist: Who were the complaints from?

Baker: Girls.

Several Liberationists in Unison: Women!

Baker: (Looking sheepish) Women … I remember one girl in particular. She said, “I saw your ad, and it was like an answer from heaven.” (Very loud groans here.)

Liberationist: What is her salary?

Baker: $135 a week.

Liberationist: Is she a college graduate?

Baker: Yes.

Liberationist: Is that a good salary for a college graduate?

Baker: Yes … But I’m not defending the system …

NOW Woman: These women who come to you could go into a management trainee job at Chase Manhattan Bank …

Baker: Most women don’t want to work more than three years or four years. (The loudest groans yet.)

Liberationist: You’re not supposed to want to work more than three years or four years!

Eventually, the group grew weary of challenging Baker. Sev­eral NOW women thanked him for his time and told him they would be back. He promised to re-examine the school’s curriculum to find out whether his students were really being en­couraged to adopt “an altitude of subservience” toward men.

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Similar encounters occurred at companies and banks during the afternoon. First National City got a “Thanks for Nothing Award” for its hiring and promotion practices. The inventors of Silva Thins were told that Women’s Liberation did not appreciate their ads.

On another front marriage came under attack.  A group car­rying placards which said things like “Oppressed Women: Don’t Cook Dinner! Starve a Rat Today!” invaded the office of the First Deputy and Acting City Clerk. They presented him with a sample pamphlet entitled “You and Your Marriage,” something they said all prospective husbands and wives ought to read. The pamphlet listed the legal rights and responsibilities of each partner — although the page entitled “Wife’s Responsibilities” contained nothing but a question mark.

The First Deputy and Acting City Clerk said he didn’t know whether his office should give out legal advice, but he would con­sider the pamphlet.

A female reporter asked the distraught-looking clerk what he thought of women’s liberation.

“Well, I’m not against it,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think women should be every place that a man is at all times, like clubs and bars.”

“The women might call you a male chauvinist,” said the reporter.

“Yes, they might,” said the clerk.

Late in the afternoon, a small cadre of women plus one pony-­tailed man from the East Village ­Other went off to liberate the men’s bar in the Biltmore Hotel. They were served immediately by a smiling bartender. Male boozers glared at them for a few minutes and then went back to staring at their drinks.

Claudia Dreifus, an EVO writ­er and member of the cadre, soon decided she ought to liber­ate the Men’s Room just off the bar. A gamy young feminist went along with her for moral support.

Two minutes later they were back at their table looking a little put out.

“There was a man using one of the urinals in there,” said Miss Dreifus.

“I don’t like urinals, anyway,” said another member of the group.

“Pissing is a private thing,” said Miss Dreifus gravely. The Men’s Room in the Biltmore would have to be liberated another day.

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Off to the “Powder Room” they all went, pony-tailed male included. He sat in the mirror-lined outer chamber as the females used the facilities, complaining all the while about the 10-cent charge. When the women emerged, he told them he’d never seen a men’s room quite so splendid.

Soon someone decided the gilded Powder Room mirrors were offensive. Up went the stickers: “Smash Sexism!”, “Women’s Strike for Equality, August 25, 1970,” and, over a fine, clear mirror: “This Insults Women.”

The Biltmore Powder Room stick-up seemed the right finishing touch somehow, the last final guerrilla comedy action of the day. It was not a day for anger. The women who had made it their special day were too cheerful, too proud of them­selves and their predecessors.

And up at the Plaza fountain where the march was assembling all was happy chaos. You couldn’t tell the spectators from the reporters or from the demon­strators. It seemed that every two-bit magazine, tv station, city desk, and news service had sent a female reporter. These women were dressed in the motley liber­ation styles and could not be dis­tinguished from their subjects unless their press cards were vis­ible. There were in addition scores of male reporters and photographers, milling and shoving around in aggressive ef­forts to be on the spot when the march began. Spectators, reporters, and women stood like figures on a life-sized wedding cake along each tier of the fountain. They quite obscured the little placard ceremony for Sojourner Truth, the black female un­derground railroad worker, for whom the liberationists wanted to erect a monument in place of that Plaza statue.

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The vague beginnings of the line-up for the march were over at the 60th Street exit from Park Drive. There the lower half of Gloria Steinem’s face was visi­ble under a poster of the My Lai massacre which bore the words “Masculine Mystique.” There Ed Koch’s face was a full foot above the crowd, beaming out with its characteristic liberal good cheer. There a serious-looking young woman with a bull horn was commanding reporters to step back in between her calls for Ruth Ann Miller and other women’s lib celebrities who had been swallowed up by the crowd.

Kate Millett came drifting by, frowning over a movie camera. A serpent-like line of women wove through the crowd with the huge “Women of the World Unite!” banner that had been displayed at the Statue of Liberty.

It seemed that everyone was waiting for a signal. One young liberationist with a sense of organization got a small group chanting “Out of the houses! Out of the jails! Up from under! Women unite!” for a brief period. But even she didn’t seem to know where the sign to start the march would be coming from.

Through the crush of it all a man and woman were bumping and shoving themselves down the Fifth Avenue sidewalk toward the fountain. They apparently lived nearby, for he was carrying a poodle. And as they walked past the women, he could be heard telling her:

“My dear, they’re always disorganized.”

Somehow, it got under way. And then, only then, did the women realize how large their demonstration was. As they moved down Fifth Avenue, they kept jumping above the crowd to get quick views of the numbers still behind them. “Did you see how far back it goes?” they kept asking each other in excited tones. They were amazed, those young women who had been meeting in small groups or taking part in small actions for months. And with each block of their route as the line stretched out longer and longer behind them, their jubilation grew. No one of them would have dared to say before that evening that the women’s liberation movement had 20,000 members in New York City alone.

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The march was liberally sprinkled with men. And in the end the newspaper crowd estimates were widely disparate. One march organizer said a po­liceman told her “there must be 50,000 people here.” The New York Post said there were 7000. But Pete Hamill estimated that 35,000 had taken part in the march. Bryant Park, where they staged their final rally, holds 20,000 and every we blade of grass in there was occupied.

The women were white, young, and college-educated. Their movement was, no getting around it, made up of the women least in need of a special politics to get their fair share of power and wealth. But for one brief eve­ning they felt themselves to be standing up for all women every­where. Tomorrow they could think of their old factions and divisions, tomorrow Betty Friedan and Eleanor Holmes Norton might discover that it would take more than woman-hood to unite them. But that night, as the darkness fell on Bryant Park, they were simply amazed at their numbers.

Kate Millett uttered what they were all thinking as she looked out over the park. “Wow!” she said, “we’re a movement now!” They cheered and cheered at this, for they all seemed to know that women’s liberation had not really emerged until then. It had gotten by on humor and anger and shock effect. It had received publicity far out of proportion to its size. The demonstration’s organizers themselves were later to admit they had expected a much smaller turnout. They did not know until the end of August 26 that the women’s liberation movement had finally earned its title. ❖


Sisters Under the Skin: Confronting Race and Sex

Recently, at a feminist meeting, a black woman argued that in American society race is a more absolute divi­sion than sex, a more basic determi­nant of social identity. This started an intense discussion: if someone shook us out of a deep sleep and demanded that we define ourselves, what would we blurt out first? The black woman said “black woman.” Most of the white women said “woman”; some said “lesbian.” No one said “white person” or “white woman.”

I’m not sure it makes sense to say that one social division is more absolute than another. I wonder if it isn’t more a matter of different kinds of division. Most blacks and whites live in separate communities, in dif­ferent social, cultural, and economic worlds, while most women and men share each other’s daily, intimate lives and cooperate, even if unequally, in such elemental activities as fucking, procreating, and keeping a household going. On the other hand, a man and a woman can spend their lives to­gether and have such disparate ver­sions of their “common” experience that they might as well live on different planets. Do I feel more distant from black women than from white men? Everything else (class) being equal? (Except that it usually isn’t.) In some ways yes, in some ways no. But whatever the objective truth, my sex feels more basic to my identity than my race. This is not surprising: in a sexist society it’s impossible to take one’s femaleness for granted; in a racist society whiteness is sim­ply generic humanness, entirely un­remarkable. Suppose, though, that a black revolution were to seriously challenge my racial privileges? Suppose I had to confront every day, every hour, the question of which side I’m on?

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Such questions excite and disturb me. Like talk about sexuality, discussions of the racial­-sexual nexus radiate danger and taboo — a sign that the participants are on to some­thing. Lately such discussions, mostly in­itiated by black women, are happening more often. They raise the heartening possibility of connecting, and in the process revitalizing, the unhappily divergent discourses of feminism and black liberation. This could be the first step toward creating a new feminist radicalism, whose interracial, interclass bonds go deeper than lowest-common-denominator coalition politics.

One of the women at the meeting suggested that I read Sally Hemings, Barbara Chase­-Riboud’s controversial historical novel about Thomas Jefferson’s black mistress. I found it a devastating study of the psychology of mas­ters and slaves, the politics of romantic love, the relations between black and white women, and the institution of the family. Much of its power lies in the way the author merges the race and sex of each character into a seamless whole, bringing home the point that to abstract these categories is al­ready to falsify experience. So long as white­ness and maleness remain the norm, white women can think of themselves as “women,” black men as “blacks”; but black women, doubly the Other, must be constantly aware of their dual identity at the same time that they suffer from both racial and sexual in­visibility. In forcing the rest of us to see them, they also present us with new and far less tidy pictures of ourselves.

This suggests that confronting the op­pression of black women means more than taking in new information or taking up new issues. It also means questioning the intellec­tual frameworks that the (male-dominated) black and (white-dominated) feminist move­ments have set up. If race and sex are ex­perientially inseparable, can we (should we) still analyze them separately? If all women are subject to male supremacy yet black and white women play out their relations with men (both inside and outside their own communities) in different ways — do they still have a common core of female experience, a common political oppression as women? Theoretically, the different situations of black women and black men should raise the same sort of question. But in practice black women single out their relation to white women and feminism as the more painful, problematic issue. This subject is now bursting through a decade’s sediment of sloganeer­ing, ritualistic condemnations, and liberal apologies to inform some provocative new writing.

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But first, I feel I have to say something about Angela Davis. Women, Race and Class may have been inspired by all this ferment, but the kindest judgment I can make is that it misses the point. From Davis’s orthodox Marxist perspective (still CP after all these years!), in which economic relations determine all, while sexual relations have no material status and sexism is merely a set of bad attitudes, the question of how racial and sexual politics interact loses its meaning. Da­vis strips racism of its psychocultural dimension and treats it strictly as a form of economic exploitation; she tends to ignore sexism altogether, except when invoking it as an excuse for white bourgeois feminists to undermine the struggles of black and work­ing people. (For instance, she rightly condemns the racism of white suffragists outraged at the prospect that black men would get the vote before white women — but rationalizes the sexism that prompted black men to sell out women of both races by agreeing that the black male vote should have priority. Black men’s “sexist attitudes,” Da­vis argues, were “hardly a sound reason for arresting the progress of the overall struggle for Black liberation” — and never mind the effect on that struggle of denying the vote to half the black population.) Still, it would be a mistake to simply dismiss Davis’s book as an anachronism. In more subtle and am­biguous forms, its brand of left antifeminism continues to influence women’s thinking. Besides, Angela Davis is a public figure, and Women, Race and Class will undoubtedly outsell both the books I’m about to discuss.

Gloria I. Joseph is black; Jill Lewis is white. In Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives, they attempt to explore their separate his­tories, confront misunderstandings, and move toward “collaborative struggle.” The book has the flavor of an open-ended political conversation; for the most part the authors write separate chapters, each commenting from her own perspective on various aspects of sexual politics. The result is uneven, full of intellectual loose ends and contradictions, and both writers have an unfortunate penchant for clotted, obfuscatory prose. But Common Differences does help to clarify touchy areas of black-white conflict. Joseph’s, chapters — which taught me a lot, especially about black mothers and daughters — are a valuable counterweight (and an implicit re­buke) to the tendency of white feminist theo­rists to base their generalizations about the female condition on white women’s experi­ence. In discussing black women’s lives, Jo­seph uses a time-honored feminist method: she records group discussions and individual comments, picks out common themes and contradictions, and tries to draw conclusions. The immediacy of this material exposes white feminist parochialism more effectively than any abstract argument.

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Without denying the movement’s short­comings, Lewis sets out to debunk the stere­otype of the spoiled, elitist “women’s libber.” The feminist movement, she maintains, de­serves recognition as the only social move­ment to challenge the status of women as women. She argues that white feminists have been struggling toward a deeper understand­ing of race and class, and that even those sectors of the movement most narrowly ori­ented to white middle-class concerns “have engaged in and won concrete struggles that potentially open up new terrain for all women.”

In their introduction, Joseph and Lewis agree that “as a political movement, women’s liberation did and does touch on questions which in different ways affect all women’s lives.” But Common Differences is much more about difference than about commonality. In Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism Bell Hooks strides boldly be­yond pluralism to the rockier ground of synthesis. While Hooks also stresses the uniqueness of black women’s experience and the ways it has been discounted, her aim is to enlarge the theoretical framework of feminism. To this end she analyzes black women’s condition in a historical context, tracing the basic patterns of black-female oppression to slavery and developing three intertwined themes: black men’s sexism, white women’s racism, and the effect of white men’s racial-sexual politics on the relations between black and white women. Hooks is a contentious writer, and I don’t always agree with her contentions, but Ain’t I a Woman has an intellectual vitality and daring that should set new standards for the discussion of race and sex.

The central political question these books raise is why the contemporary feminist move­ment has been so white. Most critics of the movement have offered a simple answer: white feminists’ racism has driven black women away. This indictment is true as far as it goes, but it already takes for granted facts that need explaining. Why, in the first place,­was it primarily white women, rather than black women or both groups simultaneously, who felt impelled to mobilize against sexism? And why did so many politically conscious black women reject the movement (in some cases the very idea of feminism) out of hand, rather than insisting that it purge its theory and practice of racism, or organizing groups committed to a nonracist feminist politics? Antifeminist leftists have typically argued that sexual politics are inherently a white middle-class crotchet, irrelevant to women, who are “really” — i.e., economically and racially — oppressed. Or else (this is Angela Da­vis’s main strategy) they redefine feminism to mean women fighting together against ra­cism and capitalism, and conclude that black and white working class women have been the leaders of the real feminist struggle. Ei­ther way they imply that sexism is not a problem for black women, if indeed it is a problem at all.

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Hooks, Joseph, and Lewis reject this idea. They assume that black women have a stake in women’s liberation, and see white feminists’ racism as part of a complex social history that has shaped black women’s politics. Bell Hooks argues that estrangement between black and white women goes all the way back to slavery. The terms of the conflict, as she sees it, were defined by white men who applied racism to a Victorian sexual (and class) ideology that divided women into two categories: good (chaste, delicate, to be pro­tected and idealized) and bad (licentious, unrefined, to be exploited and punished). While the white upper-class southern woman represented the feminine ideal, black female slaves were stigmatized, in schizoid fashion, both as bad women — therefore deserving to be raped and beaten — and as nonwomen: in doing the same work as men, black women threatened the ideology of female inferiority, a contradiction resolved by def ming them as neuter beasts of burden.

At the same time, the white woman’s power to collaborate in oppressing blacks softened and obscured the realism of her own inferior position. She exercised this power most directly over female slaves, whom she often treated with the special viciousness of the insecure. No doubt the degraded status of black women also reminded her, subconsciously at least, of what can happen to any female who provokes men into drop­ping the mask of patriarchal benevolence. As Hooks observes, the manifest cruelty of white women’s own husbands, fathers, and broth­ers “served as a warning of what might be their fate should they not maintain a passive stance. Surely, it must have occurred to white women that were enslaved black women not available to bear the brunt of such intense antiwoman aggression, they themselves might have been the victims.” As a result, the very identification that might have led white women to black women’s defense probably had the opposite effect. White men’s sexual pursuit of black women also exposed white women’s humiliating position: they could neither prevent their husbands’ behavior nor claim a comparable freedom for themselves. Instead they expressed their anger, salvaged their pride, and defended their own good­-woman status by vilifying black women as seducers and sluts.

Hooks shows that what she calls the “dev­aluation of black womanhood” did not end with slavery but remains a potent source of black women’s rage. Her account of how black women are systematically disparaged as whores, castrating matriarchs, and sexless mammies explains a crucial ingredient of black female hostility to the women’s move­ment. Clearly, when white feminists ignored black female experience and in effect equated “woman” with “white woman,” the result had a double meaning for black women: it suggested that we were not only enforcing white supremacy but trying to have it both ways by preserving our mono­poly on femininity and its rewards (respect, status, financial support) while demanding the option of rejecting it. This perception of bad faith fueled the angry denunciations of feminism as “white women’s business.”

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But envying white women’s “femininity” is a trap for black women, as Hooks is well aware. Idealization of the white woman’s status has tended to divert black women from demanding sexual justice to attacking black men for their inability to support stay-at­-home wives. Many black women have en­dorsed black male demands for female subservience in the hope that at last they would get a crack at the pedestal. At the same time, their envy of white women has been mixed with contempt, an emotion that led some black women to insist they didn’t need a movement because they were already liberated. Another illusion in Hooks’s relentless catalogue: strength in adversity and the need to make a living are not the same thing as freedom.

Gloria Joseph emphasizes the painful col­lisions of black and female identity. As she says, “an individual cannot be two separate entities. Yet black women suffer from two modes of oppression and so are implicated, like it or not, in two social movements at once. At best this involves a double burden, at worst a continuing conflict of loyalties and priorities. Joseph shows that deep ambivalences permeate black women’s think­ing — on black men (distrust and antagonism mixed with solidarity, affection, and protectiveness), on sex (“a desirable no-no,’ an ‘attractive nuisance'”), on feminism itself (most of Joseph’s respondents reject the movement but endorse its goals). Her argu­ment suggests that black women have been slow to commit themselves to feminism — especially the more radical aspects of sexual politics — for fear of weakening their ties with the black community and the black struggle. Jill Lewis points out that white middle-class women could focus single-mindedly on feminism because “they did not have the stakes of racial unity or solidarity with White men that the Black women had with Black men” and because their privileges left them “free of the survival struggles that are prior­ities for minority and working-class women.” If anything, class and racial privileges (par­ticularly education) spurred their conscious­ness of sexual injustice by raising expectations that were thwarted purely because they were women.

Ironically, Joseph exemplifies the dilemma she describes: like many other black women who define themselves as feminists, she draws the line at calling black men op­pressors. While Joseph and Lewis agree that black and white women are oppressed as women, they uncritically assume that male supremacy is a product of white culture, and that the concept does not really apply to male-female relations among blacks, except insofar as all white institutions and values shape black life. Lewis asserts that institutionalized sexism in America was imported by European immigrants, as if Native Ameri­can, African, and other nonwhite cultures were free of male dominance. In fact, no anthropologist, feminist or otherwise, has ever come up with convincing evidence of a culture in which some form of male domi­nance does not exist.

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Lewis and Joseph argue that because black men do not have the same worldly power as white men, “Male dominance as a salient problematic factor in male-female sexual re­lationships cannot be considered as a univer­sal trait applicable to all men.” But Joseph’s own descriptions of black women’s attitudes toward sex, men, and marriage — not to men­tion their struggles to bring up children alone — belie this view. Rather, her evidence confirms that despite black men’s economic and social subordination to whites they share with all men certain male supremacist prerogatives, including physical and sexual aggression, the assumption of male superior­ity, and refusal to share responsibility for child rearing and housework. Joseph and Lewis also make the puzzling claim that ex­ist repression is more severe for white women because “Black women can be kept in their places via racism alone.” Does racism alone account for black women’s oppression as mothers, workers (including domestic work­ers), welfare recipients, prostitutes, victims of rape and sexual exploitation?

All this adds up to a bad case of conceptual confusion. You can’t simultaneously agree that black women need feminism and deny the basic premise of feminism — that men have power over women. Women who engage in this form of doublethink still have a toe or two in the camp of left antifeminism; while rejecting crude economism of the Angela Da­vis variety, they assume that sexism is perpetuated not by men in general but by a white capitalist ruling class.

Hooks insists on the reality of black male sexism. Discussing the experience of female slaves, she angrily refute the cliché that “the most cruel and dehumanizing impact of slavery … was that black men were stripped of their masculinity. This idea, she argues, merely reflects the sexist assumption that men’s experience is more important than women’s and that “the worst that can happen to a man is that he be made to assume the social status of woman.” In fact, though all slaves suffered brutal oppression, “black men were allowed to maintain some semblance of their societally defined masculine role.” Not­ing that American blacks came from African patriarchal cultures, Hooks rejects the idea that black men learned sexism from whites and the myth (repeated once again by Angela Davis) that within the slave community men and women were equal. On the contrary, the slaves accepted the concept of male superior­ity, and black families maintained a sexual division of labor, with women doing the cook­ing, cleaning, and child care. Nor did slaveholders assign black men “women’s work.” Black women, however, were forced by their white masters to perform both “masculine” and “feminine” functions, work­ing alongside black men at backbreaking la­bor in the fields, while also serving as house­workers, breeders, and sexual objects.

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Hooks implicitly links what she sees as black women’s false consciousness about sex­ism with their political isolation: while the sexism of black male activists has forced black women to choose between asserting themselves as women and maintaining racial solidarity, the racism of white feminists has reinforced and justified that split. Ain’t I a Woman describes how this combination of pressures undermined black women’s efforts to participate in both 19th and 20th century feminist movements. In dissecting the rhetoric of the contemporary black and women’s movements, Hooks shows how sex­ism has been promoted as a cure for racism, sisterhood as a rationale for ignoring it. Black power advocates, confusing liberation with the assertion of their “manhood,” embraced a white man’s contention that a black matriarchy was the cause of their problems, and called on black women to advance the black cause by being submissive; some even suggested that sexual equality was a white racist idea, indicative of the white man’s effeteness and decadence. Black Muslims tried to reverse the racist Victorian para­digm, defining black women as the feminine ideal and white women as devils (and estab­lishing rigid patriarchal families).

Meanwhile the early radical feminists were claiming that the division between men and women was the most basic social hierarchy, and that since men had ruled every known political system, racism was basically a male problem (“men dominate women, a few men dominate the rest” — Redstockings Man­ifesto). This analysis, which I and most of my political cohorts then subscribed to, has had a good deal of influence on the movement as a whole. It has two erroneous implications: that it’s impossible for white women to op­press black men, and that racial conflict be­tween black women and white women has no objective basis, but is (on both sides) an inauthentic antagonism that only serves the interests of men. Radical feminists under­stood, theoretically, that to build female unity white women had to oppose racism and change their own racist attitudes and behav­ior. We were sharply critical of liberal feminists who defined women’s freedom in terms of professional careers and formal equality within a racist, class-stratified social system. Yet emotionally our belief that sex as a more basic division than race allowed us to evade responsibility for racism. It is tempting to imagine that simply by doing what we wanted most passionately to do — build a radical feminist movement — we would also be fighting racism; tempting, too, to play down how much we benefited from being white. For while feminism seemed a way out of the classic bind of white middle­-class radicals: we no longer had to see ourselves as privileged people wondering where we fit into the revolutionary struggle; we too were part of an oppressed class with a historic destiny.

Hooks’s anger at this refusal to be accountable is well-deserved. But when she gets down to specifics, she tends to oversimplify and at times rewrite history. In her indict­ment of “white upper and middle class feminists” (Abby Rockefeller aside, who are these upper-class feminists I keep hearing about?), the movement becomes a monolith. The political difference between liberals and radicals, the social conditions that al­lowed the former to co-opt snd isolate the latter, the fierce intramovement debates about race and class are ignored or dismissed. White feminists’ main aim, Hooks charges, has been to join the male power structure; the movement has posed no threat to the system.

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This is silly. The women’s movement has been no more or less opportunistic than the black movement, the labor movement, or any other mass movement successful enough to attract power mongers. Feminists have not succeeded in making a revolution (neither, I believe, has the rest of the left), but — as Jill Lewis ably argues — we did create a new polit­ical arena and set a revolutionary process in motion. (Among other things, we established the political context in which a book like Ain’t I a Woman can be written and read.) The best measure of our threat to the system is the virulence of the reaction against us.

Hooks also indulges in overkill when she tries to explain white feminists’ appropria­tion of female experience in term of two different, even contradictory forms of racism. My own view is that the right explanation is the obvious one: we were acting on the un­conscious racist assumption that our experi­ence was representative, along with the im­pulse to gloss over racial specificities so as to keep the “complication” of racism from mar­ring our vision of female unity. Hook makes these points, but she also argues that white feminists have shared the racist/sexist perception of black women as nonwomen. In the process she accuses white feminists of claiming that black women are oppressed only by racism, not sexism, and denying that black men can be oppressive. These charges are, to put it mildly, befuddling. If there was any point radical feminists insisted on it was that all women were oppressed because of their sex, and that all men had the power to oppress women. In response, antifeminist black women (along with black and white male leftists) made the arguments Hooks now puts in our mouths, and denounced us as racists for attributing a “white problem” to black people. Inevitably, many white women have echoed these arguments, but it’s perverse to blame feminists for them.

In fact, white feminists have generally been quite conscious of black women as women; it’s their blackness we’ve had trouble with. Straightforward reactionary racism ex­aggerates differences and denies common­alities; liberal racism, more typical of white feminists, does the opposite. Since the denial of black women’s “femininity” is such a central issue for Hooks, she mistakenly assumes that protecting an exclusive claim to femininity is equally an issue for all white women. On the contrary, white feminists felt free to challenge received definition of femininity because we took for granted our right to be considered women. And it was precisely because our claim to womanhood was not an issue for us that we were in­sensitive to black women’s pain at being de­nied it by racial fiat. Many white feminists recognized that the division between white women and black women had something to do with good girls and bad girls. (Shulamith Firestone, in The Dialectic of Sex, discusses this idea at length.) What we didn’t see was the asymmetry: we could decide to be bad, or play at being bad; black women had no choice.

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Hooks’s misperception of white feminists’ psychology also leads her to argue that their analogies between women and blacks were designed “to evoke in the minds of racist white men an image of white womanhood being degraded” by association with black people, especially black men. Again, the “im­age of white womanhood” had much less resonance than Hooks imagines, either for white feminists or for the white liberal and leftist men who were our immediate targets. The main reason that ’60s feminists relied so heavily on comparisons between sexism and racism is that white male politicos recognized the race issue as morally legitimate, while dismissing feminism as “a bunch of chicks with personal problems.” If anything, we were trying to evoke in these men the same guilt about sexism that they already felt about racism; since we hadn’t yet ex­perienced the drawbacks of liberal guilt, we craved its validation. We also hoped, naively enough, to convince black men to renounce their sexism and identify with the feminist cause.

Hooks takes a hard line on analogies be­tween women and blacks. She argues that they always imply a comparison between white women and black men, that they make black women invisible, obscure the issue of white women’s racial privilege, and divert attention from racism to white women’s problems. Certainly racial-sexual analogies have been misused in all the ways Hooks cites, but I don’t see these misuses as either invariable or necessary. Many feminists have made analogies between women and blacks in full awareness that they are talking about two overlapping groups; what they mean to com­pare is two sets of oppressive relations, male­-female and white-black. And though the dynamics and effects of racism and sexism differ in important ways, the parallels — legal, social, ideological — do exist. Which is why antiracist movements have been so instrumental in stimulating feminist consciousness and revolt.

Hooks refuses to recognize this. Scoffing at the idea that abolitionism inspired the first feminist wave, she says, “No 19th century white woman could grow to maturity without an awareness of institutionalized sexism.” But of course 19th century white women — ­and for that matter my generation of white women — did exactly that. It is the essence of institutionalized sexism to pose as the natu­ral order; to experience male dominance is one thing, to understand that it is political, therefore changeable, is quite another. For me and most feminists I know, that politicizing process was very much influenced by the civil rights and black power movements. Conversely, though feminism was not a mirac­ulous antidote to our racist impulses and illusions, it did increase our understanding of racism.

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Surely, the answer to exploitative com­parisons between women and blacks is not to deny the organic link between antisexist and antiracist politics. Here Hooks, too, gets trapped in contradictory thinking. She ar­gues that the issues of racism and sexism cannot really be separated, yet she re­peatedly singles out racism as an issue that is not only separate from sexism but prior to it. According to Hooks, “American society is one in which racial imperialism supersedes sexual imperialism,” and all black people, black men included, are absolutely lower on the social scale than any white woman. In other words, it is illegitimate for feminists to regard sexism as a category that can, at least theo­retically, be abstracted from (and compared to) racism; but no comparable stricture applies to black liberationists.

Gloria Joseph agrees that “In the end, it is a question of priorities, and given the nature of racism in this country, it should be obvious that the Black liberation struggle claims first priority.” Most black feminists whose views I know about take a similar position. It is easy to see why: because racism is intertwined with, and in part defined by class oppression, black people as a group suffer an excruciating combination of economic hardship and social indignity that white middle-class women and even most white working-class women es­cape. (Of course this does not necessarily hold true for individuals — it can be argued that a middle-class educated black man is a lot better off than a white welfare mother from an Appalachian rural slum.) Besides, as Hooks points out, women without the insula­tion of racial or class privilege are also the most vulnerable to sexist oppression: a white professional woman can buy liberation from housework by hiring a black maid; she can also (for the time being) buy the legal abor­tion Medicaid patients are denied.

Left antifeminists have often used this line of reasoning to suggest that sexual issues should wait until racism and poverty are abolished. Black feminists, by definition, have rejected that idea. But what then does it mean, in practical political terms, to say that despite the irreducibly dual character of black women’s oppression, their sex is less immediate an issue than their race? Specifi­cally, what does this imply for the prospect of an antiracist feminist movement, or, more modestly, “collaborative struggle” between black and white women?

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While Hooks never really focuses on strategic questions, Joseph and Lewis often write as if black and white women are on fundamentally separate tracks. They refer, for instance, to “White feminism,” a concept as self-contradictory as, say, “male socialism”; while one can speak of a feminism limited and flawed by white racist bias, it is feminism only to the extent that it challenges the subjection of women as a group. (The mechanical pluralism underlying the notion of separate-but-equal “White” and “Black” feminisms also impels the authors to capital­ize “White.” Though capitalizing “Black” may make sense as a polemical device for asserting black pride, racial self-assertion by white people is something else again.) But in discussing abortion, Jill Lewis endorses a specific approach to integrating feminism with race and class struggle. The strategy she describes has developed as a response to the abortion backlash, but the basic idea could be applied to almost any feminist issue. Since I think it’s both appealing and fallacious, I want to discuss it in some detail.

Lewis argues that to “isolate” abortion as an issue and defend it in terms of freedom for women betrays a white middle-class bias: since black women suffer not only from being denied safe abortions but from sterilization abuse, inadequate health care, and poverty — ­all of which impinge on their reproductive choices — a radical approach to “reproductive rights” must address all these concerns. The trouble with this logic is that abortion is not just one of many medical or social services being rolled back by Reaganism; nor does the present opposition to abortion stem from the same sources or political motives as pressure toward sterilization. Abortion is first of all the key issue of the new right’s antifeminist campaign, the ground on which a larger bat­tle over the very idea of women’s liberation is being fought. In essence, the antiabortionists are arguing that women who assert their free agency and refuse to be defined by their childbearing capacity are immoral. (In con­trast, no one defends poverty or forced sterilization on principle.) So long as this moral attack on women is gaining ground, present­ing abortion primarily as a health or social welfare measure is ineffective because it evades the underlying issue. Our choice right now is to defend abortion as a pivotal issue of women’s freedom, or lose the battle by de­fault. This is not to belittle the urgency of opposing sterilization abuse (which is, among other things, another expression of contempt for black femaleness) or demanding better health care. Nor is it to deny that all these issues are linked in important ways. My point is only that the reproductive rights strategy does not resolve the touchy question of priorities. Rather, while purporting to cover all bases, it submerges sexual politics in an economic and social welfare program.

Is this good for black women? Gloria Jo­seph points out that on the issue of abortion rights, “Black women have even more at stake, since it is they who suffer more from illegal and abusive abortions.” They also suf­fer more from having unwanted children un­der horrendous conditions. If a sexual-politi­cal strategy offers the only real chance to preserve legal abortion and restore public funding, it is clearly in black women’s inter­est. Since black women are faced with so many urgent problems, they may well have other priorities, but it doesn’t follow that white women who concentrate on abortion are indulging a racist bias. On the contrary, they’re doing a crucial job that will benefit all women in the end.

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All this suggests that the question of whether racism is worse (or more basic, or more pressing) than sexism matters less than the fact that both are intolerable. Not that I agree with the white feminists Bell Hooks castigates for dismissing racial differences on the grounds that “oppression cannot be measured.” It’s clear to me that in demon­strable ways, some oppressed people are worse off than others. But I do question whose interests are really served by the meas­uring. Once it’s established that black women are the most victimized group, and that most black men are more victimized than most white women — then what?

In my experience, this kind of ranking does not lead to a politics of genuine liberation, based on mutual respect and cooperation among oppressed groups, but instead pro­vokes a politics of ressentiment, competition, and guilt. Black men tend to react not by recognizing the sexual oppression of black women but by rationalizing their anti­feminism as a legitimate response to white women’s privilege. White women who are sensitive to the imputation of racism tend to become hesitant and apologetic about assert­ing feminist grievances. As for white women who can’t see beyond their own immediate interests, attempts to demote them in the ranks of the oppressed do nothing but make them feel unjustly attacked and confirmed in their belief that sexual and racial equality are separate, competing causes. The ultimate re­sults are to reinforce left antifeminism, weaken feminist militance, widen the split between the black and feminist movements, and play into the divide and conquer tactics of white men (“We can do something for blacks or for women, but not both, so you folks fight it out”). Black women, caught in the racial-sexual crossfire, stand to lose the most.

Insistence on a hierarchy of oppression never radicalizes people, because the impulse behind it is moralistic. Its object is to get the “lesser victims” to stop being selfish, to agree that their own pain (however deeply they may feel it) is less serious and less deserving of attention (including their own) than some­one else’s. Its appeal is that it allows people at the bottom of social hierarchies to turn the tables and rule over a moral hierarchy of suffering and powerlessness. But whatever the emotional comfort of righteousness, it’s a poor substitute for real change. And we ought to know by now that effective radical move­ments are not based on self-abnegation; rather, they emerge from the understanding that unless we heal the divisions among us, none of us can win.

The logic of competing oppressions does not heal divisions but intensifies them, since it invites endless and absurd extension — for every person who has no shoes, there is al­ways someone who has no feet. (One might ask, by this logic, what Bell Hooks has to complain about next to a woman from a dirt­-poor third world country who was sold to her husband and had her clitoris cut off at age four.) White women will not become com­mitted allies of black women because they’re told that their own suffering is unimportant. What white women must be convinced of is that it’s impossible to have it both ways — ­that the privileges we cling to are an insuperable obstacle to the freedom and equal­ity we long for. We need to learn this lesson again and again. Good books help. ■

By Angela Davis
Random House, $13.50

COMMON DIFFERENCES: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives
By Gloria I. Joseph & Jill Lewis
Doubleday/Anchor, $8.95 paper 

AIN’T I A WOMAN: Black Women and Feminism
By Bell Hooks
South End Press, $7 paper


Simone de Beauvoir: Rebel Girl

On May Day, the remnants of my old radical feminist group Redstockings held a memorial for Simone de Beauvoir. I had wanted to go, but couldn’t make it, so I heard about it from a friend: Ti-Grace Atkinson talked about going to de Beauvoir’s funeral, women spoke about her impact on their lives, someone read a message from Shulamith Fire­stone. Listening to this account, it occurred to me that in a way my relationship to de Beauvoir had always been secondhand, mediated and refracted by other feminists. When I first got involved in the women’s liberation movement, I knew de Beauvoir only through The Mandarins, which I’d read, naively, as a novel (a good way to read it, I still main­tain). After joining the movement I dutifully began The Second Sex, but aban­doned it halfway through; it was too detached and distanced, too much the product of a French cultural and philo­sophical framework, to compete with the overpowering immediacy of all the dis­cussion about our lives that permeated those early days of activism. (The woman who recommended it to me had discovered it at a time when America’s idea of a feminist was a little old lady brandishing an umbrella.) Not till years later, when I was able to give the book the attention it deserved, did I fully appreciate de Beau­voir’s impact on the politics of the femi­nists I was closest to — as well as those I most bitterly disagreed with.

Nearly four decades after it was first published in France, despite all the com­mentary the feminist movement has pro­duced in the meantime, dated and paro­chial as it is in many respects, The Second Sex remains the most cogent and thorough book of feminist theory yet written. With its exhaustive portrayal of the ways in which male domination and female subordination penetrate every as­pect of everyday life and shape our cul­tural myths and fantasies, it offers de­tailed evidence for the basic claims of second wave feminism — that male su­premacy is a coherent system of power relations, and that “the personal is political.”

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If de Beauvoir’s existentialist perspective is too innocent (and perhaps too ar­rogant) for a postmodern, poststructuralist era, it’s metaphorically appropriate to her subject. Since the denial of personal autonomy defines women’s oppression — ­and since patriarchal ideology holds that allowing women autonomy would destroy civilization if not the human species it­self — a moral defense of freedom is nec­essarily at the heart of feminism. And for the feminists of my generation, so many of whom were “liberated” — that is, had consciously set out to earn a living, sleep with whom they pleased, and avoid tradi­tional wife-and-motherhood — the collision between our sense of entitlement to freedom and men’s stubborn assumption of dominance was not only a political (and personal) struggle but a grand moral drama. De Beauvoir’s rendering of wom­an as the subject seeking transcendence, only to be forced into the position of other and trapped in immanence, ex­pressed that drama with a clarity that almost made up for her coolness.

De Beauvoir’s influence pervades the early radical feminist critiques of Marx­ism. It was de Beauvoir who first pointed out the reductionism of Engels’s attempt to trace women’s oppression to the for­mation of classes, who insisted that sexu­ality and reproduction had to be primary categories for understanding women’s lives; it was also de Beauvoir who ar­gued — even more problematically from a conventional leftist point of view — that social conditions did not cause oppres­sion; rather, people responded to those conditions by choosing to oppress. “His­torical materialism,” she wrote, “takes for granted facts that call for explana­tion: Engels assumes without discussion the bond of interest which ties man to property; but where does this interest, the source of social institutions, have its own source?”

Engels and other historical materialists did have an implicit answer to this question: interest had its source in the desire for survival and material comfort. But by de Beauvoir’s time it was clear that this common sense approach to the question could not explain the rise of fascism, the failure of revolutionary socialism in west­ern Europe, or the totalitarian perversion of the Russian Revolution. De Beauvoir built her philosophy on the idea that the human subject has an intrinsic impulse toward freedom, but this was if anything less useful than materialism for under­standing the dynamics of domination and submission. Her solution to the problem was blaming oppression on “the imperial­ism of human consciousness,” which, she argued, “included the original category of the Other and an original aspiration to dominate the Other.” Of all her dubious appeals to a priori truths about human nature, this one seems to me the weakest. And I think it’s no coincidence that sub­sequent feminist thinking about the roots of male supremacy has been muddled at best.

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Many radical feminists who considered themselves materialists in the Marxist sense, who saw women as an oppressed class struggling on behalf of their inter­ests (redefined as sexual and emotional in addition to economic), were also deep­ly influenced by The Second Sex. The political formulations that came out of this mix — the dominant tendency in Redstockings — were rich in paradox, like theologians’ explanations of how God’s divine plan is ineluctable but human be­ings have free will. Feminist materialists argued that while men’s sexual class in­terests determined their oppression of women, and in fact all men did oppress women, any individual man could choose not to oppress women. Therefore, each man bore personal moral responsibility for his acts; determinism could never be an excuse for letting men off the hook. Similarly, women submitted to men so long as they had to to avoid punishment, and resisted whenever they felt it was possible: either way, they were acting in their interest. And yet there were always women who (for what mysterious rea­sons?) chose to take risks, to step out there ahead of everyone else. Sometimes others followed, and then you had a movement.

On the question of “where interest has its source,” the feminist materialists sug­gested that the desire for survival, com­fort (including love, sexual pleasure, emotional support), and freedom all played a role. On the surface, their un­derstanding of male supremacy wasn’t much like de Beauvoir’s. In the material­ist view, men’s stake in their power over women was quite practical — it gained them money, leisure time, and domestic service, not to mention love, sexual pleasure, and emotional support on their own terms. But if you looked more closely at this list of goodies, it wasn’t quite so simple. Could you assume, for instance, that sexual dominance was inherently more pleasurable than mutual desire? Or that it made “material” sense to choose love corrupted by the concealed rage of the oppressed over love with an equal partner? Lurking behind the materialist analysis was the de Beauvoirian assumptions that oppressors were attached to power for its own sake.

For other factions of radical feminism, this assumption was quite overt. The New York Radical Feminists’ manifesto, for example, argued that men exercised power over women to satisfy their egos. As they saw it, men did not value their power because it allowed them to demand women’s services, but rather, demanded the services to affirm their pow­er. Ironically, this idea was elaborated in a way that offended de Beauvoir’s most basic beliefs about the artificiality of gen­der: cultural feminists who believed that women’s problem was the ascendancy of “male values” attributed the drive for power not to the imperialism of human consciousness but to the imperialism of the phallus.

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As a Redstocking, I was basically in the materialist camp, but with a difference; I thought the best tool for understanding sexuality and family life, the keys to pa­triarchal culture, was psychoanalysis. The radical feminist movement was, of course, resolutely anti-Freudian; here, too, classical Marxist thinking merged with de Beauvoir’s. Like that other exem­plary female intellectual, Hannah Arendt, whose insistence on evaluating Adolf Eichmann in rational moral terms led her to deny his patent lunacy, de Beauvoir resisted any view of human will that challenged the primacy of deliberate moral choice. Her refusal to admit the potency of unconscious fantasy and conflict not only forced her to assume a pri­mary will to dominate; it also implicitly defined women’s response to their op­pression in highly moralistic terms. In the universe of The Second Sex, the female rebel was the existential heroine. And of course the paradigmatic female rebel was Simone de Beauvoir herself.

For many contemporary feminists, de Beauvoir’s life has been an inspiration as well as her work; indeed, her work — not only The Second Sex but the novels and the memoirs — is, among other things, a testament to a certain kind of life. It’s easy for female rebels to idealize that life, to think of it as liberated without quotation marks. But in fact de Beauvoir was no more able than the most traditional housewife to transcend or circumvent male supremacy; her path involved its own complicated set of sacrifices, tradeoffs, and illusions. Part of the price she paid for being Simone de Beauvoir was to live more in her mind than in her body. De Beauvoir never questioned the patriarchal assumption that human freedom depends on the conquest of nature. Her relationship with Sartre was, judging by her own accounts, far more cerebral than sensual. Like most women who put a high priority on independence she had no children — and while it’s a sexist fic­tion that all women want to be mothers, it’s also a fact that so long as motherhood carries drastic social penalties, the decision to avoid it (and relinquish its erotic pleasures) is not exactly free.

Self-reflection on such matters was not de Beauvoir’s strong point. Seeing herself as freer than she was, she denied the full import of her struggle — just as many of her radical feminist children, seduced by the politics of moral example, imagined they could make the revolution simply by changing their own lives. But de Beauvoir had to struggle alone; when she stepped out there, few were ready to follow. Part­ly because of her groundbreaking work, things are different now. In a sense, rec­ognizing the limitations of that work and of that female rebel’s life, is the best way to honor them.

Equality From The Archives Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Women’s Movement Is Still Moving

In his postmortem (Village Voice, November 17) on the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in New York State, Pete Hamill set up his defenses against the expected rebuttals by predicting that some women will complain that no man should be allowed to write about the Women’s Movement.

I agree it would have been better if Pete had not rushed into print. Not because he is a man, but because — despite his friendships with me and other feminists — he doesn’t know beans about the Women’s Movement.

I found astonishing his journalistic arrogance in thinking he could reach his verdict prematurely proclaiming the collapse of a national movement simply on the basis of a touching description of a near-deserted headquarters the morning after; quotes from a half-dozen women, some anonymous; a smattering of untrue gossip; and his judgment that women’s issues are of “minor importance” to the working class and that the ERA campaign “divided the Left on grounds of sex.”

There is a great deal of wishful thinking, but very little truth, in the post-election analyses by the Times, Hamill, and assorted TV programs which transmogrified one setback in a long and continuing campaign into a complete rout of the entire Women’s Movement.

Although the hard analysis of the defeat is still being put together by the ERA coalition, a case can be made that it was the very breadth and diversity of the movement that led to a complacency which in turn led to an inadequate campaign. There were, of course, the problems created by an off-year election that brought only a 24 percent turnout of voters in New York City and a larger turnout upstate where there were electoral contests. But, also, many feminists I have talked to since the referendum have told me that because of the impressively broad coalition of groups supporting ERA, including both the Democratic and Republican parties, they felt there was no urgency to get deeply involved in the campaign.

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Much of that broad support turned out to be tokenism. It did not produce enough money to finance a vigorous campaign, or enough concentration of purpose or troops to mount a get-out-the-vote operation. The danger is that the long-term significance of the defeat will be exaggerated by both friends and enemies of the movement and feed what can be a very ugly and emotional aftermath: an attempt to rescind the legislature’s ratification of the federal Equal Rights Amendment which, although it would not stand up in the courts, would have to be fought. Also likely is a renewed and more highly organized attack on abortion rights.

Most of the post-referendum discussion reveals a total ignorance of past women’s struggles, including the century-long battle for women’s suffrage, which encountered on the way to final victory many defeats far worse than what happened in New York a few weeks ago.

Then, as now, women suffragists discovered that the referenda route in the states could be extremely rocky and nonproductive. For years, the suffragists, having met with little success in getting Congress to pass a suffrage amendment to the U. S. Constitution, tried a state-by-state approach, seeking to win some form of suffrage in the individual states.

The biggest defeat was in New York, where the referendum lost by a margin of 194,984 votes. But two years later, a state referendum won handily, and two years after that, the New York legislature almost routinely ratified the federal amendment, which had finally won Senate approval in June 1919.

Then, as now, the press eagerly reported that many women were opposed to having rights extended to them. Men were always able to find some women to speak and demonstrate against suffrage, to accept nominal leadership of the opposition organizations, and to declare that they would never, never think of voting.

The arguments were familiar. Votes for women would destroy the family, make husbands and wives unhappy, leave children unprotected, threaten the economy, undermine religion, and burden women with responsibilities they neither needed nor wanted. Anti-suffrage propaganda centered on the myth of the happy, privileged homemaker who didn’t want to change a thing.

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Similar 19th-century “happy homemakers” doctrine has been assiduously pushed over TV and radio by Phyllis Schlafly, chief spokeswoman for the right-wing-based campaign to stop ERA, who tells us: “American women are a privileged group…beneficiaries of a tradition of respect for women which dates from the Christian age of chivalry [and] the honor and respect paid to Mary, the mother of Christ.”

No doubt many women are contented and creative and fulfilled in their roles as wives and mothers, especially those lucky enough to have high family incomes. I have never criticized women who choose to stay at home to raise families or to engage in nonpaying occupations, because freedom of choice is the heart of the women’s liberation creed.

In the recent New York campaign, the biggest worry of the presumably happy anti-ERA housewives was that they might lose alimony rights, which raised doubts about just how happy some of them are. One of the illuminating facts that never got across in the welter of lies and distortions peddled by Schlafly, Annette Stern, and others is that under current divorce laws alimony is granted in only about 2 percent of permanent divorce settlements, and according to a study done by the Citizens’ Advisory Council on the Status of Women, child support payments “generally are less than enough to furnish half of the support of the children” and “even these small payments are frequently not adhered to.”

Schlafly’s privileged woman concept also ignores the real problems faced by working women whose low seniority status makes them vulnerable in the current recession; minority women, who get the lowest-paying, dirtiest jobs; working mothers who need and usually don’t have access to low-cost or free nurseries for their six million pre-school-age youngsters; homemakers unfortunate enough to be divorced by their husbands before 20 years of marriage (thus losing out on Social Security benefits); thousands of women who get raped (more women than ever before had that “privilege” last year, according to the Justice Department’s latest crime data); gay women, who have problems in employment, housing, and other facets of daily life; and the multitudes of other women who have encountered a variety of discriminatory practices ranging from the picayune (no drinking at the Plaza men’s bar) to massive legal, social, political, and educational discrimination.

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It is understandable that Schlafly and other anti-ERA propagandists perpetuate myths about the real status of women in America. It is also understandable why many women and men, in the absence of an effective statewide campaign by pro-ERA forces, should have fallen for their arguments, especially in the present negative political climate when fear and economic insecurity are dominant.

But it is less understandable why alleged friends of women’s rights seize on the false arguments of ERA opponents to seek to prove, as Hamill does, that ERA is “something out of time, a leftover,” and that “maybe the movement of the Women’s Movement is over.”

To put ERA in perspective, the federal amendment has been ratified by 34 states and has until 1979 to get the necessary ratification by four other states. Fifteen states have enacted state equal rights provisions or amendments to their own constitutions. In none of these states have any of the horrors conjured up by the anti-ERA forces materialized.

Instead, the amendment is providing the framework and impetus for review and reform of hundreds of existing laws to eliminate unequal treatment that primarily victimizes women but also in some also stands as a barrier against enactment of discriminatory legislation.

Under the attorney general opinions interpreting state ERAs, most states have been extending benefits to the excluded group rather than doing away with the benefits. These include such benefits as the right to support or alimony, the right to receive pension benefits based on the employment record or occupation of one’s spouse, the right to use the surname of one’s choice regardless of marriage, and the right to be protected from forcible sexual assault.

In Washington state, reform of divorce laws by eliminating fault grounds was coordinated with efforts to provide non-sex-based economic protection for the homemaking spouse. In Arizona, this was achieved by ERA-based legislation giving spouses equal powers of management and control over community property, which in practice strengthens the protection of most women.

Far from being a “leftover,” ERA is needed on the federal level for the establishment of uniform, nationwide standards of sexual equality. It would provide a firm constitutional commitment to equal rights, free from the present vagaries of subjective court interpretations.

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But what about the Women’s Movement itself? Has it passed its prime, lost its momentum, and been diverted into irrelevancies and elitism, as Hamill claims? Page one stories in the Times about rifts in NOW accentuate the impression that the Women’s Movement is in trouble. In my view, all it shows is that NOW, whose membership has tripled in the past few years, is in the great American political tradition. I have never heard of any movement (except maybe Jehovah’s Witnesses?) that did not along the way develop conflicts, ideologic rifts, factions, unity moves, spinoffs, et cetera. It would be naive to expect unanimity and uniformity from the great, diverse, free-wheeling, explorative surge of personal, social, political, economic, cultural, and educational activity by millions of American women of all classes that is loosely described as “the movement.” Its achievements are indisputable, its influence worldwide, and its momentum is now pushing it into more directions than casual observers could fathom.

Even after the New York defeat, a national Harris Poll showed a 70 to 15 percent majority of Americans in favor of ERA, with 73 percent of women favoring it, compared with a 68 percent majority of men. Similarly, a Gallup Poll in September reported that 71 percent of Americans feel the country would be governed as well or better with more women in public office, and 73 percent said they would vote for a qualified woman for president. New York voters, while defeating ERA, elected 60 percent of the women who ran for various offices around the state, continuing a national trend that has seen the election of thousands of women to local and state office in the past few years. The trend didn’t just happen. It was in response to the “Win With Women” campaign developed by the multipartisan National Women’s Political Caucus, which has been on the scene only since 1971.

The slogan developed by Karen DeCrow supporters in NOW — “Out of the mainstream into the revolution” — is an acknowledgment that many of the movement’s basic goals have been accepted as the goals of a majority of American women, and that vanguard groups feel a need to press on toward larger goals. How many women I’ve met who ritualistically say, “I’m not for women’s lib,” and then add, “of course, I’m for equal pay and job opportunities and things like that.”

They have not yet made the connection that even though we have equal pay laws, we need a movement to get the laws enforced. More and more women are making the connection.

The Women’s Movement wears many different faces, speaks with many different voices, ranging from Betty Ford in the White House to the most avant-garde groups that see undifferentiated man as the enemy. A magazine like McCall’s, still mostly recipes, fiction, fashions, and titillating gossip about Kennedys and Rockefellers, runs as its lead article, “Just a Housewife,” a serious and lengthy report on a weekend conference and workshops sponsored by the Wisconsin Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, at which housewives worried about their legal rights and economic problems. In Oakland, Tish Sommers organizes the Association for Displaced Homemakers, in recognition of the rising number of women who find themselves deserted or divorced in middle age. In the House of Representatives, most of the 19 women members now meet regularly in an informal caucus. We have introduced pioneering legislation to provide Social Security benefits to homemakers in their own right. When Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns tried to issue regulations scuttling the recently won Equal Credit Opportunity Act, forbidding discrimination against women in credit cards, mortgages, and loans, 14 of my women colleagues went with me to confront him, and we forced him to back down. On December 10, the House overwhelmingly passed an Abzug-Mink bill authorizing $5 million for conferences in all the states to discuss women’s issues, culminating in a Bicentennial national women’s conference.

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Within the last two years, feminist organizations of black, Puerto Rican, and other Spanish-speaking women have formed. The Coalition of Labor Union Women, launched at a huge conference in Chicago two years ago, works on programs for the 27 percent of AFL-CIO members who are women. In New York, Margie Albert, a CLUW founder, is busy organizing for District 65 women who work, underpaid and underpromoted, in the big publishing firms. A campaign is also underway to unionize the multitudes of women office workers in our city. Baltimore City Councilwoman Barbara Mikulski, feminist Jan Peterson, Italian-American leader Mary Sansone get together to organize ethnic women, and Peterson finds it easier to communicate with Polish-American women because, as a community poverty worker, she helped lead the Northside fight to save their homes in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint. To say the momentum has gone out of the Women’s Movement is like remarking on how calm the ocean is.

I agree with Hamill that the economic crisis probably had an adverse effect on the ERA vote. Men and nonworking women too often see working women as expendable rather than as individuals who need jobs to survive. Responding to the recession, laid-off women workers are beginning to grapple with seniority problems and share-the-work plans. Although these women would undoubtedly be happy to join with men in a militant campaign for full employment and to save New York, few would share Hamill’s optimism that now is the time for women to disband their organizations and put their faith in a textbook class struggle in which suddenly men and women will be comrades together, sexism gone and forgotten.

Let him tell that to the Committee of Female Police Officers, representing the 400 women who were laid off by the New York City Department along with 3600 men as a result of the fiscal crisis. The 400 were two-thirds of all the women in the police force. When 2000 officers were called back, only 20 to 30 women were returned to work. The women, who have filed discrimination complaints against the department, know realistically that their male colleagues are not going to fight to restore the women’s jobs, although 42 percent of the laid-off women have to support themselves, 87 percent contribute at least half the family income, and 22 percent are heads of households and have children to support. The policewomen know that merging their struggle with the male police officers will, in effect, mean submerging their own needs.

Women and men should not have to compete with each other for jobs. They should be working together for a new kind of society that is organized to take care of the basic needs of all people, to provide jobs for all who can work, to offer everyone an opportunity for a decent life. Our chances of getting that kind of society are better with a strong Women’s Movement than without one, a Women’s Movement that even in its more establishment forms is dominated by humanist values and in its more radical forms seeks to move women into active leadership of the forces seeking real change.

Equality From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Family: Love It or Leave It

When I talk about my family, I mean the one I grew up in. I have been married, lived with men, and participated in various communal and semi communal arrangements, but for most of the past six years — nearly all of my thirties — I have lived alone. This is neither an accident nor a deliberate choice, but the result of an accretion of large and small choices, many of which I had no idea I was making at the time. Conscious or not, these choices have been profoundly influenced by the cultural and political radicalism of the ’60s, especially radical feminism. The sense of possibility, of hope for great changes, that pervaded those years affected all my aspirations; compromises that might once have seemed reasonable, or simply to be expected, felt stifling. A rebellious community of peers supported me in wanting something other than conventional family life; feminist consciousness clarified and deepened my ambivalence toward men, my skepticism about marriage. Single women were still marginal, but their position was dignified in a way it had never been before: it was possible to conceive of being alone as a choice rather than a failure.

For me the issue was less the right to be alone, in itself, than the right to take as much time and room as I needed to decide what kind of life I wanted, what I could hold out for. Intimate connections are important to me. I want a mate, or so I believe, and possibly a child. Before the counterculture existed I was attracted to the idea of communal living and I still am. Yet obviously other priorities have intervened: I haven’t found what I supposedly want on terms I can accept. The psychologist in me suggests that I don’t want it as wholeheartedly as I think, the feminist retorts that it’s not my fault if a sexist society keeps offering me a choice between unequal relationships and none, and I’m sure they’re both right. Anyway, I wouldn’t take back the choices I’ve made. I would not wish to be a different person, or to have been shaped by a different time.

Still, I can’t help being uneasy about the gap between the lessons I learned during that time and the rules of the game in this one. As the conservative backlash gains momentum, I feel a bit like an explorer camped on a peninsula, who looks back to discover that the rising tide has made it into an island and that it threatens to become a mere sandbar, or perhaps disappear altogether. If there is one cultural trend that has defined the ’70s it is the aggressive resurgence of family chauvinism, flanked by its close relatives, antifeminism and homophobia. The right’s impassioned defense of traditional family values — the common theme of its attacks on the Equal Rights Amendment, legal abortion, gay rights, sexual permissiveness, child care for working mothers and “immoral” (read unattached female) welfare recipients — has affected the social atmosphere even in the liberal, educated middle class that produced the cultural radicals. The new consensus is that the family is our last refuge, our only defense against universal predatory selfishness, loneliness, and rootlessness; the idea that there could be desirable alternatives to the family is no longer taken seriously. I’ve also noticed a rise in the level of tension between married and single people. Over the years family boosters have subjected me to my share of hints that I’m pathetic, missing out on real life, or that the way I live is selfish and shallow, or both; I’ve indulged an unworthy tendency to respond in kind, flaunting my independence and my freedom from the burdens of parenthood while implying that I see through their facade of happiness to the quiet desperation beneath. Lately these exchanges have become edgier; sometimes they explode into fights. As I said, I’m uneasy.

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Of course, “family” is one of those concepts that invite stretching. One might reasonably define a family as any group of people who live under the same roof, function as an economic unit, and have a serious commitment to each other — a definition that could include communes and unmarried couples of whatever sexual preference. But the family as it exists for most people in the real world — in a social and historical context — is nothing so amorphous or pluralistic. It is an institution, a set of laws, customs, and beliefs that define what a family is or ought to be, the rights and duties of its members, and its relation to society. This institution embraces only households of people related by birth or marriage. It is rooted in the assumption of male authority over dependent women and children, the sexual double standard, and the traditional exchange of the husband’s financial support for the wife’s domestic and sexual services. It defines the pursuit of individual freedom as selfish and irresponsible (“narcissistic” in current jargon), the subordination of personal happiness to domestic obligations as the hallmark of adulthood and the basis of morals. Above all, the family is supposed to control sex and legitimize it through procreation; family morality regards sensual pleasure for its own sake as frivolous, sexual passion as dangerous and fundamentally antisocial. In a family-centered society, prevailing attitudes toward people who live differently range from pity to indifference to hostile envy to condemnation. Women who step outside the home into the world become fair game for economic and sexual exploitation; children who have no parents, or whose parents cannot or will not give them adequate care, get minimal attention from a community that regards them as aliens in a land where only citizens have rights.

On the left, family chauvinism often takes the form of nostalgic declarations that the family, with its admitted faults, has been vitiated by modern capitalism, which is much worse (at least the family is based on personal relations rather than soulless cash, etc., etc.). Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism is the latest polemic to suggest that radicals who criticize the family are beating a dead (and presumably mourned) horse. True, capitalism has eroded patriarchal authority; the family has been drastically altered by modern developments from industrialism to women’s participation in the labor force to the hedonism implicit in mass culture. (Personally, I prefer the present system, with its admitted faults, to one that allowed women no rights at all.) But it is perverse to deny that the family and its ideology continue to shape our lives. Most of us have been brought up by parents or other relatives. It is in the family that children discover their sexuality and learn how women and men are supposed to behave, toward the world and each other. The family is still the main source of women’s oppression and the main focus of feminist politics, which is probably why male leftists are so inclined to premature announcements of its demise.

Whether or not they work outside the home, most women base their lives on marriage and motherhood; since job discrimination ensures that women earn roughly half as much as men, and lack of public child-care facilities is a further deterrent to single motherhood, women’s employment has not ended their dependence on marriage, nor has it relieved them of the chief responsibility for housework and child rearing. Though families who conform to the classic patriarchal pattern are now in the minority, most domestic-relations laws define the obligations of husband and wife in terms of their traditional roles. So does the government. Nixon vetoed federally funded child care on the grounds that the state should not usurp the prerogative of the family, code for “Mothers should stay home where they belong and if they don’t it’s their children’s tough luck.” The Carter administration’s response to the poverty of families dependent on a female breadwinner was to suggest that federal job programs employ men, the implied purpose being to “encourage” women to get or stay married. Despite all the activism of the past 10 years, our society still regards wife beating as a private domestic matter, condones rape within marriage, hesitates to condemn men for raping independent or sexually active women, restricts women’s access to contraception and abortion, discriminates against homosexuals and even throws them in jail. In most states it is still legal to punish a spouse by using evidence of sexual “immorality” as a weapon in contested divorces and child-custody disputes. Social prejudice against single people remains pervasive: we are immature, unreliable, and incapable of deep attachments, we don’t own property, we like loud music, our sexual activities are offensive, and if too many of us are allowed in we’ll ruin the neighborhood. (The stereotype goes double for homosexuals.) Unmarried couples and groups also encounter various forms of discrimination, from difficulty in renting apartments, obtaining mortgages, and buying insurance to ordinances that limit or ban communal housing to tax laws that allow only the legally married to file joint returns.

The relation of capitalism to the family is in fact far more dialectical than analyses like Lasch’s suggest. When families were economically self-sufficient, they provided jobs for those who could work and took care of those who could not. In an industrial economy, where workers must find buyers for their labor, anyone who cannot command a living wage faces a grim existence; even the white middle-class man at the height of his earning power may find that a technological advance, an economic downturn, or an illness has made him unemployable. While government services like unemployment insurance and social security purport to fill the gaps, in practice they offer a bare minimum of protection against disaster, and do nothing to alleviate the day-to-day anxiety of coping with a hostile system. For most people, the only alternative to facing that anxiety alone is to be part of a family. At least in theory, family members are committed to each other’s survival; small, unstable, and vulnerable as the contemporary nuclear family may be, it is better than nothing.

Capitalists have an obvious stake in encouraging dependence on the family and upholding its mythology. If people stopped looking to the family for security, they might start looking to full employment and expanded public services. If enough parents or communal households were determined to share child rearing, they might insist that working hours and conditions be adapted to their domestic needs. If enough women refused to work for no pay in the home and demanded genuine parity on the job, our economy would be in deep trouble. There is a direct link between the conservative trend of American capitalism and the backlash on so-called “cultural issues.” During the past decade, the loss of the Vietnam War, the general decline in American influence, and the growing power of the oil industry have led to an intensive corporate drive to increase profits by reducing social services, raising prices faster than wages, and convincing the public to have “lower expectations”; in the same period blatant family chauvinism has become official government policy. Under the circumstances it is not surprising that most people are less inclined to demand change — with all the risk and uncertainty such demands entail — than to cling to what they have and defend it against attack. These days “my family first” is only a slightly less insular version of the “me first” psychology the insecurity of capitalism provokes. Both are based on the dismaying knowledge that if you and your family are not first they are all too likely to be last. People who are clinging are never eager to share their branch, nor do they look kindly on anyone who insists it’s rotten wood.

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Like most educated white middle-class women of my generation, I did not grow up worrying about economic survival. My central problems had to do with the conflict between a conservative upbringing and the “sexual revolution,” between traditional definitions of femininity and a strong desire for worldly achievement and independence. For me the cultural revolt began in the late ’50s, with the libertarian campaign against obscenity laws and conventional sexual morality. I was for it, but I was also suspicious, and no wonder: quite aside from my own internal conflicts, the sexual freedom movement was full of contradictions. The libertarians did not concern themselves with the quality of sexual relationships or the larger social and emotional causes of sexual frustration. They were less influenced by feminism than their counterparts in the ’20s; in theory they advocated the sexual liberation of women, but in practice their outlook was male-centered and often downright misogynist. They took for granted that prostitution and pornography were liberating. They carried on about the hypocrisy of the sexual game — by which they meant men’s impatience with having to court women and pay lip service to their demands for love, respect, and commitment. No one suggested that men’s isolation of sex from feeling might actually be part of the problem, rather than the solution.

Around the same time, more radical ideas were beginning to surface. While I was in high school I was fascinated by the beats and their rejection of the “square” institution of marriage. Later I began to read and learn from radical Freudians like Paul Goodman, Norman Mailer, Herbert Marcuse, and — especially — the original radical Freudian, Wilhelm Reich. Where Freud contended that civilization required instinctual repression, Reich argued that what Freud took to be civilization, in some absolute sense, was a specific, changeable social structure — authoritarian, patriarchal, class-bound. In Reich’s view, the incestuous fantasies, perverse impulses, and sadistic aggression that dominated the Freudian unconscious were actually the product of repression — the child’s response to the frustration of its natural sexual needs, which were essentially benign. He claimed that when his patients managed to overcome their neurotic sexual inhibitions they became spontaneously decent, rational, and cooperative; the problem, from the conservative moralist’s standpoint, was that they also developed a sense of independence and self-respect that made them question arbitrary authority, compulsive work, passionless marriage, and conventional moral and religious ideas. The function of sexual repression, Reich concluded, was to instill in children the submissive attitudes demanded by patriarchal “civilization.” Thus a truly revolutionary program could not be limited to economic issues, but must include demands for sexual liberation, the emancipation of women, and the transformation of the family. (Unsurprisingly, Goodman, Mailer, and other cultural radicals heavily influenced by Reich’s work did not pick up on his feminism.)

To my mind, Reich’s most revolutionary assertion was also his simplest (some would say most simpleminded): that natural sexuality is the physical manifestation of love. He insisted that the perception of tenderness and sensuality as separate, even antagonistic phenomena was the collective neurosis of an antisexual culture, that pornography, prostitution, rape, and other forms of alienated sex were the by-products of ascetic moralism, the underside of patriarchy, the social equivalent of the Freudian unconscious. These ideas have encountered near-universal resistance; the belief in an intrinsic split between lust and love is one of our most deeply ingrained and cherished prejudices. Most people agree that untrammeled pursuit of sexual pleasure is one thing, socially responsible relationships quite another; debate is usually over the proper ratio of license to repression. Though all democratic thought is based on the premise that freedom is compatible with civilization, that under the right conditions people are capable of self-regulation, even dedicated democrats hesitate to apply this premise to sex and family life. Radicals criticize the conservative assumption that people are innately acquisitive, violent, and power-hungry; yet most swallow the parallel idea that the sexual drive is innately solipsistic. Sex, they assume, is different. Why? It just is. Everybody knows that.

What everybody knows is not necessarily wrong. But it seems clear to me that if there were no inherent opposition between freedom and responsibility, pleasure and duty, “mere” sex and serious love, the patriarchal family would create it. I believe that sexual love in its most passionate sense is as basic to happiness as food is to life, and that living and sleeping with a mate one does not love in this sense violates fundamental human impulses. Which is to say that since passion is by definition spontaneous — we can behave in ways that inhibit or nurture it, but finally we feel it or we don’t — a marital arrangement based on legal, economic, or moral coercion is oppressive. But the whole point of marriage is to be a binding social alliance, and it cannot fulfill that function unless mates are forced or intimidated into staying together. Traditional patriarchal societies dealt with this contradiction by refusing to recognize passionate love as a legitimate need. For men it was seen as an illicit, disruptive force that had nothing to do with the serious business of family; for women it was usually proscribed altogether. The modern celebration of romantic love muddled the issue: now we want marriage to serve two basically incompatible purposes, to be at once a love relationship and a contract. We exalt love as the highest motive for marriage, but tell couples that of course passion fades into “mature” conjugal affection. We want our mates to be faithful out of love, yet define monogamy as an obligation whose breach justifies moral outrage and legal revenge. We agree that spouses who don’t love each other should not have to stay together, even for the sake of the children; yet we uphold a system that makes women economic prisoners, and condone restrictive adversary divorce laws. We argue that without the legal and moral pressure of marriage lovers won’t make the effort required to live intimately with someone else; but by equating emotional commitment with the will to live up to a contract, we implicitly define passion as unserious, peripheral to real life.

Another, equally insoluble conflict is built into the nuclear family. Children are a 24-hour-a-day responsibility, yet parents have legitimate needs for personal freedom, privacy, and spontaneity in their lives. The brunt of this conflict falls on mothers, but even if fathers shared child care equally the basic problem would remain. Child rearing is too big a job for one or even two people to handle without an unnatural, destructive degree of self-sacrifice.

A different kind of family structure could solve or ease these problems. In matrilineal societies mothers, children, and their blood relatives were the ongoing social unit, the permanence of sexual relationships apparently became an issue with the rise of patriarchy. In traditional patriarchies, the extended family at least gave parents some relief from responsibility for their offspring. The logical postpatriarchal unit is some version of the commune. Groups of people who agreed to take responsibility for each other, pool their economic resources, and share housework and child care would have a basis for stability independent of any one couple’s sexual bond; children would have the added security of close ties to adults other than their biological parents (and if the commune were large and flexible enough, parents who had stopped being lovers might choose to remain in it); communal child rearing, shared by both sexes, would remove the element of martyrdom from parenthood.

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I realize that the kind of change I’m talking about amounts to a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude. Yet to refuse to fight for love that is both free and responsible is in a sense to reject the possibility of love itself. I suspect that in a truly free society sexual love would be at once more satisfying and less terrifying, that lovers would be more spontaneously monogamous but less jealous, more willing to commit themselves deeply yet less devastated if a relationship had to end. Still, there is an inherent, irreducible risk in loving: it means surrendering detachment and control, giving our lovers the power to hurt us by withdrawing their love, leaving, or wanting someone else. The marriage contract appeals to our self-contradictory desire to negate that risk, nullify that power. I don’t mean to suggest that people who reject marriage are less afflicted with this desire than anyone else; remaining single can be an excellent way of distancing oneself from love, or avoiding it altogether. But I am convinced that contrary to its myth, the institution supports our fear of love rather than our yearning for it. We can embrace marriage, hoping to transcend its contradictions, or reject it, hoping to find something better; either way we are likely to be disappointed.

Until recently I had no doubt which route I preferred. I had married at 20, left three years later, and though I did not rule out marrying again if I had some specific practical reason, the idea bothered me the way the thought of signing a loyalty oath always had. It was not the public, ceremonial aspect of marriage I objected to — I thought the decision to share one’s life with a lover was worth celebrating — but the essence of marriage, the contract. Whatever two people’s private view of their relationship, however they might adapt the ceremony, in getting legally married they officially agreed to be bound by the rules of a patriarchal institution — one of which was that the state defined the circumstances in which they could be unbound. Besides, most people made endless assumptions about married couples and treated them accordingly; it wasn’t so easy to get married and pretend you weren’t.

I was also put off by the marriages I observed; domestic life as most of my peers lived it made me feel claustrophobic. What disturbed me was the degree of emotional repression most “successful” (that is, stable and reasonably contented) marriages seemed to involve. Given the basic contradictions of the family, it inevitably provoked conflicts that had to be submerged. But the conditions of contemporary middle-class marriage — the prevalence of divorce and infidelity, the emergence of feminism, the nagging ambivalence about whether we were supposed to enjoy life or be Adults — tended to bring those conflicts into the open, requiring a whole extra layer of evasions to keep them at bay. While some couples had managed to fight out the battle of the sexes to a real understanding instead of a divorce, most successful marriages I knew of were based on a sexist detente: the husband had made it clear that he would not give up certain prerogatives and the wife pretended not to hate him for it. Add a bit of sexual and emotional boredom in an era when not to be madly in love with your spouse was a social embarrassment, and it was not surprising that so many “happy” couples radiated stifling dependence or low-level static. No, I would think, with a fair amount of smugness, better alone than trapped.

But the year I turned 35, an odd thing happened: I had a persistent fantasy about getting married. It was — on the surface at least — a fantasy of triumph. At the time of my actual marriage, I had felt that my life was totally out of control. I was a scared kid making a promise I suspected I wouldn’t keep, at a conventional wedding I didn’t want, in a dress I’d been talked into getting. A rabbi I hardly knew presided over the traditional Jewish ritual, in which the bride gets to say precisely nothing. Since then I had, as they say, come a long way, but it had been a rocky trip. While I had rebelled against the idea that a woman needs a man to run her life, I had struggled with an undertow of conviction that such rebellion was disastrous hubris. On the level of social reality, this made perfect sense; if feminism had taught me anything it was that the liberated woman was a myth, that women who deviated from prescribed feminine behavior always paid a price. But the connection between the personal and the political is usually more convoluted than it seems. In fact, my conflict had less to do with the real social consequences of nonconformity than with an unconscious fear that I could not, after all, be female and yet competent to make my way through the world. In my relationships I had found it hard to draw the essential line between the power men have over women and the power all lovers have over each other — but I had begun to understand that what I was really fighting, more often than not, was the power of my own worst impulses to give in, give up and be dependent.

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That year I felt the struggle was paying off. Some balance had shifted; emotionally I was on my own in a way I had not been before. And so my marriage fantasy was a kind of exorcism. Now that I was strong enough to love a man and preserve my identity, confident enough to make a choice that wouldn’t be easy to get out of, I would do it over again and do it right — I would get to talk, play rock and roll, wear what I pleased. By marrying I would beat the system, give the lie to all the old farts who insisted that women could not have autonomy and love too. As the noted feminist Mick Jagger was to put it a couple of years later, American girls want everything — and I was no exception.

Though I sensed an underside to all this, I was too proud of my psychic victory to realize I was doing yet another version of the liberated woman tap dance, one that contained its own negation. These days the formula is familiar: women, we are told (often by women themselves) are now free enough so that they can choose to be sex objects/wear six-inch heels/do the housework without feeling oppressed. The unspoken question, of course, is whether women can refuse to be sex objects/wear six-inch heels/do the housework without getting zapped. When women start answering, in effect, “We’ve made our point — let’s not push our luck,” it is a sure sign of backlash. And in retrospect it seems clear that my sudden interest in marriage (it’s just a silly fantasy, I kept telling myself) was an early sign that the backlash was getting to me. As it intensified, I found myself, in moments of rank self-pity, thinking about marriage in a very different spirit. Okay (I would address the world), I’ve fought, I’ve paid my dues. I’m tired of being a crank, of being marginal. I want in!

As a single woman, and a writer who will probably never make much money, I feel more vulnerable now than I ever have before. My income has not kept up with inflation. I am approaching the biological deadline for maternity, confronting the possibility that the folklore of my adolescence — if a woman doesn’t settle down with a man before she’s 30, forget it — may turn out to apply to me after all. I am very conscious of the sustenance I have always gotten (and mostly taken for granted) from the family I grew up in: the intense bonds of affection and loyalty; the acceptance born of long intimacy; the power of “we,” of a shared slant on the world, a collective history and mythology, a language of familiar jokes and gestures. In some ways I have re-created these bonds with my closest friends, but it is not quite the same. The difference has to do with home being the place where when you have to go there they have to take you in — and also being (as the less-quoted next line of the poem has it) something you haven’t to deserve. I have friends who would take me in, but on some level I think I have to deserve them.

Around the time I began having these feelings, but before I had quite faced them, I broke a long-standing taboo and had a love affair with a married man. At night I would sit in my kitchen arguing with myself, debates that usually began with the reflection that what I was doing was selfish, irresponsible, and an egregious breach of female solidarity. But goddammit, I would protest, I refuse to define it that way! I really believe there’s such a thing as a basic human right to love whom you love and act on it.

But if you’re hurting another woman? Making her unequal struggle with this whole fucked-up system more difficult?

Well, the fact is, it hurts if your mate wants someone else! That’s an inescapable part of life — no matter what the almighty contract says!

Oh, yeah, right — life is unfair. And the children?

Silence, more coffee.

I never did resolve that argument; it just settled undigested in my stomach. Afterward, I had to admit I could not come up with a handy moral, except perhaps that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Morals aside, there was the matter of all those unacknowledged illusions about what I could get away with — humiliating perhaps, humbling certainly. At odd moments an old image would float into my mind. Once, as a bus I was riding in pulled out of a station, a silly-looking dog danced alongside, coming dangerously close to the wheels and yapping its lungs out. The bus rolled on.

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Recently a friend reminded me that in the early, heady days of feminist activism I had said to her, “We’re not going to see the results of this revolution in our lifetime; we’re making it for the women who come after us.” A judicious and sensible comment, but I’m not sure I ever really meant it. The reason feminism touched me so deeply was that I wanted the revolution for myself; I can’t help being disappointed and angry that it is turning out to be every bit as difficult as I claimed to believe. Reaction is always temporary, I know that — what I’m afraid of is that it won’t end in time to do me any good. But I also realize that kind of pessimism feeds the reaction and is in fact part of it. For all the external pressures that have contributed to the retrenchment of the erstwhile dissident community, in a sense reaction was built into its passionate optimism. The mentality that currently inspires ’60s veterans to say things like, “We didn’t succeed in abolishing the family. This proves we were wrong — the family is necessary,” is of a piece with the counterculture’s notorious impatience. Our ambitions outstripped both the immediate practical possibilities and our own limitations. People turned themselves and each other inside out; terrible bitterness between women and men came to the surface; everything seemed to be coming apart, with no imminent prospect of our finding a better way to put it back together. A lot of people were relieved when the conservative mood of the ’70s gave them an excuse to stop struggling and stretching themselves to uncertain purpose; a lot of men were particularly relieved when the backlash gave them support for digging in their heels against feminism. Some former rebels have turned against their past altogether, dismissing their vision as adolescent extravagance, reducing a decade of history to the part of it that was — inevitably — foolish and excessive. Many more have responded to the reaction with confusion and malaise. If women must reconcile their raised consciousness with the limits of a conservative time, men are torn between their more regressive impulses and their desire to be (or be thought) good guys. Increasingly, both sexes tend to define feminism and related cultural questions not as public issues calling for political action but as a matter of private “lifestyles” and “options.” This sort of individualism is not only a retreat from ’60s radicalism but in very real ways an extension of it — a more modest liberal version of the counterculture’s faith that simply by dropping out of the system we could have the world and have it now.

That we did not manage in a few years to revolutionize an institution that has lasted for thousands, serving indispensable functions as well as oppressive ones, is hardly something to be surprised at or ashamed of. Rather, what needs to be repudiated is the naive arrogance implicit in slogans like “abolish the family” and “smash monogamy,” in the illusion of so many counterculturists that revolution meant moving in with a bunch of people and calling it a commune. Far from being revolutionary, the cultural left was basically apolitical. That so much of its opposition was expressed in terms of contempt for capitalism and consumerism only confirms how little most ’60s radicals understood the American social system or their own place in it. There is a neat irony in the fact that leftists are now romanticizing the family and blaming capitalism for its collapse, while 10 years ago they were trashing the family and blaming capitalism for its persistence. Ah, dialectics: if an increasingly conservative capitalism has propelled the ’70s backlash, it was a dynamic liberal capitalism that fostered the ’60s revolt. The expansion of the American economy after World War II produced two decades of unprecedented prosperity, which allowed masses of people unprecedented latitude in making choices about how to live. Just as more and more people could afford to buy houses, cars, and appliances, they could choose to work less — or at less lucrative occupations — and still earn enough to survive without undue hardship, especially if they didn’t have kids to support. As a result a growing minority — particularly among the children of the upper middle class — felt free to question the dominant social arrangements, to experiment and take risks, to extend student life with its essentially bohemian values into adulthood rather than graduate to professional jobs, nuclear families, and the suburbs.

What most counterculture opposition to capitalism amounted to was this minority’s anger at the majority for refusing to make the same choice. Even the organized left, which should have known better, acted as if the way to change American society was for each person individually to renounce the family, material comfort, and social respectability. That most people were doing no such thing was glibly attributed to sexual repression, greed, and/or “brainwashing” by the mass media — the implication being that radicals and bohemians were sexier, smarter, less corrupt, and generally more terrific than everyone else. Actually, what they mostly were was younger and more privileged: it was easy to be a self-righteous antimaterialist if you had never known anxiety about money; easy to sneer at the security of marriage if you had solicitous middle-class parents; easy, if you were 20 years old and childless, to blame those parents for the ills of the world. Not that radicals were wrong in believing that a sexually free, communal society was incompatible with capitalism, or in perceiving connections between sexual repression, obsessive concern with material goods, and social conformity. But they did not understand that psychology aside, most people submit to the power of institutions because they suffer unpleasant consequences if they don’t. It made no sense to talk of abolishing the family without considering the genuine needs it served and organizing against the social pressures that inhibited us from satisfying those needs in other ways. In the ’70s the left itself would provide the best illustration of that truth: it was when economic conditions worsened, around the time most ’60s rebels were reaching an age where anxieties about the future were not so easy to dismiss, that radicals began to change their line on the family.

But if the political myopia of the counterculture was partly a matter of class and age, it was even more a matter of sex. Like every other segment of society the counterculture was dominated by men, who benefited from the male privileges built into the family structure and so did not care to examine it too closely. While they were not averse to freeing themselves from their traditional obligations in the family, they had no intention of giving up their prerogatives. To support a woman, promise permanence or fidelity, or take responsibility for the children one fathered might be bourgeois, but to expect the same woman to cook and clean, take care of the kids, and fuck on command was only natural. Despite an overlay of radical Freudian rhetoric, their sexual ethos was more or less standard liberal permissiveness; they were not interested in getting rid of the roles of wife and whore, only in “liberating” women to play either as the occasion demanded.

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It remained for the women’s liberation movement to begin to understand the family in a political way. Radical feminists exposed the hypocrisy of a “cultural revolution” based on sexual inequality, attributed that inequality to the historic, institutionalized power of men as a group over women as a group, and called for a mass movement to end it. Feminism became the only contemporary political movement to make an organized effort to change, rather than simply drop out of, the patriarchal family.

Feminist consciousness-raising and analysis produced a mass of information about the family as an instrument of female oppression. But on those aspects of family chauvinism that did not directly involve the subordination of women, the movement had little to say. (There were individual exceptions, notably Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex.) Radical feminists tended to be skeptical of the counterculture’s vision of a communal utopia. Many defended the nuclear family, arguing that it was not marriage, only traditional marital sex roles that oppressed women; at the other extreme were factions that challenged the value of heterosexuality and even sex itself.

In a sense, radical feminism defined itself in opposition to the psychological explanations of behavior so prevalent on the left. Most early women’s liberationists had come out of a left-counterculture milieu where they were under heavy pressure to go along with the men’s notion of sexual freedom. As soon as feminism surfaced, the left began to resist it by arguing that the conventional pattern of male-female relationships was the result of capitalist conditioning, that men were not oppressors but fellow victims. As feminists pointed out, this argument ignored the advantages men’s privileged status conferred, their reluctance to give up those advantages, and the day-to-day social and economic constraints that kept women in their place. In effect it absolved men of all responsibility for their actions and implied that women could remedy their condition simply by straightening out their heads.

Vital as it was to combat the left’s mushy, self-serving psychologism, radical feminists have tended to fall into the opposite error of dismissing psychology altogether. This bias has been particularly limiting when applied to the crucial subject of sex. Feminists have been inclined to blame women’s sexual problems solely on men’s exploitative behavior and lack of consideration for women’s needs, whether emotional or specifically erotic. The criticism is accurate so far as it goes. But it is impossible to understand female — or for that matter male — sexuality without acknowledging the impact of growing up in a culture that despite its surface permissiveness is deeply antisexual. A distorted, negative view of sex is basic to patriarchal psychology: since girls learn to regard their genitals as a badge of inferiority, boys to equate theirs with dominance and aggression, sexual pleasure gets tangled up with sadistic and masochistic feelings and hostility between the sexes. At the same time, both sexes have a powerful emotional investment in traditionally masculine and feminine behavior because they associate it with their sexual identities and with sex itself.

Just as a real sexual revolution must be feminist, a genuinely radical feminism must include a critique of sexual repression and the family structure that perpetuates it. Yet the two questions remain distinct in most people’s mind — a distinction that contributes to the backlash, since it allows people to succumb to family chauvinist attitudes without confronting their antifeminist implications. As it so often does, the right has a clearer grasp of the problem than its opposition, which is one reason “pro-family” reactionaries have been more politically effective than feminists who protest that they’re not against the family, they just want women to have equality within it. The issue of family chauvinism is at the core of the conflict between feminist and antifeminist women, as well as the antagonism that smolders even in sophisticated feminist circles between wives who feel that single women do not support them or understand their problems and single women who feel that wives are collaborating with the system. While feminists have rightly emphasized the common oppression of married and single women and the ways men have pitted us against each other, this kind of analysis ignores the fact that the family has its own imperatives: just as women can ally with men to defend the interests of a class or race, they can share their husbands’ family chauvinism. Women in a patriarchy have every reason to distrust male sexuality and fear their own. Under present conditions, heterosexuality really is dangerous for women, not only because it involves the risk of pregnancy and of exploitation and marginality, but because it is emotionally bound up with the idea of submission. And so long as women are economically dependent on their husbands they cannot afford to countenance the idea that men have a right to anything so unpredictable as passion. As a result women are as likely as men — if not more so — to see the family as our only alternative to unbridled lust and rapine.

To regard marriage and singleness simply as “options,” or even as situations equally favorable to men and oppressive to women, misses the point. The institution of the family, and the people who enforce its rules and uphold its values, define the lives of both married and single people, just as capitalism defines the lives of workers and dropouts alike. The family system divides us up into insiders and outsiders; as insiders married people are more likely to identify with the established order, and when they do they are not simply expressing a personal preference but taking a political stand. The issue, finally, is whether we have the right to hope for a freer, more humane way of connecting with each other. Defenders of the family seem to think that we have already gone too far, that the problem of this painful and confusing time is too much freedom. I think there’s no such thing as too much freedom — only too little nerve.


Women Are Fighting for Their Rights Again? Cue the Backlash

With its elevation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court earlier this month, the Senate served up a neat smackdown to the #MeToo movement, which for the past year had given women a glimmer of hope that their stories of sexual harassment and assault would finally be heard and believed, and that the men who perpetrated these acts would be held to account. 

As we reflect on this backlash to women’s latest step toward full equality, we look back at another backlash against women’s progress, this time set in the Eighties. This was the decade in which women were shamed for the advances they’d made in the workplace, told they in fact could not have it all — that their career successes would lead to a lonely, childless life. This was the decade in which a joint Harvard-Yale study declared that a white, single, college-educated woman over thirty had a 20 percent chance of getting married (and a 2.6 percent chance after the age of forty), and in which a movie script about a single woman treated badly by a married man morphed into Fatal Attraction.

The Eighties’ anti-feminist backlash provided Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Susan Faludi with the topic and title of her first book. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women was published 27 years ago this month — just weeks after the Senate had ignored the accusations of sexual harassment against another Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, ultimately confirming him to the bench. In the book, Faludi posited that the anti-feminist backlash of that era had been “set off not by women’s achievement of full equality but by the increased possibility that they might win it. It is a pre-emptive strike that stops women long before they reach the finish line.” And so it goes nearly three decades later.

In the December 31, 1991, issue of the Voice, Ellen Cohn gave a mixed review of the book, writing that although it is “deeply felt and undeniably earnest, it is no rousing call to arms.” Which is not to say that Cohn disagrees with Faludi’s premise; far from it.

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Describing the “counterassault” against feminists that Faludi details, Cohn writes that it “demonizes women’s liberation not only to halt women’s progress but to nullify it, simultaneously advancing the idea that for women, independence and self-determination lead only to sorrow.” Quoting Faludi, she continues, “It is most powerful when it lodges inside a woman’s mind and turns her vision inward, until she imagines the pressure is all in her head, until she begins to enforce the backlash, too — on herself,” then says, “Indeed, I have their names and numbers.”

Echoing language we still hear today, Cohn begins her review by noting the multiple occasions in which she’s heard a woman preface a learned analysis of “women’s second-class status” in America with the statement “I’m not a feminist but….” “Each woman,” writes Cohn, “in a rush from logic, history, and common sense, apparently believes that if she disavows the F-word, she’ll be safe; she’ll be exempt from those unsightly labels — ‘strident’  and ‘humorless’ — and the gains women made in the ’70s will still be hers. Sisters, they’re gone and going fast.”

Perhaps most chilling is when Cohn notes that “it’s hard to imagine more antiwomen teams than Regan-Bush or Bush–what’s-his-name” (referring to, of course, Dan Quayle, who campaigned against a fictional female character’s decision to raise a child on her own). One wonders what she’d have to say about the team in the White House today.



Peggy Orenstein on Sex, #MeToo, and the Current State of Feminism

In 2008, when Hillary Clinton was first running for the American presidency, Peggy Orenstein worried what her daughter would learn from the misogyny directed at the then-senator during the election campaign. Clinton, Orenstein writes in her new collection, Don’t Call Me Princess: Essays on Girls, Women, Sex, and Life, represented “a reflection, a freeze frame of the complications and contradictions of female success.”

Today, you might expect that Orenstein would be a basket case. Instead, she is optimistic about what she sees as the new “ocean” of feminism. “For years it was so unfashionable to be a feminist,” Orenstein told me. “But these days, I feel like I’m in vogue!”

Orenstein began her writing career in 1982 as an intern for Ms. magazine. In the three-plus decades since, she has contributed to the New York Times Magazine and produced bestsellers such as Cinderella Ate My Daughter and Schoolgirls. In Don’t Call Me Princess, Orenstein revisits her writing from ten, twenty, and thirty years ago — revealing that many of the themes she wrote about then are relevant today.

I spoke with Orenstein about her thoughts on nonverbal consent, Twitter feminists, what porn teaches kids, and other topics. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

In a piece about raising your daughter, you wondered whether you were “surfing a washed-out second wave of feminism in a third-wave world.” How can you apply lessons from second-wave feminism today?

I was kind of two and a half, to be honest. Perched between those two, I could see both the value and the limits of both.

Obviously, there is so much that we take for granted now that second-wave feminism accomplished. Things like being able to have a credit card. Yet, there are systemic issues that we keep having to address in different ways for different generations, in kind of a spiral. Everybody’s pushing it a little further, adjusting it, in the way that makes sense for the time.

The branding is so much better [today]. Instead of civil rights and feminism, we have #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. They’ve just found each other. That is a sign of the times that we are in. But the serious issues beneath those little pippy hashtags are the same, and important. It’s so exciting to see people care again.

I think Emma González [who gave the speech after the shootings in Parkland, Florida] is the face of the new activism, and it’s such an amazing face.

Can you expand on that? Are we still in the third wave of feminism, which started in the Nineties? What defines the wave we’re currently riding?

We used to think we were “post-feminist.” That was really popular for a while. Now, I think we are post-wave. It’s just the whole ocean now. There’s no single wave that’s washing up anymore. It’s too big for that.

You have written that self-objectification is part of the rite of passage to adulthood for many teen girls. But where’s the line between self-objectification and exploitation?

Ha, if I could answer that. It’s an ever-shifting line, not only culturally, but for every woman. And it can change from moment to moment, depending on if you’re walking down a threatening street or in a room with your best friends. You can wear the same outfit. It can feel totally differently to you. There’s no easy answer. Every woman has to work that out for herself. And it changes at different ages, at different stages.

What was concerning me was merging the idea of sexiness and sexuality. Girls were very attached to this idea of expressing sexuality through appearance — yet they would say, “I’m proud of my body. I never feel more liberated than when I wear skimpy clothes.” But they weren’t enjoying or understanding their bodies’ responses, and sometimes even felt shame about their genitals, or other aspects of their body. So who cares how much you express your sexuality through appearance, if you have no relationship to your body’s responses?

Self-objectification is related to body distortion, to negative body image, to eating disorders, to self-harm, to depression, to lower sense of political efficacy, to depressed cognition, all these things. How empowering is that?

In the age of the internet, is our definition of “sexy” becoming narrower?     

I was just at a porn convention. And I was looking at the performers who were walking around. And 99.999 percent of them looked exactly the same. They had big, poofy, usually blonde hair. They had puffed up their lips beyond any normalcy. They had huge implants. They were wearing little, tiny, lacy undergarments or something see-through, five-inch heels, and had long painted nails. They were basically like the extreme of the definition of “hot.” I thought, “God, this is boring!”

And, “Why is this thing that requires us to so alter our appearance and be so hyper-aware of everything we eat, spend so much money on hair, and makeup, and clothing, and implants — why is that empowering?”

The increasing level of artificiality has changed, partly, because it could. Things didn’t exist in the past that allowed you to easily inflate your lips, and breasts, quite so readily. And people used to have [pubic] hair, too. But earlier generations thought the idea of self-objectification was something to push back against. For young women today, it’s sold as a form of empowerment, often the form of “self-expression.”

You write that there’s “unprecedented scrutiny towards our intimate parts as women” — yet many of the teen girls you interviewed are deeply ashamed of and embarrassed by these parts.

Women’s genital self-image, as a concept, is under siege. There are new norms around pubic hair and also an exponential rise in labiaplasty among young women. It shows that women feel that they have to prepare and that there’s a right and a wrong way for your vulva to look.

We learn that we’re supposed to feel shame. That we’re not supposed to touch ourselves. Fewer than half of girls fourteen to seventeen have ever masturbated — the only time they’re touching themselves is to shave off their hair. We learn there’s a taboo and a shame around our genitals, in a totally mundane way.

The women who were opening feminine sex-toy stores in the mid-Seventies were making an attempt to radically change that. I grew up in the wake of this. I learned that masturbation was a form of women’s power. That you’re responsible for your own orgasm and you have a right to it. That sex was political as well as personal.

I learned that from women a generation ahead of me — somehow my generation did not communicate that downward.

I’d also say we need to teach the importance of not just sex, but of what happens after sex.

I’m working on a book on boys and sexual and emotional intimacy because I feel like I only wrote one-half of an equation. It’s really important to actively include boys and men in that conversation. One thing that concerned me was how many girls, if I asked, “Do you masturbate?” would say, “No, I have a boyfriend to do that.” His idea of “sexual pleasure” was to rummage around inside of the woman like he was looking for a set of car keys. Especially in high school, there was a certain level of, let’s just say, ineptitude.

So you’re putting your pleasure in the hands of somebody else. Secondly, you’re giving it to somebody who doesn’t even know what they’re doing.

I was really interested, with [my book] Girls & Sex, in what was happening after consent. “I was not raped,” is a very low bar for a sexual experience — so what do we need to be talking to young people about? How can we talk with our partners to create a sexual experience that’s ethical, reciprocal, enjoyable — that doesn’t come out like “Cat Person”?

What do you think about the push for verbal consent? And the more complicated issue of nonverbal consent, cues, like what came up in the Aziz Ansari debate?

The thing with the Aziz Ansari case that I thought was so interesting was getting beyond whether it should or shouldn’t have been reported. I felt like there was so much going on and that what surfaced was something really ordinary, typical — the kind of script that both men and women run by that prioritizes male pleasure, that is kind of porn-y, that, for women, involves a lot of double-thinking, like, “Is this really happening? Do I want this?” This unwillingness to know what they know in a certain way, and fear of speaking about that.

Many people asked why Grace didn’t just get up and walk away. That’s easy to say to the outside of that dynamic — but we all know, as women, that there are many times when you feel a pressure that is cultural and bigger than you, and you don’t get up and walk away. Does that make what happened illegal? No, but it makes it unethical and unnecessary.

Even if it was unethical, I think this issue is complicated by the fact that this was an intimate story, and it was unclear whether Ansari did something that justified being publicly called out.

I remain agnostic about that. But in terms of what can happen from here, it is a tremendous opportunity to really have this conversation about what a mutual, reciprocal, communicative sexual relationship looks like and what the cultural scripts are that men run on and the cultural scripts that women run on, and the ways that those end up just being on completely different tracks and often disastrously so.

Could #MeToo ever go too far?

I don’t feel like we’re at that point. Any time you push something, people immediately say, “You’re going too far.” But we have so far to go on this. We expect a backlash — that’s inevitable. I don’t think you can fear it, though.

It’s going to happen regardless of what we do or don’t do. The entire decade of the Eighties was consumed with backlash. There were years where people would not be interested in what I wanted to write. Editors would not be interested in what I wanted to write, because they wanted something “contrarian.” What they meant by “contrarian” was a woman who would say the things that (some) men wanted to say but couldn’t, because it would make them look sexist.

Someone like Katie Roiphe? What’s your reaction to her argument that “Twitter feminists” are dominating the #MeToo discussion with an extreme, angry voice that leaves out opposing viewpoints?

Katie is kind of one of those contrarian women that I was talking about: “It’s just bad sex. Don’t be a baby. Suck it up.” That is a way to shut down discussion and interrogation of what’s going on in the dynamics of men’s and women’s lives. All those ideas about gender and power and equality and income disparity and violence and well-being — all of those things are contained in our relationship with the other sex. And that doesn’t mean that you walk around saying my marriage is political or whatever, but it’s there.

When you say it’s just bad sex, what does “just” mean? Why is that OK? Does it mean the person should be thrown in jail? Maybe not — but to say it’s no big deal, that’s wrong.

The danger of Twitter is that people pile on and destroy people. And that, that is real, and that’s not specific to the women’s movement — it can be a very toxic place. But I don’t think that what she’s saying is really correct.

You write about what porn — which can now be streamed — teaches young people about sex. What did you find?

In 2005, Pornhub came online. For the first time, you could stream porn — for free. You no longer needed a credit card. That meant that children had access to porn in a way that was unprecedented.

If it was on your computer or your phone, of course you’re going to look at it! On top of that, no parents, no schools, are having any conversations with teenagers about what a sexual relationship should look like. Only thirteen states require sex ed to be medically accurate. So [kids] turn to porn even though they know, on some level, that it’s unrealistic. They look to it as a guide, a script. One of the saddest things about it is that it makes it so you’ve lost the opportunity for imagination about what sexuality is, what sex could be like, what you dream of. It becomes this prescribed thing about what you see online.

When kids are starting to see porn when they’re eleven, particularly boys, they’re really learning arousal and release — before they masturbate for the first time, and they’re learning to masturbate with it. So they’re linking their sexuality to porn from the get-go. That becomes an issue when they go into a room with an actual person. It may be why millennials are having less sex. Why bother?

With girls, there’s a lot of pressure to “be the porn star” in the bedroom. To engage in acts that might not even feel good — because it’s more about how you look to somebody else than understanding your own desire and feelings.

You have a fourteen-year-old daughter. I’m sure you don’t control what she’s watching, so how do you talk to her about sex?

We talk about this stuff all the time. There’s a podcast by Jon Ronson called The Butterfly Effect about the impact of Pornhub — on people, on kids, everything. I talked to her about what he found, saying, “This is the impact on the performers, how they don’t make any money, they end up being exploited,” [etc.]. The argument has shifted from “porn is degrading to women” to “porn is harming boys’ ability to engage in a healthy sexual interaction.” That may be a more effective warning to young men than “it’s degrading to women” — which they usually don’t care very much about.

I always wonder: Why? Why is degradation of women the fantasy? I don’t get that.

It’s not like I was born able to have a conversation about porn with my fourteen-year-old. I had just as little vocabulary as anybody — I was forced to develop it. I have to get over my discomfort and qualms to do it, but you don’t get to pick and choose when you parent — you have to step up.

Peggy Orenstein, “Don’t Call Me Princess”

New York to Trump: Grab Him by the Midterms!

While our Nazi-coddling reality TV producer–in-chief marked his one-year anniversary as POTUS by shutting down the U.S. government (and ineffectively trolling protestors), New Yorkers took to the streets on Saturday to show our continued resistance on the anniversary of the single largest day of political protest in U.S. history.

New York’s massive turnout of 200,000 women’s marchers (along with 500,000 in Los Angeles, 300,000 in Chicago, 100,000 in San Francisco, and many thousands more in Washington, D.C; Austin, Texas; Denver; Philadelphia; Seattle; Oakland, California; St. Louis; Park City, Utah; Charlotte, North Carolina; and even Palm Beach, Florida, home to Mar-a-Lago) was tinged with women’s anger, humor, and resilience. “New York hates Trump, he was stuck to the bottom of our shoes first,” declared one sign, punctuated by a poop emoji. “Fuck you, you fucking fuck,” blared another.

Near the front of the march, the woman’s drumline FogoAzul NYC lent samba and reggae rhythms and an infectious energy, while white, Black, Latina, and Asian protestors shouted “Dump Trump!” to the beat as they passed Trump Tower. Women in wheelchairs participated alongside dancers. Men showed up in support of gender justice, holding babies on their shoulders. Children in Wonder Woman costumes and “Boys will be boys good humans” shirts carried posters announcing, “In 11 years I vote!” and “The future will be nonbinary,” while grandmothers in their eighties and nineties expressed disgust that they still had to be out in the streets advocating for reproductive justice, freedom from sexual violence, and equal pay. Young women marched for an intersectional platform, including gender and racial justice, trans rights, protection for immigrants, and an end to poverty and wealth inequality. A “Please note the lack of Nazis at our marches” sign made clear which side of history we were on.

Protesters’ experiences were heavily shaped by when they were able to arrive. The front and middle of the march were reportedly loud, boisterous, and full of life. The latter half was…less so. Folks who (like me) got screwed by the MTA and showed up only a half an hour early not only missed the rally, we ended up in a crush of humanity barricaded into Giuliani-style “protest pens,” waiting endlessly to be allowed to get on with it. Lacking drummers for energy or speeches for inspiration, marchers toward the back made a quieter procession, though a few folks with cowbells added levity, and a handful of unique chants bubbled up, including, “We need a leader, not a creepy tweeter!,” “The people are sick! The people are tired! We the people say, ‘You’re fired!’,” and my own offering: “Racist, sexist, narcissist! We have had enough of this!” Mostly, though, the back of the march felt a little less like a disruptive revolution than a chill stroll with 25,000 of your closest friends.

Regardless of where we lined up, New Yorkers made spectacular use of visuals. There were Handmaid’s Tale outfits, a giant cardboard penis asking, “Why are the Republicans such dicks??,” a cartoon of Trump in a crown and sash as the winner of the Miss Ogyny pageant, the Hamilton logo and quote “Immigrants, we get the job done,” and someone who spent the entire march inside a huge dinosaur costume, declaring, “Patriarchy should have gone extinct.”

Anti-Trump sentiment was a unifying force, of course, but the issues motivating us were as varied as the marchers ourselves. Holding my camera up as high as I could and snapping a random crowd shot resulted in a heartening array of posters supporting clinic access, Black Lives Matter, trans rights, Dreamers, a Martin Luther King Jr. quote critiquing capitalism, and a promise that “feminism includes all genders, all races, all sexualities, and all abilities” (a crucial reminder to white women who insisted on wearing the contentious pink “pussy hats” despite being seen by some women of color and trans women as a symbol of exclusion at last year’s marches). There was a sizable #MeToo and #TimesUp presence, and classic feminist hot takes such as “If my uterus shot bullets it would be less regulated.” Some used Trump’s vitriol against him, stating, “The news is real, the president is fake,” and demanding we “make America not racist for the first time.” Approaches ranged from devastating specificity, as in this list of scourges affecting our “shithole country,” from racist militarized police and attacks on press freedom to daily mass shootings, toxic water, and a broken healthcare system, to just plain fed up (“Boy bye!,” “It’s not okay!” and “I know, I know, I am such a bitch!”). One Broadway fan rewrote Rent lyrics in homage to Trump’s “525,600 tweets.” Quotes from Audre Lorde, Shirley Chisholm, and Malala Yousafzai appeared alongside quips from comedians Samantha Bee and Hari Kondabolu.

Notably, New York feminists stared down 2017’s horrors with humor and creativity. Responding to reports that Trump once asked a porn star to spank him with a copy of a magazine featuring himself and daughter Ivanka on the cover: “I guarantee that Forbes magazine did not give consent.” Questioning the new normal: “This episode of Black Mirror SUCKS.” Challenging the hypocrisy of Trump’s fundamentalist base: “What would Jesus do? Probably not Stormy Daniels.” Evaluating the corporate cronies appointed to dismantle the departments they now lead: “Ikea has better Cabinets.” Mocking the fact that Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level: “I know signs. I make the best signs. They’re terrific. Everyone agrees.” And hitting the president right in his spray-tanned vanity: “Learn how to blend your concealer.”

This mammoth show of progressive force in New York and around the country proves that, as Lin-Manuel Miranda might remind us, this is not a moment — it’s a movement. One that has the power to “Grab him by the midterms.”