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EQUALITY ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

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. ❖

Categories
CITY HALL ARCHIVES EQUALITY ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

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. ❖

Categories
Equality From The Archives show-old-images THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Women’s Liberation: The Next Great Moment in History Is Theirs

One evening not too long ago, at the home of a well-educated and extremely intelligent couple I know, I mentioned the women’s liberation movement and was mildly astonished by the response the subject received. The man said: “Jesus, what is all that crap about?” The woman, a scientist who had given up 10 working years to raise her children, said: “I can understand if these women want to work and are demanding equal pay. But why on earth do they want to have children, too?” To which the man rejoined: “Ah, they don’t want kids. They’re mostly a bunch of dykes, anyway.”

Again: Having lunch with an erudite, liberal editor, trained in the humanist tradition, I was struck dumb by his reply to my mention of the women’s liberation movement: “Ah shit, who the hell is oppressing them?”

And yet again: A college-educated housewife, fat and neurotic, announced with arch sweetness, “I’m sorry, I just don’t feel oppressed.”

Over and over again, in educated thinking circles, one meets with a bizarre, almost determined ignorance of a fact of unrest that is growing daily, and that exists in formally organized bodies in nearly every major city and on dozens of campuses across America. The women of this country are gathering themselves into a sweat of civil revolt, and the general population seems totally unaware of what is happening; or, indeed, that anything is happening; or that there is a legitimate need behind what is happening. How is this possible? Why is it true? What relation is there between the peculiarly unalarmed, amused dismissal of the women’s rights movement and the movement itself? Is this relation only coincidental, only the generally apathetic response of a society already benumbed by civil rights and student anarchy and unable to rise to yet one more protest movement, or is it more to the point in the case of women’s rights, is it not, in fact, precisely the key to the entire issue?

Almost invariably, when people set out to tell you there is no such thing as discrimination against women in this country, the first thing they hastily admit to is a minor degree of economic favoritism shown toward men. In fact, they will eagerly, almost gratefully, support the claim of economic inequity, as though that will keep the discussion within manageable bounds. Curious. But even on economic grounds or grounds of legal discrimination most people are dismally ignorant of the true proportions of the issue. They will grant that often a man will make as much as $100 more than a woman at the same job, and yes, it is often difficult for a woman to be hired when a man can be hired instead, but after all, that’s really not so terrible.

This is closer to the facts:

Women in this country make 60 cents for every $1 a man makes.

Women do not share in the benefits of the fair employment practices laws because those laws do not specify “no discrimination on the basis of sex.”

Women often rise in salary only to the point at which a man starts.

Women occupy, in great masses, the “household tasks” of industry. They are nurses but not doctors, secretaries but not executives, researchers but not writers, workers but not managers, bookkeepers but not promoters.

Women almost never occupy decision — or policy-making positions.

Women are almost non-existent in government.

Women are subject to a set of “protective” laws that restrict their working hours, do not allow them to occupy many jobs in which the carrying of weights is involved, do not allow them to enter innumerable bars, restaurants, hotels, and other public places unescorted.

Women, despite 100 years of reform, exist in the domestic and marriage laws of our country almost literally as appendages of their husbands. Did you know that rape by a husband is legal but that if a woman refuses to sleep with her husband she is subject to legal suit? Did you know that the word domicile in the law refers to the husband’s domicile and that if a woman refuses to follow her husband to wherever he makes his home, legal suit can be brought against her to force her to do so? Did you know that in most states the law imposes severe legal disabilities on married women with regard to their personal and property rights? (As a feminist said to me: “The United Nations has defined servitude as necessarily involuntary, but women, ignorant of the law, put themselves into voluntary servitude.”)

Perhaps, you will say, these observations are not so shocking. After all, women are weaker than men, they do need protection, what on earth is so terrible about being protected, for God’s sake! And as for those laws, they’re never invoked, no woman is dragged anywhere against her will, on the contrary, women’s desires rule the middle-class household, and women can work at hundreds of jobs. In fact, a great deal of the wealth of the country is in their hands, and no woman ever goes hungry.

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I agree. These observed facts of our national life are not so shocking. The laws and what accrues from them are not so terrible. It is what’s behind the laws that is so terrible. It is not the letter of the law but the spirit determining the law that is terrible. It is not what is explicit but what is implicit in the law that is terrible. It is not the apparent condition but the actual condition of woman that is terrible.

“The woman’s issue is the true barometer of social change,” said a famous political theoretician. This was true 100 years ago; it is no less true today. Women and blacks were and are, traditionally and perpetually, the great “outsiders” in Western culture, and their erratic swellings of outrage parallel each other in a number of ways that are both understandable and also extraordinary. A hundred years ago a great abolitionist force wrenched this country apart and changed its history forever; many, many radical men devoted a fever of life to wrecking a system in which men were bought and sold; many radical women worked toward the same end; the abolitionist movement contained women who came out of educated and liberal 19th century families, women who considered themselves independent thinking beings. It was only when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were not allowed to be seated at a World Anti-Slavery Conference held in the 1840s that the intellectual abolitionist women suddenly perceived that their own political existence resembled that of the blacks. They raised the issue with their radical men and were denounced furiously for introducing an insignificant and divisive issue, one which was sure to weaken the movement. Let’s win this war first, they said, and then we’ll see about women’s rights. But the women had seen; in one swift visionary moment, to the very center of the truth about their own lives, and they knew that first was now, that there would never be a time when men would willingly address themselves to the question of female rights, that to strike out now for women’s rights could do nothing but strengthen the issue of black civil rights because it called attention to all instances or rights denied in a nation that prided itself on rights for all.

Thus was born the original Women’s Rights Movement, which became known as the Women’s Suffrage Movement because the single great issue, of course, was legal political recognition. But it was never meant to begin and end with the vote, just as the abolitionist movement was never meant to begin and end with the vote. Somehow, though, that awful and passionate struggle for suffrage seemed to exhaust both the blacks and the women, especially the women, for when the vote finally came at the end of the Civil War, it was handed to black males — but not to women; the women had to go on fighting for 60 bitterly long years for suffrage. And then both blacks and women lay back panting, unable to catch their breath for generation upon generation.

The great civil rights movement for blacks in the 1950s and ’60s is the second wind of that monumental first effort, necessary because the legislated political equality of the 1860s was never translated into actual equality. The reforms promised by law had never happened. The piece of paper meant nothing. Racism had never been legislated out of existence; in fact, its original virulence had remained virtually untouched, and, more important, the black in this country had never been able to shake off the slave mentality. He was born scared, he ran scared, he died scared; for 100 years after legal emancipation, he lived as though it had never happened. Blacks and whites did not regard either themselves or each other differently, and so they in no way lived differently. In the 1950s and ’60s the surging force behind the renewed civil rights effort has been the desire to eradicate this condition more than any other, to enable the American black to believe in himself as a whole, independent, expressive human being capable of fulfilling and protecting himself in the very best way he knows how. Today, after more than 15 years of unremitting struggle, after a formidable array of reform laws legislated at the federal, state, and local level, after a concentration on black rights and black existence that has traumatized the nation, it is still not unfair to say that the psychology of defeat has not been lifted from black life. Still (aside from the continuance of crime, drugs, broken homes, and all the wretched rest of it), employers are able to say: “Sure, I’d love to hire one if I could find one who qualified,” and while half the time this is simply not true, half the time it is, because black life is still marked by the “nigger mentality,” the terrible inertia of spirit that accompanies the perhaps irrational but deeply felt conviction that no matter what one does, one is going to wind up a 35-year-old busboy. This “nigger mentality” characterizes black lives. It also characterizes women’s lives. And it is this, and this alone, that is behind the second wave of feminism now sweeping the country and paralleling precisely, exactly as it does 100 years ago, the black rights movement. The fight for reform laws is just the beginning. What women are really after this time around is the utter eradication of the “nigger” in themselves.

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Most women who feel ‘”niggerized” have tales of overt oppression to tell. They feel they’ve been put down by their fathers, their brothers, their lovers, their bosses. They feel that in their families, in their sex lives, and in their jobs they have counted as nothing, they have been treated as second-class citizens, their minds have been deliberately stunted and their emotions warped. My own experience with the condition is a bit more subtle, and, without bragging, I do believe a bit closer to the true feminist point.

To begin with, let me tell a little story. Recently, I had lunch with a man I had known at school. He and his wife and I had all been friends at college; they had courted while we were in school and immediately upon graduation they got married. They were both talented art students, and it was assumed both would work in commercial art. But shortly after their marriage she became pregnant, and never did go to work. Within five years they had two children. At first I visited them often; their home was lovely, full of their mutual talent for atmosphere; the wife sparkled, the children flourished; [the husband] rose in the field of commercial art; I envied them both their self-containment, and she especially her apparently contented, settled state. But as I had remained single and life took me off in various other directions, we soon began to drift apart, and when I again met the husband we had not seen each other in many years. We spoke animatedly of­ what we had both been doing for quite a while. Then I asked about his wife. His face rearranged itself suddenly, but I couldn’t quite tell how at first. He said she was fine, but didn’t sound right.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Is she doing something you don’t want her to do? Or the other way around?”

“No, no,” he said hastily. “I want her to do whatever she wants to do. Anything. Anything that will make her happy. And get her off my back,” he ended bluntly. I asked what he meant and he told me of his wife’s restlessness of the last few years; of how sick she was of being a housewife, how useless she felt, and how she longed to go back to work.

“Well?” I asked, “did you object?”

“Of course not!” he replied vigorously. “Why the hell would I do that? She’s a very talented woman, her children are half grown, she’s got every right in the world to go to work.”

“So?” I said.

“It’s her,” he said bewilderedly. “She doesn’t seem able to just go out and get a job.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. But beneath the surface of my own puzzled response I more than half knew what was coming.

“Well, she’s scared, I think. She’s more talented than half the people who walk into my office asking for work, but do what I will she won’t get a portfolio together and make the rounds. Also, she cries a lot lately. For no reason, if you know what I mean. And then, she can’t seem to get up in the morning in time to get a babysitter and get out of the house. This is a woman who was always up at 7 a.m. to feed everybody, get things going; busy, capable, doing 10 things at once.” He shook his head as though in a true quandary. “Oh well,” he ended up, “I guess it doesn’t really matter any more.”

“Why not?” I asked.

His eyes came up and he looked levelly at me. “She’s just become pregnant again.”

I listened silently, but with what internal churning! Even though the external events of our lives were quite different, I felt as though this woman had been living inside my skin all these years, so close was I to the essential nature of her experience as I perceived it listening to her husband’s woebegone tale. I had wandered about the world, I had gained another degree, I had married twice, I had written, taught, edited, I had no children. And yet I knew that in some fundamental sense we were the same woman. I understood exactly — but exactly — the kind of neurotic anxiety that just beset her, and that had ultimately defeated her; it was a neurosis I shared and had recognized in almost every woman I had ever known — including Monica Vitti, having her Chiaparellied nervous breakdown, stuffing her hand into her mouth, rolling her eyes wildly, surrounded by helplessly sympathetic men who kept saying: “Just tell me what’s wrong.”

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I was raised in an immigrant home where education was worshiped. As the entire American culture was somewhat mysterious to my parents, the educational possibilities of that world were equally unknown for both the boy and the girl in our family. Therefore, I grew up in the certainty that if my brother went to college, I too could go to college; and, indeed, he did, and I in my turn did too. We both read voraciously from early childhood on, and we were both encouraged to do so. We both had precocious and outspoken opinions and neither of us was ever discouraged from uttering them. We both were exposed early to unionist radicalism and neither of us met with opposition when, separately, we experimented with youthful political organizations. And yet somewhere along the line my brother and I managed to receive an utterly different education regarding ourselves and our own expectations from life. He was taught many things but what he learned was the need to develop a kind of inner necessity. I was taught many things but what I learned, ultimately, was that it was the prime vocation of my life to prepare myself for the love of a good man and the responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood. All the rest, the education, the books, the jobs, that was all very nice and of course, why not? I was an intelligent girl, shouldn’t I learn? make something of myself! but oh dolly, you’ll see, in the end no woman could possibly be happy without a man to love and children to raise. What’s more, came the heavy implication, if I didn’t marry I would be considered an irredeemable failure.

How did I learn this? How? I have pondered this question 1000 times. Was it really that explicit? Was it laid out in lessons strategically planned and carefully executed? Was it spooned down my throat at regular intervals? No. It wasn’t. I have come finally to understand that the lessons were implicit and they took place in 100 different ways, in a continuous day-to-day exposure to an attitude, shared by all, about women, about what kind of creatures they were and what kind of lives they were meant to live; the lessons were administered not only by my parents but by the men and women, the boys and girls, all around me who, of course, had been made in the image of this attitude.

My mother would say to me when I was very young, as I studied at the kitchen table and she cooked: “How lucky you are to go to school! I wasn’t so lucky. I had to go to work in the factory. I wanted so to be a nurse! But to be a nurse in Williamsburg in 1920! Maybe you’ll be a nurse…” I listened, I nodded, but somehow the message I got was that I was like her and I would one day be doing what she was now doing.

My brother was the “serious and steady” student, I the “erratic and undisciplined” one. When he studied the house was silenced; when I studied, business as usual.

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When I was 14 and I came in flushed and disarrayed my mother knew I’d been with a boy. Her fingers gripped my upper arm; her face, white and intent, bent over me: What did he do to you? Where did he do it? I was frightened to death. What was she so upset about? What could he do to me? I learned that I was the keeper of an incomparable treasure and it had to be guarded: it was meant to be a gift for my husband. (Later that year when I read A Rage to Live I knew without any instruction exactly what all those elliptical sentences were about.)

When I threw some hideous temper tantrum my mother would say: “What a little female you are!” (I have since seen many little boys throw the same tantrums and have noted with interest that they are not told they are little females.)

The girls on the street would talk forever about boys, clothes, movies, fights with their mothers. The 1000 thoughts racing around in my head from the books I was reading remained secret, no one to share them with.

The boys would be gentler with the girls than with each other when we all played roughly; and our opinions were never considered seriously.

I grew up, I went to school, I came out, wandered around, went to Europe, went back to school, wandered again, taught in a desultory fashion, and at last! got married!

It was during my first marriage that I began to realize something was terribly wrong inside me, but it took me 10 years to understand that I was suffering the classic female pathology. My husband, like all the men I have known, was a good man, a man who wanted my independence for me more than I wanted it for myself. He urged me to work, to do something, anything, that would make me happy; he knew that our pleasure in each other could be heightened only if I was a functioning human being too. Yes, yes! I said, and leaned back in the rocking chair with yet another novel. Somehow, I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t really know where to start, what I wanted to do. Oh, I had always had a number of interests but they, through an inability on my part to stick with anything, had always been superficial; when I arrived at a difficult point in a subject, a job, an interest, I would simply drop it. Of course, what I really wanted to do was write; but that was an altogether ghastly agony and one I could never come to grips with. There seemed to be some terrible aimlessness at the very center of me, some paralyzing lack of will. My energy, which was abundant, was held in a trap of some sort; occasionally that useless energy would wake up roaring, demanding to be let out of its cage, and then I became “emotional”; I would have hysterical depressions, rage on and on about the meaninglessness of my life, force my husband into long psychoanalytic discussions about the source of my (our) trouble, end in a purging storm of tears, a determination to do “something,” and six months later I was right back where I started. If my marriage had not dissolved, I am sure that I would still be in exactly that same peculiarly nightmarish position. But as it happened, the events of life forced me out into the world, and repeatedly I had to come up against myself. I found this pattern of behavior manifesting itself in 100 different circumstances; regardless of how things began, they always seemed to end in the same place. Oh, I worked, I advanced, in a sense, but only erratically and with superhuman effort. Always the battle was internal, and it was with a kind of paralyzing anxiety at the center of me that drained off my energy and retarded my capacity for intellectual concentration. It took me a long time to perceive that nearly every woman I knew exhibited the same symptoms, and when I did perceive it became frightened. I thought, at first, that perhaps, indeed, we were all victims of some biological deficiency, that some vital ingredient had been deleted in the female of the species, that we were a physiological metaphor for human neurosis. It took me a long time to understand, with an understanding that is irrevocable, that we are the victims of culture, not biology.

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Recently, I read a marvelous biography of Beatrice Webb, the English socialist. The book is full of vivid portraits, but the one that is fixed forever in my mind is that of Mrs. Webb’s mother, Laurencina Potter. Laurencina Potter was a beautiful, intelligent, intellectually energetic woman of the middle 19th century. She knew 12 languages, spoke Latin and Greek better than half the classics-trained men who came to her home, and was interested in everything. Her marriage to wealthy and powerful Richard Potter was a love match, and she looked forward to a life of intellectual companionship, stimulating activity, lively participation. No sooner were they married than Richard installed her in a Victorian fortress in the country, surrounded her with servants and physical comfort, and started her off with the first of the 11 children she eventually bore. He went out into the world, bought and sold railroads, made important political connections, mingled in London society, increased his powers, and relished his life. She, meanwhile, languished. She sat in the country, staring at the four brocaded walls; her energy remained bottled up, her mind became useless, her will evaporated. The children became symbols of her enslavement and, in consequence, she was a lousy mother: neurotic, self-absorbed, increasingly colder and more withdrawn, increasingly more involved in taking her emotional temperature. She became, in short, the Victorian lady afflicted with indefinable maladies.

When I read of Laurencina’s life I felt as though I was reading about the lives of most of the women I know, and it struck me that 100 years ago sexual submission was all for a woman, and today sexual fulfillment is all for a woman, and the two are one and the same.

Most of the women I know are people of superior intelligence, developed emotions, and higher education. And yet our friendships, our conversations, our lives, are not marked by intellectual substance or emotional distance or objective concern. It is only briefly and insubstantially that I ever discuss books or politics or philosophical issues or abstractions of any kind with the women I know. Mainly, we discuss and are intimate about our Emotional Lives. Endlessly, endlessly, we go on and on about our emotional “problems” and “needs” and “relationships.” And, of course, because we are all bright and well-educated, we bring to bear on these sessions a formidable amount of sociology and psychology, literature and history, all hoked out so that it sounds as though these are serious conversations on serious subjects, when in fact they are caricatures of seriousness right out of Jonathan Swift. Caricatures, because they have no beginning, middle, end, or point. They go nowhere, they conclude nothing, they change nothing. They are elaborate descriptions in the ongoing soap opera that is our lives. It took me a long time to understand that we were talking about nothing, and it took me an even longer and harder time, traveling down that dark, narrow road in the mind, back back to the time when I was a little girl sitting in the kitchen with my mother, to understand, at last, that the affliction was cultural not biological, that it was because we had never been taught to take ourselves seriously that I and all the woman I knew had become parodies of “taking ourselves seriously.”

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The rallying cry of the black civil rights movement has always been: “Give us back our manhood!” What exactly does that mean? Where is black manhood? How has it been taken from blacks? And how can it be retrieved? The answer lies in one word: responsibility; therefore, they have been deprived of serious work; therefore they have been deprived of self-respect; therefore, they have been deprived of manhood. Women have been deprived of exactly the same thing and in every real sense have thus been deprived of womanhood. We have never been prepared to assume responsibility; we have never been prepared to make demands upon ourselves; we have never been taught to expect the development of what is best in ourselves because no one have ever expected anything of us — or for us. Because no one has ever had any intention of turning over any serious work to us. Both we and the blacks lost the ballgame before we ever got up to play. In order to live you’ve got to have nerve; and we were stripped of our nerve before we began. Black is ugly and female is inferior. These are the primary lessons of our experience, and in these ways both blacks and women have been kept, not as functioning nationals, but rather as operating objects, but a human being who remains as a child throughout his adult life is an object, not a mature specimen, and the definition of a child is: one without responsibility.

At the very center of all human life is energy, psychic energy. It is the force of that energy that drives us, that surges continually up in us, that must repeatedly spend and renew itself in us, that must perpetually be reaching for something beyond itself in order to satisfy its own insatiable appetite. It is the imperative of that energy that has determined man’s characteristic interest, problem-solving. The modern ecologist attests to that driving need by demonstrating that in a time when all the real problems are solved, man makes up new ones in order to go on solving. He must have work, work that he considers real and serious, or he will die he will simply shrivel up and die. That is the one certain characteristic of human beings. And it is the one characteristic, above all others, that the accidentally dominant white male asserts is not necessary to more than half the members of the race, i.e., the female of the species. This assertion is, quite simply, a lie. Nothing more, nothing less. A lie. That energy is alive in every woman in the world. It lies trapped and dormant like a growing tumor, and at its center there is despair, hot, deep, wordless.

It is amazing to me that I have just written these words. To think that 100 years after Nora slammed the door, and in a civilization and a century utterly converted to the fundamental insights of that exasperating genius, Sigmund Freud, women could still be raised to believe that their basic makeup is determined not by the needs of their egos but by their peculiar child-bearing properties and their so-called unique capacity for loving. No man worth his salt does not wish to be a husband and father; yet no man is raised to be a husband and father and no man would ever conceive of those relationships as instruments of his prime function in life. Yet every woman is raised, still, to believe that the fulfillment of these relationships is her prime function in life and, what’s more, her instinctive choice.

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The fact is that women have no special capacities for love, and when a culture reaches a level where its women have nothing to do but “love” (as occurred in the Victorian upper classes and as is occurring now in the American middle classes), they prove to be very bad at it. The modern American wife is not noted for her love of her husband or of her children; she is noted for her driving (or should I say driven?) domination of them. She displays an aberrated, aggressive ambition for her mate and for her offspring which can be explained only by the most vicious feelings toward the self. The reasons are obvious. The woman who must love for a living, the woman who has no self, no objective external reality to take her own measure by, no work to discipline her, no goal to provide the illusion of progress, no internal resources, no separate mental existence, is constitutionally incapable of the emotional distance that is one of the real requirements of love. She cannot separate herself from her husband and children because all the passionate and multiple needs of her being are centered on them. That’s why women “Take everything personally.” It’s all they’ve got to take. “Loving” is just a substitute for an entire [illegible] being and interest. The man, who is not raised to be a husband and father specifically, and who simply loves as a single function of his existence, cannot understand her abnormal “emotionality” and concludes that this is the female nature. (Why shouldn’t he? She does too.) But this is not so. It is a result of a psychology achieved by cultural attitudes that run so deep and have gone on for so long that they are mistaken for “nature” or “instinct.”

A good example of what I mean are the multiple legends of our culture regarding motherhood. Let’s use our heads for a moment. What on earth is holy about motherhood? I mean, why motherhood rather than fatherhood? If anything is holy, it is the consecration of sexual union. A man plants a seed in a woman; the seed matures and eventually is expelled by the women; a child is born to both of them; each contributed the necessary parts to bring about procreation; each is responsible to and necessary to the child; to claim that the woman is more so than the man is simply not true; certainly it cannot be proven biologically or psychologically (please, no comparisons with baboons and penguins just now — I am sure I can supply 50 examples from nature to counter any assertion made on the subject); all that can be proven is that some one is necessary to the newborn baby; to have instilled in women the belief that their child-bearing and housewifely obligations supersedes all other needs, that indeed what they fundamentally want and need is to be wives and mothers as distinguished from being anything else, is to have accomplished an act of trickery, an act which has deprived women of the proper forms of expression necessary to that force of energy alive in every talking creature, an act which has indeed mutilated their natural selves and deprived them of their womanhood, whatever that may be, deprived them of the right to say “I” and have it mean something. This understanding, grasped whole, is what underlies the current wave of feminism. It is felt by thousands of women today, it will be felt by millions tomorrow. You have only to examine briefly a fraction of the women’s rights organizations already in existence to realize instantly that they form the nucleus of a genuine movement, complete with theoreticians, tacticians, agitators, manifestos, journals, and thesis papers, running the entire political spectrum from conservative reform to visionary radicalism, and powered by an emotional conviction rooted in undeniable experience, and fed by a determination that is irreversible.

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One of the oldest and stablest of the feminist organizations is NOW, the National Organization for Women. It was started in 1966 by a group of professional women headed by Mrs. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, the book that was the bringer of the word in 1963 to the new feminists. NOW has more than 3000 members, chapters in major cities and on many campuses all over the country, and was read, at its inception, into the Congressional Record. It has many men in its ranks and it works, avowedly within the system, to bring about the kind of reforms that will result in what it calls a “truly equal partnership between men and women” in this country. It is a true reform organization filled with intelligent, liberal, hard-working women devoted to ­the idea that America is a reformist democracy and ultimately will respond to the justice of their cause. They are currently hard at work on two major issues: repeal of the abortion laws and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (for which feminists have been fighting since 1923) which would amend the constitution to provide that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” When this amendment is passed, the employment and marriage laws of more than 40 states will be affected. Also, in direct conjunction with the fight to have this amendment passed, NOW demands increased child-care facilities to be established by law on the same basis as parks, libraries, and public schools.

NOW’s influence is growing by leaps and bounds. It is responsible for the passage of many pieces of legislation meant to wipe out discrimination against women, and certainly the size and number of Women’s Bureaus, Women’s units, Women’s Commissions springing up in government agencies and legislative bodies all over the country reflects its presence. Suddenly, there are Presidential reports and gubernatorial conferences and congressional meetings — all leaping all over each other to discuss the status of women. NOW, without a doubt, is the best established feminist group.

From NOW we move, at a shocking rate of speed, to the left. In fact, it would appear that NOW is one of the few reformist groups, that mainly the feminist groups are radical, both in structure and in aim. Some, truth to tell, strike a bizarre and puzzling note. For instance, there is WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy From Hell), an offshoot of SDS, where members burned their bras and organized against the Miss America Pageant in a stirring demand that the commercially useful image of female beauty be wiped out. There is Valerie Solanas and her SCUM Manifesto, which Solanas’s penetrating observation on our national life was: “If the atom bomb isn’t dropped, this society will hump itself to death.” There is Cell 55. God knows what they do.

There are the Redstockings, an interesting group that seems to have evolved from direct action into what they call “consciousness-raising.” That means, essentially, that they get together in a kind of group therapy session and the women reveal their experiences and feelings to each other in an attempt to analyze the femaleness of their psychology and their circumstances, thereby increasing the invaluable weapon of self-understanding.

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And finally, there are the Feminists, without a doubt the most fiercely radical and intellectually impressive of all the groups. This organization was begun a year ago by a group of defectors from NOW and various their feminist groups, in rebellion against the repetition of the hierarchical structure of power in these other groups. Their contention was: women have always been “led”; if they join the rank and file of a feminist organization they are simply being led again. It will still be someone else, even if only the officers of their own interesting group, making the decisions, doing the planning, the executing, and so on. They determined to develop a leaderless society whose guiding principle was participation by lot. And that is precisely what they have done. The organization has no officers, every woman sooner or later performs every single task necessary to the life and aims of the organization, and the organization is willing to temporarily sacrifice efficiency in order that each woman may fully develop all the skills necessary to autonomous functioning. This working individualism is guarded fiercely by a set of rigid rules regarding attendance, behavior, duties, and loyalties.

The Feminists encourage extensive theorizing on the nature and function of a leaderless society, and this has led the organization to a bold and radical view of the future they wish to work for. The group never loses sight of the fact that its primary enemy is the male-female role system which has ended in women being the oppressed and men being the oppressors. It looks forward to a time when this system will be completely eradicated: To prepare for this coming, it now denounces all the institutions which encourage the system, i.e., love, sex, and marriage. It has a quota on married women (only one-third of their number are permitted to be either married or living in a marriage-like situation). It flatly names all men as the enemy. It looks forward to a future in which the family as we know it will disappear, all births will be extra-uterine, children will be raised by communal efforts, and women once and for all will cease to be the persecuted members of the race.

Although a lot of this is hard to take in raw doses, you realize that many of these ideas represent interesting and important turns of thought. First of all, these experiments with a leaderless society are being echoed everywhere: in student radicalism, in black civil rights, in hippie communes. They are part of a great radical lusting after self-determination that is beginning to overtake this country. This is true social revolution, and I believe that feminism, in order to accomplish its aims now, does need revolution, does need a complete overthrow of an old kind of thought and the introduction of a new kind of thought. Secondly, the Feminists are right: most of what men and women now are is determined by the “roles” they play, and love is an institution, full of ritualized gestures and positions, and often void of any recognizable naturalness. How, under the present iron-bound social laws, can one know what is female nature and what is female role? (And that question speaks to the source of the whole female pain and confusion.) It is thrilling to contemplate a new world, brave or otherwise, in which men and women may free themselves of some of the crippling sexual poses that now circumscribe their lives, thus allowing them some open and equitable exchange of emotion, some release of the natural self which will be greeted with resentment from no one.

But the Feminists strike a wrong and rather hysterical note when they indicate that they don’t believe there is a male or female nature, that all is role. I believe that is an utterly wrong headed notion. Not only do I believe there is a genuine male or female nature in each of us, but I believe that what is most exciting about the new world that may be coming is the promise of stripping down to that nature, of the complementary elements in those natures meeting without anxiety, of our different biological tasks being performed without profit for one at the expense of the other.

The Feminists’ position is extreme and many of these pronouncements are chilling at first touch. But you quickly realize that this is the harsh, stripped-down language of revolution, that is, the language of icy “honesty,” of narrow but penetrating vision. (As one Feminist said sweetly, quoting her favorite author: “In order to have a revolution you must have a revolutionary theory).” And besides, you sue for thousands and hope to collect hundreds.

Many Feminists, though, are appalled by the Feminists (the in-fighting in the movement is fierce); feel they are fascists, “superweak,” annihilatingly single-minded, and involved in a power play no matter what they say; but then again you can find feminists who will carefully and at great length put down every single feminist group going. But there’s one great thing about these chicks: if five feminists fall out with six groups, within half an hour they’ll all find each other (probably somewhere on Bleecker Street), within 48 hours a new splinter faction will have announced its existence, and within two weeks the manifesto is being mailed out. It’s the mark of a true movement.

Two extremely intelligent and winning feminists who are about to “emerge” as part of a new group are Shulamith Firestone, an ex-Redstocking, and Anne Koedt, an ex-Feminist, and both members of the original radical group, New York Radical Women. They feel that none of the groups now going has the capacity to build a broad mass movement among the women of this country and they intend to start one that will. Both are dedicated to social revolution and agree with many of the ideas of many of the other radical groups. Each one, in her own words, comes equipped with “impeccable revolutionary credentials.” They come out of the Chicago SDS and the New York civil rights movement. Interestingly enough, like many of the radical women in this movement, they were converted to feminism because in their participation in the New Left they met with intolerable female discrimination. (“Yeah, baby, comes the revolution.… Meanwhile, you make the coffee and later I’ll tell you where to hand out the leaflets.” And when they raised the issue of women’s rights with their radical young men, they were greeted with furious denunciations of introducing divisive issues! (Excuse me, but haven’t we been here before?)

The intention of Miss Firestone and Miss Koedt is to start a group that will be radical in aim but much looser in structure than anything they’ve been involved with; it will be an action group, but everyone will also be encouraged to theorize, analyze, create; it will appeal to the broad base of educated women; on the other hand, it will not sound ferocious to the timid non-militant woman. In other words…

I mention these two in particular, but at this moment in New York, in Cambridge, in Chicago, in New Haven, in Washington, in San Francisco, in East Podunk — yes! believe it! — there are dozens like them preparing to do the same thing. They are gathering fire and I do believe the next great moment in history is theirs. God knows, for my unborn daughter’s sake, I hope so.