[National Review; September 30, 2013]
Enough of Anger: Why I gave up feminist activism
Sorting through some old boxes in the basement, I ran across a manila envelope stuffed with 40-year-old women’s lib literature. It was right under the Earth Shoes. Back then, I was a mother-earth-type hippie, and an enthusiastic “women’s libber” (then the prevailing term of choice). In the envelope I found an assortment of leaflets protesting the nuclear family (inherently oppressive) and warning against “female hygiene deodorant,” “the myth of the vaginal orgasm,” and other threats to womankind. There were some huffy letters I’d written to the campus newspaper, and mimeographed flyers for the campus women’s group. The pride of the collection was a 1971 copy of the classic feminist guide to health and sexuality, Our Bodies Ourselves. This was the pre-mainstream edition, published by the New England Free Press, stapled together and priced at 40 cents.
What turned out to be most revealing, though, was an old issue of Off Our Backs, the underground newspaper of the radical feminists of Washington, DC. I was briefly a volunteer on the staff and helped lay out this issue. I saved it because it carried my review of a movie titled La Salamandre, which I haven’t thought about since.
It was a whole different world. You can travel back in time to this moment when hopes were high and the movement was at full boil. We looked ahead to a future very different from the one that came about.
The issue, dated February-March 1973, led with a report on the sixth national conference of NOW, the National Organization for Women. It’s a rather cranky report, because the authors were fed up with NOW being so wishy-washy. You see, at the conference NOW’s president, Wilma Scott Heide, had stated that a “masculine mystique” ruled our society, and that it must be overturned by a “profound universal behavioral revolution.” She said that mild forms of social action, like boycotts, had proved ineffective, so the movement must become more militant—sit-ins, teach-ins, “anything short of violence.” For example, the Federal Communications Commission had failed to practice affirmative action, so women should just take over the stations.
Scorn fairly drips from the reporter’s pen: “Such tactics are clearly not directed at the liberation of a free space for women, a women’s culture, or variants of lesbian separatist proposals, but at joining the ‘man’s world.’” Indeed, NOW’s stated purpose, “to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society,” is deplorable, in the writer’s view: it allows “the basic structure of that society, which necessarily keeps most women in the mainstream of the home and low-paying jobs, to go unchallenged.”
This happened to be the first issue since the Roe v Wade decision, and the opinion—you guessed it—is that it doesn’t go far enough. “[W]hat was won was only a significant first start in a continuing struggle.” That decision allowed states to regulate abortion in the second and third trimester, but we must persevere in “making abortions a matter of choice during the entire pregnancy.”
Leafing forward we come to the second installment in a series titled “Experiments in Hostility.” The author describes three recent incidents in which she tried to confront sexism: at a party, in a college classroom, and in the studio audience of the Dick Cavett show. She recommends hissing. The article is accompanied by a rather alarming castration cartoon. Hissing is better.
Much of what we meet on these pages is long gone, and it’s a good thing. Lesbian separatist communities were never going to be more than a gleam in somebody’s eye. The odd-looking neologism “chairone” was never likely to replace the old, sexist “chairman.” Sappho was a Right-on Woman didn’t set a new style for edgy book titles. Today, could you call anyone a “male chauvinist pig” with a straight face?
I had completely forgotten about “consciousness raising groups.” These gatherings aimed to be part group therapy and part feminist training, and the NOW convention included a workshop on setting up such groups. But the room was too small, and the audience grew testy, and complained they weren’t receiving the instruction they needed. One participant pointed out their error: “The whole point of [consciousness raising] is to change that cast of mind which makes you feel you have to get expert advice for everything. Consciousness raising is not a skill you can learn from experts.”
Some of the movement’s hopes and plans are almost poignantly absurd. The 18-month goals announced at the NOW conference included “Getting rid of sexism on the Dean Martin show, removal of ‘My wife, I think I’ll keep her’ ads by Geritol, and eliminating the blatant sexism in children’s tv cartoons and shows.” A member of the audience recommended they eliminate sexism in government advertising, too.
And did you think Marlo Thomas’s album of children’s songs, Free to Be You and Me took a progressive, feminist stance? (I sure did; I played it for my children.) Nope, for despite the songs’ emphasis on breaking gender stereotypes, most still pair girl characters with boy characters, and thus “assume and reinforce traditional family roles.”
There’s an interview with a lesbian couple who are trying to set up a “Continental Baths for women” in a health club on 56th Street. They were faced with the dilemma that the very successful mens’ baths were forthrightly about connecting with sexual partners, and that wasn’t how women think. As “womanager” Cheryl puts it, “If you want to sell a women’s lib idea you don’t want a place that is built toward sexual exploitation.”
Most endearing in this issue was a young woman’s notes on first visits to a lesbian bar. She wore a long skirt the first time, and was immediately asked to dance by a “Bogart-voiced” woman who advised her to try to be “a little butcher.” The following week she wore jeans, and “I may as well have had a sex change.” The women who had previously asked her to dance ignored her, and the women in skirts expected her to ask them to dance. The entrenched sex-stereotyping does not escape her notice.
She had some advice for newcomers to the scene: “First of all, expect an inordinate emphasis on dancing in Gayland. I sometimes wonder if we homosexuals really want to dance as much as our culture insists upon. The theory may be that if we didn’t dance, we’d forget we were gay.”
With all that dancing there’s the problem of who leads. If you not good at this, “say so rather than dragging her leadenly around the floor.” After shuffling “some poor girl around the floor for a few minutes, she looks at me as if I’ve committed some masterpiece of deception. ‘You,” she glowers accusingly, ‘aren’t as butch as you look.’”
Finally, women have to push beyond their comfort zones and learn how to initiate conversations with women they don’t know. “If they didn’t…you’d have a whole room full of women sitting and smiling and looking pretty and no one would ever meet anybody.”
The most horrifying entry in this issue (apart from that castration cartoon) is an essay by a woman recounting the misery she endured because it was a holiday, and her 8-year-old and her “man” were home for the day. (A female houseguest is also present, but “she has worked on self-development for 10 years now & tends to play less games than most people.”) The author dreads the day-long presence of these two you would assume she loves, but tries to set a positive tone with some piano playing. Soon she is screaming at the man to “get out,” but when he complies she screams that he’s a coward, and slams his chair around till it’s in pieces. At this point “the kids say o dear & put the chair back together.” (There are no upper-case letters in this piece, but my software likes to restore them.) She decides to watch TV, but when the 8-year-old tries to quiet the baby it results in a baby who can’t be consoled because she is “too busy suffering full volume.” The author turns up the TV volume and stares at the screen “resolutely.” When the show is over she goes out on the patio to scream “I hate holidays I hate holidays I hate holidays I hate holidays I hate holidays I hate holidays I hate holidays” while the baby cries “momma momma.”
What an inferno. The author concludes her story by pointing out that what she has suffered this day is actually “a political problem.” Since “everyone has holidays, everyone suffers through them” and must find some way to cope. “I wouldn’t recommend playing the piano. Everyone can tell yr doing it, which is an open invitation to come smash you.”
She concludes that, next holiday, she take a tranquilizer as soon as she wakes up, and will “refuse to play sacrificial lamb again. Next time I will not be the one to collapse on the patio crying ‘how can I fight loneliness when I’m always alone how can I fight loneliness when I’m always alone how can I fight loneliness when I’m always alone how can I fight loneliness when I’m always alone how can I.’ Next time if I want to be happy on a goddamn holiday I goddamn will be happy.”
Whew. But truthfully, the problem here has less to do with feminism than with the Human Potential Movement, a 60’s phenomenon which sought to unleash the immense potential hidden within each person. It resulted in people who “worked on self-development” and “play less games than most people.” The movement’s emphasis on getting “real” and revealing your “gut feelings” unfortunately turned some susceptible people into emotional bullies and fountains of self-pity. When it was paired with the “stay angry” element of any liberation movement, it had the potential to unleash some really miserable, and misery-inflicting, personalities.
That was why I began to withdraw from the feminist movement, not too long after I put these papers aside. I did it because I realized I was angry all the time. I was always scrutinizing things for sexism—movies, advertising, conversation, everything. I began to sense how addictive this kind of self-righteous anger can be. It wipes away ambivalence and self-doubt, making guilt feelings unnecessary. I was wronged, the seductive thinking goes, so anything I do is justified. If others think it “wrong,” it’s only evidence of how much sexism has damaged us all.
I realized that I was turning into a kind of person I didn’t want to be, and withdrew from active participation, though without changing my opinions. Those were changed by real life experiences—marriage and child-rearing. I was floored to discover that little girls really do prefer dolls and pretty dresses, even if you clothe them in blue jeans and keep giving them toy trucks in their hand. There was something deeper, more ancient, more body-based in gender roles than I had realized.
That’s no excuse for cruelty and injustice, and where there are excesses it is right to protest and seek change. But I could no longer deny that (most) males and females really like their opposite-ness; they like to joke about and exaggerate it, and this was something feminist theory was never going to be able to change. People savor and celebrate this opposite-ness because the difference between the sexes is where new life comes from. Perpetuating the species is serious business, but it’s also a source of great joy—not only in that moment of creation but for the length of your children’s lives. This biological reality is so vast and deep in the human race that you just can’t fight it. Before long I didn’t even want to.
I wonder what happened to all the other women who felt as zealous and uncompromising as I did, forty years ago. As in any population, the majority of us were heterosexual, and that tends to nudge women toward pairing up with a man and having babies. In that process a lot of us found we were longing for things we never expected to. Whatever our theories, real life had some tricks up its sleeve. I’m glad that it did.