Today in Anti-War History: Norman Morrison, 1933-1965

On this day in 1965, a young father and devout Quaker named Norman Morrison set himself on fire underneath the office of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara  to protest the Vietnam War.

In her essay about her trip to Hanoi, Susan Sontag would remember that nearly everyone she met would make a point of telling her that they loved American people, it was only the government that was the enemy. As evidence they would talk about their admiration for Morrison, whose picture she found the taxi drivers had attached to their dashboards.

 

 

Today in Feminist History: Kate Millett and Time Magazine

millett

 

On August 31, 1970, Kate Millett appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Probably this was the first, last, and only time the cover of Time has featured some one who became famous for a feminist PhD thesis turned book. The cover story was actually a group of articles – along with the central piece there was a profile of Millett’s life as an artist, and a pair of “pro/con” essays on feminism by Gloria Steinem and Lionel Tiger. The main article too, zig zags between pro- and anti-feminist statements, often quoting anonymous “average” people representing different viewpoints without much connective tissue. The mockery of feminism we’ve come to expect is there, but so is a sense that something big is happening and Time is struggling to keep up, trying to make sense of it all and walk a middle line when none may be available.

If the Time pieces tell us a lot about how the mainstream was struggling to respond to radical feminism, it couldn’t encompass much about the book itself, which, like Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, and Celestine Ware’s Woman Power, both also appeared in 1970, mixed disciplines and tones for a mix of scholarship and polemic, marked above all by the scope of their ambition. Sexual Politics is structured in three main parts, with the first and last devoted to critiques of authors who were darlings of the counterculture for their sexual frankness, including D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and, of course, Norman Mailer. These are the parts most people talk, but the middle section is the real heart of the argument, as she traces an overall pattern of liberation and backlash from the nineteenth century onward. It includes comprehensive readings of a range of Victorian authors from Ruskin to the Brontes. I’ve always known about the Nazi’s pro-natalist ideology but the first time I ever about the specific policies the Nazis implemented to turn back feminist progress, like instituting university quotas, was when I read Kate Millett.

Norman Mailer may have thought she was coming for his balls, and Irving Howe may have sneered at her “middle class mind,” but reading the book, you can’t help but feel that her real sin was actually taking what she’d been taught seriously, actually thinking that literature isn’t a parlor game but actually has something to say about the world.

 

 

Sadly, the mixed bag of the August 1970 coverage was better than what was to come. In December of the same year, they ran an article called “Women’s Lib: A Second Look,” which attacked Millett’s bisexuality as a way to attack the movement. Many of her later books deal with the personal fall out of her time in the spotlight and her struggles to continue to work as an artist. In 1998 she wrote an essay called “Out of the Loop and Out of Print” and she wondered in response to the latest “who killed feminism” tone, how an out of print author could do that.

Since then, there’s been more attention to the books and Sexual Politics in particular, with a new edition in 2000 and another one earlier this year along with some interesting pieces about Millett and her relevance.

But in an odd way, I think, the weird back and forth of the August Time piece, reflects something no retrospective can: the feeling of instability, that everything is up for grabs.  To my mind what was present in 1970 and was lacking so long after (and perhaps seems to be coming back now) was not a reverential sense of the “power of literature” as many retrospectives focus on.  It’s the intellectual ambition, idiosyncratic nature of books like Millett’s, Firestone’s and Ware’s, all of which blend disciplines and tones, mixing critique and utopian longing.

Norman Mailer certainly had some sense of that when he devoted a whole book, The Prisoner of Sex, to attacking Millett. The high-Mailerism is on display of course – he refers to himself in the 3rd person and comparing including statistics in writing to thinking about laundry lists while fucking. And yet, his actual response to Millett is not much different from the mainstream: he concedes pretty much the whole of the liberal demands for economic equality, but lamenting the more radical claims for “a cultural revolution and a sexual revolution.” If this is revolution, he notes, maybe he’s not a revolutionary after all.

 

“This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again,” James Baldwin, Mailer’s one-time friend with whom he argued with perhaps a little more respect but little more understanding, had written in 1955. In 1970, it seemed even to Mailer that the world was no longer male, and would never be male again.

 

Today in Feminist History: Pittsburgh Press vs. Pittsburgh Commission

On June 21, 1973, in an opinion written by Justice Lewis Powell, the Supreme Court ruled against the Pittsburgh Press, which had claimed that a Pittsburgh ordinance banning sex-segregated job ads violated their freedom of the press. The court had that local authorities were permitted to prohibit commercial speech advertising illegal services and that descriminatory hiring was illegal under the ordinance.

An appendix of listings from the paper told the story of what this discrimination meant in practice: the first few jobs listed under “Jobs – Male Interest” on January 4, 1970 and their salaries read as follows:

ACAD. INSTRUCTORS. . . . . . . . .$13,000

ACCOUNTANTS. . . . . . . . . . . . 10,000

ADM. ASS’T, CPA . . . . . . . .. . 15,000

ADVERTISING MGR. . . . . . . . . . 10,000

BOOKKEEPER F-C. . . . . . . .. . . 9,000.

“Female Interest” went like this:

ACAD. INSTRUCTORS. . . . . . . . .$13,000

ACCOUNTANTS. . . . . . . . . . . . 6,000

AUTO-INS. UNDERWRITER. . . . . . . OPEN

BOOKKEEPER-INS . . . . . . . . . . 5,000

CLERK-TYPIST . . . . . . . . . . . 4,200

(Full list is found here. The male-female “interest” designation was a modification-without a difference the Pittsburgh Press had taken on to replace the traditional “male help wanted.”)

In theory, job discrimination on the basis of sex became illegal under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was added in under strange and fascinating circumstances – according to some accounts as a joke, to others as an attempt at a poison pill.  As Gillian Thomas’s book outlines, it took many years of case law to make this theoretical right at least something of a reality. The desegregation of the ads in the New York Times was an early victory for the National Organization for Women, which in those early years was populated with many women with experience in journalism and in similarly highly visible but low-paid and highly-discriminatory media industries.  The Pittsburgh case was also driven by NOW, with the Pittsburgh chapter having helped passed the ordinance challenged by the Press. 

As I’ve been immersed in reading feminist history, the role of local NOW chapters during this key years is interesting for a number of reasons.  With its focus on ending formal discrimination in the workplace and the public sphere and the passage of the ERA, NOW is often seen as the embodiment of “liberal,” reformist feminism, as opposed to the radical groups that emphasized utopian reworking of every gendered aspect of society, especially sexuality and the family.

There’s a lot to the distinction in terms of how activists at the time saw themselves and their goals. Today, however, when the history of cases like Pittsburgh isn’t much remembered, the label can obscure as much as it tells us, as associated as its become with elitism. NOW and the ERA movement were both mainstream and grassroots. Talk to women from that generation, and you’re as likely to hear stories about the friends involved with their local chapter or ERA campaign as with a consciousness-raising group.  And not insignificantly, NOW and its leadership were by many accounts more diverse than many highly visible radical movements. With certain politicians who shall remain nameless capturing the mantle of inside-the-system activists, the activist part of that equation gets lost. Whatever causes they espouse, most politicians (to say nothing of celebrities with book contracts) don’t belong in the same category as someone like Wilma Scott Heide, the head of the Pittsburgh chapter and later President of NOW, tireless ERA campaigner and the activist most responsible for the Pittsburgh Press victory.

Last year Jill Lepore had a fascinating piece in the New Yorker about why the nineteenth amendment,  unlike the fourteenth, became a kind of dead branch of law. I’d read a lot of versions of the argument that it would have been better had Griswold, Roe and other reproductive rights cases been made on the basis of equality rather than privacy, but for some reasons I hadn’t really considered the nineteenth amendment as specifically the untaken route.

Aside from the legal implications, this feels like an interesting analogue to what has happened with historical memory.  During the 1970s, many feminists wrote about the demobilization of the feminist movement after the achievement of suffrage as a cautionary tale. Tragically, more than any of the many victories, it was the loss of ERA that played the largest role.   The fact that so many victories from this period came through cases like Pittsburgh perhaps speaks to why the movement is more often remembered through a handful of celebrities and cultural tropes than through its actual significant accomplishments.

At the same time, however, it’s a mistake to see these victories as evidence for the efficacy of insider strategy at the expense of street action and agitation. Without Heide and countless activists like her, there would have been no court cases to win. Behind important cases like EEOC vs. Sears were the activists who organized, shared information, selected targets, and shifted public mores to such an extent that these victories were possible. Whatever opportunists try to sell us, even to be an inside agitator, you have have stepped far enough outside to know what needs agitating.

Novels and Children

When I was in college, one of the first books of “theory” I read was Roland Barthes Mythologies. It’s a lovely book that I hope people still read, even though many of its reference points were already pretty obscure twenty years ago. It’s one of those books that was called “theory” because they didn’t know what else to call it, although just plain criticism, or better yet, essays, would have done.

One of the little essays is called “Novels and Children.” It starts like this:

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Two Virginia Woolf Passages in Search of an Essay

In two weeks I’m heading up to the “happy valley” in Western Massachusetts for my 20th college reunion at Smith College. I’m working on an essay about this – not about me or being forty-one or about the turning of the generations, but about the place, its history and what, if anything, it still means to spend time in a place dedicated to women’s education, history, experiences.

When I’ve visited recently, especially when there are no students there, I keep thinking about its beauty – it’s such an obvious thing, the beauty of the place, but you forget it, and it has to mean something. And the quietness when the students are not there, but that everything is waiting for them, the care that is given to help us believe we are cared for:

“A. Williams – one may read it in the moonlight; and next to it some Mary or Eleanor, Mildred, Sarah, Phoebe upon square cards on their doors. All names, nothing but names. The cool white light withered them and starched them until it seemed as if the only purpose of all those names was to rise martially in order should there be a call on them to extinguish a fire, suppress an insurrection, or pass an examination. Such is the power of names written upon cards pinned on doors. Such too the resemblance, what with tiles, corridors, and bedroom doors, to dairy or nunnery, a place of seclusion or discipline, where the bowl of milk stands cool and pure and there’s a great washing of linen.”

Virginia Woolf, “A Woman’s College from Outside,” 1928

In Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy writes she was grateful for her Catholic education, in spite of everything because it was a history, a narrative, that she could reject and modify but it got her into the story. Looking at the world Smith gave me, I think something like that – it was not perfect in all sots of ways I want to give proper attention and space to – but it was a history. For many of us, you could be ambivalent or reject assets of the history, the traditions, but few were apathetic to it. It didn’t make a utopia, it may or may not have made a counterculture, but it was an experience, it was something, it wasn’t a place you went to pass the time. And so I go back to Woolf:

she lay in this good world, this new world, the world at the end of the tunnel, until a desire to see it or forestall it drove her, tossing her blankets, to guide herself to the window, ad there, looking out upon the garden, where the mist lay, all the windows open, one fiery-bluish, something murmuring in the distance, the world of course, and the morning coming. “Oh,” she cried, as if in pain.

Today in Feminist History: Speaking of Jewish Socialists . . .

Speaking of Jewish socialists: on this day in 1882, Rose Schneiderman was born in Savin, Poland. After her family immigrated to the United States, her education was interrupted by her family’s poverty. When the more “respectable” job of salesgirl didn’t make enough, she turned to the factories. After successfully organizing her fellow workers into the United Cloth and Cap Makers, she became the first woman elected union official.  She helped lead the great shirtwaist strike of 1909-1910, led New York Women’s Trade Union League, ran for Senate on the Labor Party ticket, worked on labor legislation with the FDR administration, and resettle Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.  Read more

Today in Feminist History: Flo Kennedy, 1916-2000

February 11 is Flo Kennedy’s 100th birthday.  A lawyer who defended the Black Panthers and was instrumental to winning abortion rights in New York State, a founder of the Feminist Party that nominated Shirley Chisholm for President, a long time star of the speaking circuit that spread feminist ideals and supported feminist work, who built coalitions with a range of organizations and activists ranging from Adam Clayton Powell to Gloria Steinem. She was famous for her quips and style and she was incredibly effective.  Kennedy breaks down all the lazy categories people rely on to separate idealists from pragmatists and talkers from doers, and reminds us that social justice coalitions across race and gender lines are possible whatever their challenges. I just ordered the recently published biography by Sherie Randolph which I’ve heard wonderful things about. I’m especially looking forward to an account of the protest mentioned in her 2000 obituary, of leading a “mass urination” to protest the lack of women’s restrooms at Harvard.

Absent Fathers and Present Mothers: Reading Mary Gordon and Alison Bechdel

In Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechtel quotes from Virginia Woolf’s diaries in which she reports that her great novels about her parents, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse could not have been written while her parents were still alive.

That Woolf reports this as a matter of simple, unsentimental fact seems another thing that depends upon the absence of her parents. For Bechtel, the irony is clear: that her mother is still alive is what makes Are You My Mother? a looser and messier book than Fun Home, her elegy to her absent father and investigation into his absence. Her mother keeps popping up, challenging the story, shifting out of place.  

Woolf lost her mother at 13, an event which underscores the longing romanticism with which she paints the mothers in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.  To my mind, there’s still no more devastating passage of loss than the parenthetical by which we learn of Mrs. Ramsey’s death: “(Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.)”

More often, however, it is the case that women marry older men and outlive them, that fathers leave and mothers stay, and that fathers’ inner lives are a bewilderment to their children, and that writers write books about absent fathers and present mothers. Another contemporary writer, the criminally under-read Mary Gordon, has produced in The Shadow Man and Circling My Mother a pair of memoirs that explore the legacies of an absent father and a present mother. Like Bechtel’s father, Gordon’s used intellectual pretension and artistic ambition to crush the residue of their secrets: in the case of Bechtel’s father, his attraction to men; in Gordon’s, his Jewishness.

Bechtel and Gordon wonder what it might mean to use words differently than their fathers who used them to dissemble and conceal, and both struggle with mothers who might prove to have a more unshakable relationship to language and belief than their daughters. When Gordon helps her mother, a devout Catholic, endure the terror of undergoing invasive tests while suffering from dementia by reciting the rosary she wonders how it is that there are no words in which she might find similar comfort, despite her whole sense of self being that of a writer and reader.

Part of the poignance of Gordon’s books is that her mother’s dementia places her in a limbo where self-disclosure is neither forbidden nor permitted. At one point, she decides not to escort her mother on an excursion – in part because she’s not sure if she will enjoy it but in part because she is working on her book and would rather write about her mother than spend time with her.  Sometimes I wonder if those with abusive or absent parents become writers or artists not because there is more material there, but because they are “liberated” sooner from the desire to please, placate, from the requirements of decorum. In a piece I wrote a while ago on Alison Bechtel, I talked about the ways therapy promises to essentially, kill off our parents without killing them: to kill Woolf’s angel of the house, to kill the need to please, and allow for truth. And yet, it seems to me, this is often cold comfort indeed, not only for those who mourn but for all of those, who, like Gordon and Bechtel’s absent fathers and present mothers still seek the comforts beyond truth of art or faith or beauty: that is, for all of us.

 

Friends with Books: Class War by Megan Erickson

There are books we seek out and books we discover by accident. And once in a while, if we are lucky, there are books that seem like they were written just for us.  When I first read a description of Megan Erickson’s Class Wars, which discusses education issues by way of a socialist/feminist analysis of care work, family, and the public sphere, I had that feeling: here was something for every piece of my own socialist/feminist/mother/teacher soul.  Read more

Today in Feminist History: Martha Griffiths, or What Is “Liberal Feminism” Anyways?

Today is the 104th birthday of Martha Griffiths, a ten-term congresswoman sometimes dubbed the “mother of the ERA.” Her most significant contribution, however, came as a key figure in the inclusion of women in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a hugely important and fascinating story that understandably isn’t much known – understandably because it was purposefully done behind the scenes, so as not to induce the ridicule of an establishment who by and large still saw women’s rights as a joke at best.

I’m interested in people like Griffiths right now for a lot of reasons, partly because of the way “liberal feminism” or “bourgeois feminism” are sometimes used to describe people who really really really want to see a woman President or Sheryl Sandburg pontificating at Davos.

Having been immersed in the feminist archive from the 1960s and 1970s for a better part of the last year, I think this is unfair: not to HRC of Sandburg but to liberal feminism. In the activist history of the period, there were, by and large, clear divisions between the liberal and radical wings of the movement. Liberals wanted to integrate the public sphere, the professions, and end not just job and pay discrimination but the complete job segregation that existed at the time. It’s found in figures like Griffiths, journalists like, Marlene Sanders and Judy Klemersrud, who snuck sympathetic coverage into the mainstream, and organizations like the National Organization for Women and many local and national organizations that fought for the ERA. And they fought for the reform of abortion laws – an issue on which liberals and radicals were united.

This wing was criticized by radicals who thought not only the public sphere but the family, sexuality and all human relations needed to be reconsidered. They rightly targeted figures like NOW founder Betty Friedan for their homophobia. Many saw the ERA as a distraction and the demobilization that followed its defeat suggested there was much to this. Certainly, the remarkable cultural, social and political changes could not have occurred without the radicals pushing at the wing of the possible.

At the same time, the liberals achieved a lot, starting with NOW’s huge win right at its founding when the Times desegregated its job ads. And it was a real movement – Griffith’s work was supported by a real grassroots network. Given how many forests have died over whether it matters to call oneself a feminist, I don’t have too much invested in these terms either, but if you’re interested in the real “inside/outside” dynamics of change, disingenuous claims about “making change from the inside” shouldn’t take away from the legacies of those who actually did it.