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.
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.
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 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.
Carolyn Heilbrun, author of many books including the classic Writing a Woman’s Life, and the first woman to get tenure in Columbia’s influential English department, was born ninety years ago this week.
Taking as its starting point Virginia Woolf’s remark that “very few women have yet written truthful autobiographies,” Heilbrun moves through the work of writers like Woolf, Dorothy Sayers, Eudora Welty, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and others to explore how self-perception, nostalgia and romanticization shape the stories women writers tell in different forms: “she may tell it in what she chooses to call autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process.” Read more
I watched Selma last night and really enjoyed it. As usual, I agree with what Eileen Jones says: it’s a great and rare-for-movies portrayal of political strategy and tactics. I was especially impressed by how many different activists were given important and distinct parts: Hosea Williams, John Lewis, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young: we get a sense of their particular work without any cheap backstories.
But there was one, very small touch that really struck me: the way the family treated the story of Viola Liuzzo. I knew just a little about her story, mostly the outlines of her story Corey mentions in his wonderful post: that of a white mother of 5 and local activist from Detroit who heeded King’s call to come lend aid to the march, only to be murdered right after the third and triumphant march by KKK members as she drove marchers back to Selma. When I saw her introduced in the film, I couldn’t help but wonder how they would handle this: portraying this senseless loss just after the moment of great triumph. That’s not the way the scripts go, and who would have blamed Ava Duvernay or the film for leaving it out? But they don’t. It’s right there in those usually triumphant final titles: we read: Viola Liuzzo was murdered 5 hours after this speech just as the music swells. It’s not a story of sacrifice and then triumph: the sacrifices just keep coming.
Most days I take my son to school on the bus and there are a couple of high schoolers who ride it regularly. Recently I heard them complain about their English teacher and why she kept talking about racism and King: “We get it. He made a good speech. Get over it.” I understand the resistance of many to using a Hollywood film, even a very good one, as the basis for education, but there’s no doubt Selma offers lots of people a lot more than what they’ve been getting.
Here are ten remarkable essays or articles I read in 2015: not the best but ten that have stayed with me. My only rule was that I picked ten from ten different publications to spread the love around. A few of these were published before 2015, but I read them all this year, and none of them are too tied to any news cycle, so in my humble option they are all worth taking a look at.
- “Voice and Hammer: Harry Bellafonte’s Unfinished Fight” by Jeff Sharlet in Virginia Quarterly Review. A few days ago it was Frank Sinatra’s birthday and I saw a few people send around Gay Talese’s classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” the original “write-around” that solves the how to write about the very written about problem. Sharlet’s essay reads like that, if Sinatra had been a lifelong tireless radical and truly important political figure. It brilliantly does the thing some of my favorite profiles do: make you realize how little you knew about an iconic figure.
Twenty years ago this week, Johnnie Tillmon, activist and chairperson of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), died at the age of 69. It’s a particularly bleak commentary on the nature of backlash that Tillmon died a year before the passage of Clinton’s welfare reform bill. I was in college at the time and learning about feminism pretty intensively. I knew the bill was bad news, the consolidation of Reagan’s disgusting scapegoating of poor women, a cynical attempt to “beat” the Republicans by selling out key members of the Democratic coalition who had no where else to go. But I didn’t realize just how cynical and disgusting until I came across Tillmon’s classic essay, “Welfare is a Women’s Issue,” I think through its reprint in Ms. which I was reading religiously.* Tilmmon cast all that pap about the “dignity of work” and indignity of welfare aside and memorably laid down the real indignity: a system that made people submit to invasive controls to prove themselves worth of sums woefully inadequate to care for children: Read more
So Playboy is apparently bowing to the reality of the internet age and giving up on naked pictures. In elegizing the magazine’s relevance, the Times makes an interesting aside about its relationship to the feminist movement, stating “Even those who disliked it cared enough to pay attention — Gloria Steinem, the pioneering feminist, went undercover as a waitress, or Playboy Bunny, in one of Mr. Hefner’s spinoff clubs to write an exposé for Show Magazine in 1963.” This isn’t quite wrong but it’s a little misleading: in 1963 Steinem wasn’t a well-known feminist but a young freelance writer just starting to find serious work; the Playboy piece ending up standing in the way of that.
As the Times points out, the original Playboy’s version of the good life – (“cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, . . a little mood music . . .a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex”) now feels if anything a bit quaint. What’s interesting is how, in its early decades, it cast itself as rebelling against two cultural forces that were themselves deeply opposed: first, the traditional domesticity of the fifties, and second, the feminist movement.
As Barbara Ehrenreich notes in her great and under-read The Hearts of Men, the first feature article in the 1953 first issue of Playboy was an attack on alimony. The enemy in the early years were gold-diggers, wives, and all varieties of domesticity. Remarkably, some of the “personal” descriptions of miserable marriages actually sound a bit like what would be published in the radical feminist journals I’m studying 20 years later – except of course that it’s only the men who are miserable, and the wives are laughing at their good fortune to be kept in a life of card-playing and TV-watching.
Not that Hefner and feminists saw any common ground. In 1970, a secretary at Playboy discovered and leaked to women’s lib. groups a memo Hefner had written about an upcoming story on the movement. As Bonnie Dow outlines in Watching Women’s Liberation, some female editors thought the story lacked balance. Hef doubled down: “‘these chicks are our natural enemy'” and it is time to do battle with them . . .What I want is a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart.”
Many, many trees have died in all that has been written about how much the anti-porn turn of the feminist movement hurt and divided the movement. But if you look at what Miss America was in 1968, when it was the target of a famous protest, or what Playboy was, you understand why they thought they were on to something, and it’s difficult to imagine the Hef of 1970 would have been any more positively disposed towards a movement with a more nuanced reading of what constituted sexual expression or exploitation. But now Playboy is trying to make itself relevant with a female, sex-positive advice columnist. More has changed than the technology by which 12 year olds get their fix.
“Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.”
Happy 125th birthday to Julius Henry Marx, aka Groucho Marx. I used to watch Duck Soup every day I was home sick from school. My father is a relentless pun-maker who loved to imitate Groucho’s rapid-fire style. I sometimes felt like I was playing Margaret Dumont, his unflappable straight woman dowager. I didn’t get a lot of it of course but I sort of loved the insulting double entendres, the loving feel behind them. In real life Margaret Dumont was a widow, like her characters, but not a wealthy one. She made movies to make a living, and the professionalism of not cracking up still astounds me.
Another fun fact: my son’s middle name is Julius, for my father’s father, and we like to joke it’s for Julius Rosenberg since is first name is for Ethel, my mother’s mother, but since I found out it was Groucho’s real name I’ve taken to thinking it’s for him too.