An essay by Laurie Stone
I saw the face of a friend at a Zoom event for the beloved feminist, Ann Snitow. She had died the year before, and people were gathering to think about her life and ways they missed her. I was happy to see the face of the friend on Zoom and wrote to tell her, and we exchanged a few remarks on Messenger, agreeing to speak on the phone sometime soon.
I wrote to the friend on Zoom I thought we’d first met at a party thrown in the giant apartment on West End Avenue where Nanette Rainone lived in a commune with Gwenda Blair, among others. At that time, Nanette was a radio producer and Gwenda a journalist. They were young women with power and energy. They were feminists, thinking about feminism in maybe similar ways or maybe not. The friend I saw on Zoom was younger than me, and I remembered thinking she was beautiful with slanted eyes and a face like some sort of slender animal. She was ambitious. Maybe she was already writing for the Village Voice, as I was. Maybe I had come to the party with Vivian Gornick, who knew all the feminists in the world then. I was in my early thirties. The friend I saw on Zoom recalled having interviewed Vivian on an occasion. She had an agenda to make the world more just and more free, not only for women, but for all people under some boot somewhere. She was fierce, and I was a little afraid of her, as I am by all women who seem to know where they are going and why.
Today in the bath I thought about abstract nouns such as conflict and abuse, and how much I dislike them, although I like the phrase coined by Sarah Schulman that is also the title of a book she wrote, “conflict is not abuse.” In the bath, I imagined Sarah Schulman addressing the millennials she teaches, and telling them to chill in the face of remarks they don’t like, not to see language as harming and not to shun things you feel as harms. Sarah Schulman could easily have meant something different from my interpretation because abstract language doesn’t mean anything concrete. The word conflict doesn’t mean anything concrete, and the word abuse doesn’t mean anything concrete. When words that are not concrete are used as if they are concrete and summon a world of assumed, shared understanding, I want to disagree with each example, and I don’t know why I can’t keep quiet when something bugs me. Why everyone has to know what I feel.
If you are part of a movement for social change, you are going to hear abstract language, and if you go around questioning it, people are going to hate you, and you will feel like the outsider you always make yourself into. You will ask yourself why you can’t go along, why you can’t get along, why you wind up being disloyal or being considered disloyal for slipping another wedge of thought onto the table, like a piece of cheese no one else is going to eat.
Recently I was a presenter at two other Zoom events, and at both events, women in the audience asked why women tear each other down rather than support each other. They contended that women were competitive, echoing a notion popular among people who hate feminism. I said at one of the Zoom events, “Women dislike women as much as everyone else.” I was thinking about something I didn’t say, which is that women find it easier to give themselves away to causes for the liberation of other people than to give themselves away to the liberation of women. It feels selfish. God forbid a woman should think about the interests of women. At the second Zoom event, another woman who is a feminist told the woman who asked about women fighting with each other that women were a million times nicer to women than men were to them, that women helped each other all the time, were supportive, looked out for each other. Which was also true.
How is it possible to be a human being and not feel competitive with others who have what you want, even if you also love them? Isn’t that what is meant by the term, “conflict is not abuse”? Why should women be weirded out by being thought competitive? This is a rhetorical question.
The words feminist and feminism are abstractions, in that there are no essential characteristics all feminists share and no essential understandings of what feminism is. There never were. In the 1960s, when I entered the women’s movement, everyone had her own private feminism, and some people, like Ann Snitow, were successful at working in worlds foreign to them. Ann forged alliances with women who considered themselves feminists and didn’t necessarily share her sense of what it means to be a feminist. A belief no matter what in abortion rights? Not everyone who calls themselves a feminist shares this view. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who doesn’t champion the right of women to abortion isn’t a feminist, but I’ve established I’m not the one you send out to make common cause amid a sea of conflict. It has come to my attention there are women who call themselves feminists who don’t concern themselves with issues of sexism and misogyny. Some of these women believe in God and in various religions, and to rummage around for even five minutes in sexism and misogyny and also hold onto the tenets of your religion will blow off the top of your head.
At the Zoom event for Ann, listening to students and friends and colleagues talk about her service to various causes for women’s liberation and to them personally, as I listened to how large a life in love and friendship she had made that was its own thing, not duplicable, how accepting and at the same time sharp-minded she was, as I listened and remembered, I felt alienated, as I always do in groups, comparing her accomplishments to my measly ones, comparing my knowledge of Ann, which wasn’t deep or probably very important to her, to her intimacy with others. One of those others was the friend I was happy to see, and I watched her face throughout the testimonies people shared, one by one, and thought she may have felt a bit out of it, too, because no one is interesting when they speak in abstractions, and most of the people used that language to describe what they did, what they loved, what they remembered, so the language was no easier to hold onto than air.
That’s when I slipped back to the party at the giant apartment of Nanette Rainone, how I had marveled at such a place with so many rooms, and women able to live together with lovers and children and conflict. How could there not be conflict, and how could they not want to help each other through this beautiful, awkward life. I missed the sense of being on the lip of everything, although I feel on the lip of things again, only this time standing on a virtual cliff in a virtual reality. The large and small details of female existence, how we talk to each other, how we can’t wait to tell each other stories, take each other’s faces in our hands when the face of a friend appears. That is one place— perhaps the deepest place—where feminism resides. Nothing is more interesting, not really, if you wake us suddenly in the middle of the night and say, “What are you? What happened to you along the way?”
Laurie Stone is a frequent essayist for Women’s Review of Books and author most recently of Everything is Personal, Notes on Now, about which Masha Gessen recently wrote in The New Yorker, “The title of the book references one of the central arguments of 1960s feminism, from which Stone hails intellectually: “The personal is political.” It also describes our current predicament—everything that is not personal has vanished—and suggests a way of thinking sharply, imaginatively, beautifully, from right here.” Her 2019 WRB essays about the #MeToo movement and Valerie Solanas feature prominently in the collection