Walking among the lush foliage of High Line Park on a recent misty morning, I encountered no one else for more than a mile. It smacked of zombie apocalypse, to be sure, but it was also a preciously peaceful experience, the kind one rarely has in high-energy New York. Similarly, I wandered through the remarkable Alice Neel retrospective at the Met a few weeks ago, which was strange, cool, and utterly hushed. On my last visit in late 2019 (to see Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll), I couldn’t get close to any of the iconic guitars because of the throngs blabbing into iPhones and yelling at wayward family members. But the Met in May of 2021—with timed tickets, limited capacity, and masked and muffled inhabitants—that enormous space was mine, as if I had the key to the city.
Having space—to walk, to think, to maneuver, to create—is a motif in this issue. A new history of Eleanor Roosevelt argues that her time in Greenwich Village—living among radicals, artists, and lesbians—enabled her to transcend the elite confinement to which she was born. Gods of the Upper Air narrates the anthropological adventures of Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, Ella Cara Deloria, and Ruth Benedict in the early twentiethcentury. They travelled the world with humility and curiosity—and helped to unmask the arbitrariness of racial categories and the folly of labeling societies as “civilized” or “primitive.” Women’s Liberation!, an anthology of radical writings of the second wave, reviewed here by millennial feminist and assistant editor Charis Caputo, “narrates the creation of language for describing reality—sexism, sexual harassment, marital rape, date rape, sisterhood, etc.—concepts that have become so commonplace we forget their origin.” Charis notes her own (and maybe her generation’s) resistance to the “white bourgeois” second wave, and her sense that that characterization itself is reductive. Shane Snowdon, “baby-boomer lesbian,” is worried that the second wave has been framed as hopelessly retrograde. In her review of Ginny Berson’s memoir of Olivia Records, Snowdon celebrates a beautiful and powerful lesbian feminism, one that engaged (in flawed but sincere ways) with many of the same questions intersectional feminists grapple with today.
Beyond recording and distributing, the women’s music movement created important feminist spaces—in this case, the festivals that brought its fans together for sex and revolution. In my experience, the conversations among attendees about power, bodies, gender, race, class, safety, etc., in those spaces was light-years ahead of the “mainstream” world. In fact, the polarization (including cancelling and boycotting) that is so prevalent today had its sneak preview in the passionate controversy over Michfest’s “womyn-born- womyn” policy. Trans inclusivity ultimately prevailed in the popular understanding of feminism, as it seems clear to me that it should. Despite its failures and oversights, feminism, as a movement, has progressed and will continue to progress toward more inclusion, rather than less.
New York City, June 2021
Prime Suspects By Laurie Stone
My selections were random, the way you fall upon things in Pandemica, yet weirdly (or tellingly), all the female characters were made to stand for something—a phenomenon, a type, a cautionary example—apart from being a particular person.
Three things in the moment you love? I’ll start. The flat gray sky that is almost the same color as the snow-covered fields. The Chopin impromptu on the radio. A plaster parrot with a green back and a yellow breast, swinging on a tree outside the window. I love this parrot.
Some months ago, I was asked to describe a book I'd written in a sentence of any length. I didn’t write the sentence. I thought for a while the reason was the election and the pandemic. I don't know the reason. Instead, I’ve been thinking about writing I want to read. The sentences I want to read are little provocations that mount like a road accident.
And something else. If I am your reader, and you are reporting a scene of violently ordinary sexism, say the way males in a particular culture get to walk ahead and females by custom and possibly by law are required to jump over a cliff onto jagged rocks—a different woman every few minutes—and the thing you are talking to me about is the conversation the men are having as they walk ahead, deaf to the cries of the women on the cliffs, if you report this conversation, full of meaning to the men and to you, if you report this conversation without telling me as well how the rest of the scene is making you feel and what it is making you think about, if you do this, I will cease to be your reader.
This is not an example of cancel culture. The reader needs to fall in love with what the narrator is in love with, and how can you be in love with what the narrator is in love with if the narrator is in love with a world bent on your destruction? Cancel culture is when you arrive at this point and insist no one should read what you don’t want to read.
I streamed four shows over the past few weeks, all centering on women, two recently released and two older works I was curious to rewatch—to see how the female characters were understood in their time and think about who I was when I first saw them. My selections were random, the way you fall upon things in Pandemica, yet weirdly (or tellingly), all the female characters were made to stand for something—a phenomenon, a type, a cautionary example—apart from being a particular person.
Prime Suspect (Hulu), which began airing thirty years ago, stars Helen Mirren as London detective Jane Tennison, a character stunningly aware of other people and truly alive only while solving murders. The men on the force sneer and ma'am her to death, including in season one a doughy, improbable boyfriend, who walks out because she’s too busy chasing a serial killer to cook dinner for him. The show is mesmerizing, partly because of Mirren’s flinty and very sexy performance and partly because it inspects what still goes on—a woman with exceptional ability having to fight against a world that doesn't want her with as much energy as she pursues criminals.
The series comes off dated at times, especially in the extra amount of punishment meted out to Jane, something the creators seem oblivious of—showing her frustrated, thwarted, starved, and denied less because of sexism than because it's how women are understood to exist in the world, fair or unfair. Whenever female characters get screwed and screwed again, despite their efforts individually or collectively, it tells the viewer not to worry, the world you woke up in remains intact. I don't think this undermining of a show’s own analysis is standard practice anymore, but it was the case for a very long time when I covered film and TV in the eighties and nineties, that denying female characters gratification, with a sadistic edge, was a glaring trend that didn't often get called what it is.
Watching the show now, I kept wondering what it would be like to speak the way Mirren does here—softly and with almost no visible emotion. Then I remembered there is freedom in knowing you won’t change. The other day the man I live with said, “I probably won't shovel snow in my late eighties.” I said, "Why not?"
For no reason I can point to, one night we decided to watch Darling (Criterion), directed by John Schlesinger and with a screenplay by Frederic Raphael. In 1965, when the movie was released, it was something everyone talked about, said to be charting the cynicism of the world and the headlong, icy way modern women went after what they wanted. They did? Seeing it now, the question you can’t help asking is: Why does Julie Christie wear so many scarves over her bouffant hair? Julie’s character, Diana Scott, is looking for a way to dodge domesticity and get to the party, and her way is through men, which leads back to some house or other, although she doesn’t foresee this.
To be honest, the movie did stir memories of the time when we all married Italian princes we had had like no conversations with and dressed up in gowns to eat alone when our husbands went to Rome to visit mama. We were bored. So bored. Bored, bored bored. Everyone adjusted their voices to the clipped, fake upper-class, crackly accent of Audrey Hepburn. Even Julie Christie! We represented the fallen world and the vacuousness of the vacuum that had opened between drab, postwar England and the swinging whatever poking up from the dead land. We (girls) represented vacuousness in every movie made, because that's what we were made to represent. (Maybe not every movie. Don’t quote me.) Directors looked at us with distaste and fascination. Obviously.
The best moment in the film: Julie beginning her affair with Dirk Bogarde by sticking a finger in his mouth as he sleeps on a train. Bogarde is beautiful and great to watch. Laurence Harvey, also a love interest, ghouls around, his mouth an unbroken line. And there we were, pacing the ancient stone paths of the castle we'd finally moved into, breaking hearts like the porcelain figurines we smashed to the floor, and wondering how in hell we were going to get out of this one. Julie got an Academy Award that year for best actress.
The past few days I’ve been thinking about my teacher Morris Dickstein, who died recently, and who in 1968 taught a seminar on Blake at Columbia University. 1968 is only a few years after 1965, but they might as well have been different eras. The Blake seminar so vibrated with the love Morris felt for the great poet of freedom and rebellion and with the love Morris felt for the students who came each week to watch ideas about life shoot from his forehead we would never forget the feeling of being there. Everyone in the class moved toward each other. One was a man named Lenny who also became a professor, and in that setting, I think we could foresee that in all the decades to come we’d find ourselves from time to time at a bar, talking as if it would always be 1968.
In the seminar, we read every word Blake wrote. We were invited to Morris's apartment. It was a time when students and faculty mixed, and if you were a student you were in awe of everything about professors. Over the years I would cross paths with Morris at screenings and book events, and I would always be happy to see him. No one knows the resonances they produce when they teach a class and the class becomes a thing. No one knows these resonances can last nearly a lifetime.
If not for the women’s movement—fully up and running by ’68—we might all have become Diana Scotts. I had friends who didn't eat in their apartments as a way to be anorexic. I would open their refrigerators, and there would be leftovers from expensive restaurants I was jealous they had gone to, and on top of bits of this and that they had scooped into aluminum tins would grow lovely, mossy topiaries. Because they didn't eat in their apartments.
Watching the four-part documentary Allen v. Farrow (HBO), the Diana Scott approach to going places floated to mind as Mia’s romantic relationships were reviewed, the way she tucked herself into the lives of men with mastery in their work while remaining insecure about her own: Frank Sinatra, André Previn, Woody Allen. Maybe in the life of every Diana Scott eventually arrives a boyfriend who will marry your daughter.
Mia’s face, bathed in light in the interviews, is still amazed at the way the world works, no evidence of irony or a sense of humor, although there is the deadpan delivery of the fact that Previn fell in love with her best friend when she was off making a movie, and that ended their marriage. Mia doesn’t mention she did the same thing years earlier to Dory Previn when she got together with André, a detail that might have shown viewers she, too, knows that people fuck the people they want to fuck. (The filmmakers and Mia also refer to Sun-Yi Previn as a “freshman in college” when Mia discovers the affair, which reads as eighteen instead of Previn’s actual age of twenty-one.) In a sense, by editing out information, Farrow and the filmmakers turn Mia into a symbol, in this case: Woman Betrayed, so that Allen will come across as an especially ruthless liar. They didn’t need to.
He does that job all by himself, appearing deeply manipulative in footage and interviews, a man who for so long has lived unimpeded in a world of his own making he seems to believe the lies he tells himself about his actions toward his family. Feeling disgust toward him as a person, I was curious to see what I’d think of his work, so I rewatched the “cloning from the nose” sequence in Sleeper (1973).
It’s hilarious. What can I tell you? With comedy, you either laugh or you don’t laugh. And if you laugh, you’ve laughed. The sequence is a Marx Brothers’ routine of schmendricks pretending to be experts at something. In this case Allen and Diane Keaton are doctors, claiming they can restore the state’s dictator by growing him from his nose, the only remnant left from an explosion. In an operating theater, stalling for time, Keaton lays out the shoes and gloves and pants the dictator will grow into from the nose, and part of the reason this is funny is that we do this all the time, stall before starting a project by loading software we won’t need, or sharpening pencils, or cleaning the studio—hoping the project will grow itself from an idea we’ve jotted on a napkin.
In other news, I regrouted the floor of the upstairs bathroom the serial-killer former owners had painted a green so absent of hope plants died there. I painted the walls the pearl gray of a moody ocean sky. The grout was too far gone to clean, so I mixed up fresh grout and went at it. The man I live with came to the door and said, “Did you read the instructions on the box?” I said, "What a good idea. Would you mind letting me know what they say?” I used to let my dog off the leash in Riverside Park, and when he would wander too far for me to see him and I would be shouting for him like a lunatic, I felt like I was going to die of fear, and I thought the dog was me in his indifference to control.
The last film I want to talk about is Nomadland (Netflix, directed by Chloé Zhao), and if you admire it, maybe skip this section. I thought the movie was dull. It couldn't find anything interesting in the people it asked us to spend time with, as if having pointed views, or talents, or interests would subvert their function as illustrations.
Illustrations of what? Disappointment in their system of government? In the inequities of wealth and opportunities for employment? In the way life ineluctably dwindles to lessness and bewilderment, no matter what you plan or don't plan? Viewing characters as sociological cases insults them and underpins the film's sentimentality. You can hear it in the heart-tugging music. And see it in the many times we see houseless main-character Fern cleaning something with a dirty rag.
The movie feels like an essay without a specific topic, and although Frances McDormand as Fern is fun to watch no matter what she does, she seems angry about having to move from joyless scene to joyless scene. Even the nice-looking food served at the Thanksgiving dinner Fern goes to looks like it wants to kill itself as a way to leave the table.
The interesting thing about Fern is that, apart from economic conditions, we really don't know why any of the things that have happened to her happened to her. The husband is a set of propositions: I married, we worked, he died. Nothing of their relationship is revealed, no sense of them together, and then the Shakespeare sonnet she recites meant to carry some ghostly load of meaning it can’t.
She's shut off from most of the people she interacts with, which seems understandable, given they aren't very compelling for one reason or another. What does she want other than to avoid people? I don't think she knows, and this, too, is interesting, but the movie doesn't want you to find Fern's lostness in herself interesting. It wants her, again, to stand for a social phenomenon.
At its most intriguing, the movie is a study in truculent aloneness. I liked Fern rejecting a slot in the Thanksgiving family and in her sister's suburban world. But I don't think the movie wants you to see it as a study in truculence. Even if you do, what does Fern want that she can't get: enough money to live without dependence on anyone else? Maybe, but then the movie would have had to make a better case for solitude instead of the tepid one it makes for communality.
Yesterday I sold the metal stool I'd bought in Arizona for some damn reason and that the man I live with had never liked. A moment ago, another man came to mind, who had caused me pain in love, and I found myself thinking: I hope you are right now feeling pain in love. I wondered if I really felt this way. I was far from the heat of that time, yet I could summon the memory if I wanted to. Flies have appeared on the railings surrounding the deck. You spray them with whatever, and a minute later they have returned, like resentment.
Bits of glass glint up in the soil above where last year we dug out trash the serial killers had dumped on our land. The plan is to cover them with wood chips. This year I will accept the plants people offer me and garden again in the I don’t really know how this works. If I had to know what I was doing before doing it, I wouldn't do anything.
For just this day the temperatures will reach the sixties, and I feel a stirring without direction. It’s like entering an elevator and hearing only part of the story before people get out. Do you have a spare room? Are there ants there? What is the Wi-Fi password? On the road I walk, I pass a house owned by a priest I once met who has recently died. I remember the bulbs that bloomed here last year: iris, lilies, daffodils, and tulips, and they will bloom again. Already there are buds on the forsythia, and today I saw a cardinal hop along the branch of a tree. On this property is a small house in addition to the regular house, a small house the size of a playhouse with a miniature front porch, and it is painted a shade of blue so dazzlingly unlike anything else on the road, I call it peacock blue, even though I don't know if this color exists.
Laurie Stone is a regular contributor to the Women’s Review of Books. She is author most recently of Everything is Personal, Notes on Now, which features several essays that originally appeared in the WRB.
Olivia on the Record: A Radical Experiment in Women’s Music By Ginny Berson
Reviewed by Shane Snowdon
In its greatest success, Olivia Records nurtured inner and, for a time, outer lesbian worlds that helped women change our selves and the larger culture for the better.
This baby-boomer lesbian’s bruised heart skipped a beat on encountering Olivia on the Record, a herstory of the first seven years (1973–80) of lesbian feminist collective Olivia Records, by co-founder Ginny Berson. Olivia was central to “women’s music,” the combination of recordings, concerts, and festivals that sparked and supported a so-called lesbian culture that changed the wider one in ways now widely taken for granted. Not for nothing was Olivia’s biggest hit, from golden-voiced Cris Williamson, titled The Changer and the Changed. The presence of this 1975 album in a glove box of cassettes or milk crate of records signaled a lesbian or bi owner who might well have come out—in an auditorium or bed—to its tunes.
And our mass coming-out in the early seventies was world-changing. Inspired much more often by the civil rights, countercultural, anti-war, and women’s movements than by Stonewall (a fact frustratingly ignored by the many LGBTQ+ histories that portray the New York uprising as the birthplace of queer liberation), newly out lesbians like Berson joined women whom she respectfully calls “old gays” in weaving a lesbian culture and movement much more diverse and transformative than is now perceived. But, at the risk of sounding like a tiresome forebear telling and retelling the tale of trudging miles through snowy fields to a one-room schoolhouse with only a baked potato for warmth and sustenance, I have to say that being out in that era was no picnic.
In a world uncomprehending and unsupportive at best, hostile and punitive at worst, we dykes had to create our own picnic. And this we did, literally, at the music festivals where we congregated, in every state, at a time with few sizable women’s gatherings of any kind. Now decried by some as transphobic, and misleadingly equated with boomer lesbian feminism as a whole, the festivals gave thousands of us a sorely needed sense of our individual and collective beauty, courage, and strength. We dreamed of reproducing back home the compassion and community we experienced at these events.
And, in fact, festival energy—and lesbian energy in general—was often channeled into crucial social services (including the first domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers) and into wide-ranging advocacy (around choice, childcare, employment, abuse, harassment, and health, but also affordable housing, welfare rights, prison reform, support for immigrants, freedom from violence, and more). Lesbians disproportionately founded and powered groundbreaking social justice non-profits that have, in many cases, endured and expanded, albeit with their origins and originators usually forgotten.
Berson’s book scarcely mentions the festivals and does not attempt to portray women’s music as a whole. For that, fortunately, we have the meticulous work of historian Bonnie J. Morris (including Eden Built by Eves and The Disappearing L), Jamie Anderson’s evocative An Army of Lovers, and Dee Mosbacher’s splendid documentary, Radical Harmonies, (co-produced by women’s music figures Boden Sandstrom, Margie Adam, and June Millington). But with a wit and brevity that counter the stereotype of the grim, droning boomer lesbian, Berson details other key elements of 1970s lesbian feminism in a book that is engaging, revealing, and important.
As the title of Mosbacher’s film suggests, women’s music was radical in both intention and effect. It is this underlying radicalism on which Berson’s memoir focuses, spotlighting two prominent lesbian feminist collectives that deployed art in service of revolution. Olivia Records, she recounts, was a direct descendant of the DC-based collective The Furies, which she joined in her early twenties and which was legendary in its 1971–72 lifespan for producing a cutting-edge, eponymous newspaper, eagerly read nationwide. The twelve Furies, who lived and worked together, saw themselves as a revolutionary vanguard, committed to toppling the US government, and patriarchy overall, via theory-building, cadre formation, and perhaps, if necessary, violence.
These extraordinarily talented and energetic women—who included Rita Mae Brown, JEB, and Charlotte Bunch, to indulge in a star-tripping callout they would have eschewed—are beginning to receive some of the attention they deserve. The rowhouse The Furies called home is on the National Register of Historic Places, astoundingly. And a superb 2020 documentary by Jacqueline Rhodes, Once a Fury, animates the animated beliefs of these lesbian revolutionaries, who ranged in age from 18 to 28. They were, as Berson writes, “vibrating with the knowledge that everything we thought was wrong with us was not, and we knew who was responsible and why this was so.”
Berson offers a handy bulleted list of the collective’s fundamental principles, aimed at rebuking the “straight women’s movement” of the day, which seemed to share Betty Friedan’s view of lesbians as a “lavender menace.” (The Furies, in return, considered the straight movement “zigzag and haphazard.”) The collective’s basic beliefs, she writes, were:
“Sexism is the root of all other oppressions”
“Lesbianism is the essential revolutionary component in upending the system”
“Because lesbians are outcasts from every culture, we will be natural allies across, class, race, and national lines”
“The personal is political . . . and the political is personal . . . sexual attraction and orientation are socially constructed rather than biologically determined”
“Lesbianism is a political choice”
These principles (which had much in common with those of New York City’s Radicalesbians) were fleshed out in well-wrought Furies articles, many by Berson, steeped in the authors’ voracious reading of revolutionary theory and close examination of radical practice. While it’s possible to dispute their passionate opinions, it can’t be denied that they were thinking hard and freshly about questions highly relevant today. What is the root of oppression, if one can be determined? What changemaking power does marginalized status confer? Can oppressed outcasts unite in meaningful alliances? How should political convictions shape choices about work and domestic life? These questions, which could be torn from today’s social media headlines, were avidly debated by the collective and thousands of other lesbians nationwide.
As for the significance of lesbianism itself, The Furies were among many lesbians who strongly, often successfully, encouraged women to make love with other women as a revolutionary, patriarchy-terminating act. Women’s sexual fluidity was no secret to the lesbians of the day, who replaced the old bar pick-up line “Don’t die wondering” with an admonition that served goals both political and personal: “Feminism is the theory—lesbianism is the practice.” (My students, who have been exposed only to the “we can’t help it” argument that sexual orientation is solely biologically determined, are shocked when I quote this staple of boomer lesbian thought, attributed to Ti-Grace Atkinson.)
The Furies—in Berson’s words, “young, angry, separatist, liberated, sure of ourselves, arrogant”—nonetheless realized that they needed “friends we could turn to, who would stand with us or at least for us, who might be willing to hide us if it came to that.” So they gave each other “assignments of people to organize,” and one of Berson’s was “old gay” Meg Christian, who was charming straight and lesbian clubgoers alike with formidable guitar skills and lyrics that, to those in the know, were plainly woman-loving in a music world that considered them career-ending. (Angela Davis’s important Blues Legacies and Black Feminism honors the brave Black women who, until the 1970s, were virtually the only musicians to mention a love that otherwise dared not sing its name.) The recruiter and her assignment became lovers—but The Furies collective dissolved soon after.
Undaunted, Berson and Christian decided to create a new collective to advance radical lesbian feminism. While mulling options, they met Cris Williamson, whose lyrics indicated she knew a thing or two about woman-loving. They shared their dilemma with her over homecooked tuna noodle casserole—official downscale entree of Lesbian Nation—and were intrigued by her response: “Why don’t you start a women’s record company?”
With three other women, Berson and Christian did just that in 1973, writing a founding womynifesto poignant in its grand, earnest vision:
This record company was started by Lesbian feminists to provide a means of equalizing economic/cultural inequalities . . . [W]omen, and therefore lesbians, are oppressed by the heterosexual and capitalistic institutions already in existence and we are committed to finding ways . . . of alleviating class, race, and heterosexual privilege. Because women have been denied the means of communicating their music and their culture, we intend to seek out and reward women’s musical achievements. Finally, we are committed to producing quality recordings of quality music.
Berson explains how this was to be accomplished:
We wanted to create an alternative economic institution that would eventually enable us to control all the means of production and to employ hundreds or thousands of women in well-paying jobs, doing meaningful work, with opportunities to learn new skills and to become part of the decision-making collective . . . I believed that we would create a model for feminism that would be irresistible. “This is what feminism looks like? I want in.”
Living out these aspirations in Olivia’s early days, Berson was “in heaven.” “What the right wing said about us was true—we did have an agenda and I was always recruiting,” she writes. “I felt like I was Ginny Appleseed, spreading the gospel of lesbian feminism.”
Spoiler alert: the collective’s gospel did not shatter heterosexuality or capitalism. But it definitely bore fruit. Producing forty-plus albums and selling over a million of them, Olivia nurtured inner and, for a time, outer lesbian worlds that helped women change ourselves and the larger culture for the better. (No longer a collective, Olivia today produces cruises—yes, seagoing cruises—during which those worlds are re-created for boomer lesbians and tickled younger women.) Although this outcome was far short of the women’s vision, it proved an amazing accomplishment, particularly as draining inter-lesbian conflicts arose.
These were so frequent that Berson’s narrative becomes a compendium of clashes, compiled by an author increasingly alienated by them. Some of the first conflicts emerged in 1976 on a tour produced by Olivia that featured Williamson, Christian, virtuosic singer/songwriter/pianist Margie Adam, and progressive vocalist Holly Near, an acoustic quartet known as the Fab Four of women’s music. There was unanimity that free childcare and ASL interpreting should always be provided, the latter a decision that would have wide influence. But should men be allowed to attend, despite the discomfort of many women? Should ticket prices be set for maximum accessibility, at the risk of devaluing the labor of those creating the events? Arguments over gnarly issues like these were combined with heavy substance use—and romances that produced both exhilaration and grief.
To an extent likely unique among social movements, lesbians of the day were deeply energized in their activism by love for one another (including, contrary to dour stereotype, what Berson accurately terms “hot and joyous sex”). But the erotic excitement arising from our work together could also damage it seriously. Berson notes this as a political problem, and also testifies to its personal cost: Christian left their four-year relationship to become involved with her Fab Four colleague Holly Near, who had identified as straight.
The pairing wowed women’s music audiences—Near hadn’t died wondering, and was practicing theory! Berson was appalled and ashamed by the anger and jealousy she felt. She found it unacceptable to be so affected by “emotions that seemed to belong to patriarchal ideas”—and when the women of Olivia were frightened or sad, she explains, “our attitude was ‘just deal with it.’” (This approach was far from uncommon among boomer lesbian activists.) She even remained a collective member, alongside Christian, for four more years. But, she relates, “something fundamental changed for me,” as it did for many idealistic lesbians whose love and work combinations had unhappy endings.
Her disappointment was intensified by incoming “horizontal hostility.” As Olivia gained more visibility, released more albums, employed more women, and made more money (if never remotely enough to attain financial security), the collective was confronted by other lesbians about nearly every aspect of their work. The Olives, as they styled themselves, dutifully met with their critics, and even had a laugh when one group, unaware of their heritage, quoted a Furies article to dictate proper lesbian feminist behavior. But the hostility ultimately took a huge toll on Berson, who speaks for countless other scarred boomer lesbians in writing ruefully, “I became cynical about the Women’s Movement and about the lesbian community . . . I had not believed that lesbians could be so cruel to each other.”
But she was not always resistant to criticism of Olivia, particularly around class. Even meeting with a group that attacked Christian for penning, and her for distributing, a Valentine’s song alluding to “dining and dancing” (ironically, it was written for Berson in better days), she sympathized with the women’s sensitivity to classist language. In fact, one of her book’s greatest revelations for many readers may be the attention that class received from The Furies, Olivia, and many of the era’s other lesbians, in incessant discussions almost inconceivable today.
Readers may also be surprised by Olivia’s fierce defense of transgender women, including one of their collective members, engineer Sandy Stone. (Targeted later in Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire, Stone penned the landmark essay “The Empire Strikes Back” in response.) True, the collective’s stance did not represent widespread lesbian thinking at the time. But it highlights a fact often ignored when boomer lesbians are stereotyped as clueless TERFs: as Amherst’s Jen Manion has pointed out in these pages, our relentless, multifaceted challenges to traditional gender conceptions did much to create “the gender turn.” (It is no coincidence that Judith Butler is a boomer lesbian.)
Berson also contradicts the stereotype of boomer lesbians as uncaring about race. As she writes, we engaged with it regularly and sincerely—but often unskillfully, to put it mildly. The Furies strove to be anti-racist, were civil rights activists, and felt themselves to be in solidarity with the Black Panthers, whom they sought to emulate around the oppression of lesbians. Olivia, also all-white in its early years, sought to record Black performers, engage Black listeners, and recruit Black collective members. But these efforts had very limited success, and many of Berson’s tales of well-meaning anti-racist efforts gone wrong echo today’s struggles.
These challenges were just a few of those with which the collective wrestled. Independent record companies have always been fiendishly difficult to sustain. Collectives, too, are famously demanding, with tortuous deliberations over equitable compensation and work assignments; the women paid themselves modestly and shared living expenses, but never enjoyed financial security. And when they weren’t discussing class, race, and external criticisms, they were earnestly pondering (not unrelated) internal questions, like whether the photo proposed for an album cover too closely resembled a patriarchal glam shot.
For good reason, Berson seems glum as she condenses the events of her last years with Olivia into a few chapter-ettes, ending the book abruptly with her 1980 departure from the collective. But she offers a wistful epilogue that, despite all, pays tribute to the joy and far-reaching impact of women’s music.
No reader could accuse Berson of being a subtle, lyrical writer; she is direct and plainspoken, like the poet Judy Grahn, whom she much admires. She is winningly candid, but seldom introspective, saying little about her family or inner life. And she is not always kind, as when she needlessly mentions a woman’s bipolar illness, exhibits oddly little compassion for Black musician Gwen Avery, whose life was tragically shadowed by addiction, and engages in some horizontal hostility of her own, dissing Fab Four icon Margie Adam for her birth in a “mostly white” community and elegant bearing.
And yet Berson’s book is a must-read, a powerful reminder that boomer lesbian feminists grappled with major questions in ways that could be invaluable today. Although she and the rest of us seem at high risk of cancellation as we near the end of our lives, might there be gifts in studying our energetic engagement—an impressive fifty years ago—with race, class, gender, sexuality, socialism, collectivity, and much more?
Don’t die wondering, I say. And don’t let us die wondering if we will be seen as the bold, if flawed, changemakers we were.
Shane Snowdon served as editor/publisher of the national feminist journal Sojourner, headed several women’s health groups, and led feminist and LGBTQ+ advocacy and education for nearly twenty years at the University of California. She is now a visiting scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center and the Five Colleges Women’s Studies Research Center.
Objects of Desire By Clare Sestanovich;
Eat the Mouth That Feeds You By Carribean Fragoza
Reviewed by Anjanette Delgado
Both collections make clear that the antagonist of a woman’s story is the patriarchal world in which she lives, and that she must outsmart and defeat that antagonist in order to complete her hero’s journey.
My firstborn made her entry into the world forty-four days before I turned twenty, when I was a sophomore in college, and certain beyond measure I did not want a relationship with her father. My life then: attend college wearing handed-down muumuus in lieu of the maternity clothes I could not afford. Wobble across campus while ignoring the pitying looks as much as the jeering ones, which included those from my Theory of Communications professor. Evenings, stand for the earth’s longest full-time shift while inserting flyers and shopper specials into next day’s newspaper. Walk to bus stops and wait for slow-moving, noisy, fuming buses in a city with alarming rates of gender violence. Live far below the poverty line. Who chooses to have a baby under those conditions? I don’t know. It’s entirely possible I was stupid when I made the worst decision I’ve never regretted. All I knew was I wanted that baby, desperate for a reason to fight, for a person of my own to love.
Some years later, I had an epiphany about those years. I realized that what I had needed, and had not known where to find when nineteen and faced with impending clueless motherhood, was a catalogue of women’s lives. Or more precisely, a list of choices for women, with examples of women living those lives, making those choices. A What Color Is Your Parachute?, but for my life.
Instead, I had fiction. My mother read novels and short stories, so that was where I learned my “life lessons.” Rare though it was, in short stories, a woman could make an unlikely, maybe even scandalous choice, and it would turn out well for her. A collection of those kinds of stories might have reflected me back to me. At the least, it would have kept me company, validated me, been a friend.
Of course, now that I am no longer so desperate for that catalogue, it appears in the form of not one but two short story collections, each differing wildly from the other in style, viewpoint, language, and place. Both collections document women’s possible paths, showing the results each one might yield in worlds that, real or imagined, read as if remembered. Both collections also make clear that the antagonist of a woman’s story is the patriarchal world in which she lives, and that she must outsmart and defeat that antagonist in order to complete her hero’s journey.
First, in Objects of Desire, Clare Sestanovich presents us with the probing, almost clinical, X-ray of the modern urban professional (or would-be professional) female, each story feeling like a different layer or life stage of the same woman. A woman we know. Maybe a woman we are.
Here she is in the opening story, “Annunciation”:
By the time she meets Ben, Iris has had a lot of sex. Some of it is good and some of it is bad, and she has taught herself not to care too much about the difference. In general, not caring requires studiousness. She gives herself assignments: eat peanut butter straight from the jar; steal ChapStick from CVS. She has dropped acid and skipped class and let a boy lick circles around her asshole. There are dozens of tubes of ChapStick in her sock drawer now, and sometimes she takes them out just to look.
See? Choices. Some absurd, others pointing unflinchingly at the heartbreak of women’s lives lived in perennial missing of something, all that time wasted in figuring out how to be, counterintuitively walking in one direction to achieve the goal that waits at the opposite end because a straight line is “just not done,” as in this passage from the title story, in which the protagonist, though she finds it undesirable, accepts living with her partner’s cat, a relic from “a private and intense time in his life,” which in retrospect has “become, in its way, a sacred time. Leonora does not believe in this sacredness, but she understands why it’s useful to Jon and takes care not to violate it. To become truly happy, she tells one of her friends, is to betray the unhappy person you used to be. The friend disagrees. No, the friend says, it is to liberate that person.”
Notice the false hypothesis, the settling, the self-shrinking of Leonora in order to fit Jon’s premade cupboard. Notice the unmasking of the premise that we are liberated. So often our decisions turn out to be traps constructed by what we have been hypnotized to want, a cause-and-effect scenario that repeats endlessly: expectations, (false) choices, frustration, guilt born of the path ultimately taken.
Reading these stories by Sestanovich, you remember all your important choices, which she presents to you along with their necessary context because you are a woman and have probably pushed it aside in real life, the better to flog yourself without.
For example, in “By Design,” Suzanne looks back on a life that was anything but, bitterly regrets allowing the opinions and expectations of others to limit her in ways big and small, as in when “her mother said, You can’t take an infant camping.” Ultimately, thanks to context Sestanovich builds in, she realizes that the “opinions” she heeded were not really optional but more doled out like law, narrow and unforgiving, so that she would have had to be a different person living in a different time to reject them.
In “Terms of Agreement,” too, the protagonist finally tells him she wants “to be loved in spite of: my mood swings and my neck pain, my secret arrogance and my secret laziness,” later clearly seeing the trap set up by her partner, and how it forced the breakup that resulted only after she’d made clear what she needed.
And this may be why these stories—as well written and enjoyable as they are to delve into and deconstruct—do leave a bit of a retro aftertaste, proof of where we still are despite all the years of our fight. The book is, then, a record of the nuanced moments that condition and rule our lives. These are known barriers, restated, like enjoying a brilliant episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then feeling sad that it is just as relevant today as when it first aired.
By contrast, Eat the Mouth That Feeds You, by Carribean Fragoza, tastes like resistance; she’s fucking fed-up with fighting:
I don’t know which is worse, my mother pacing around in the house like a caged parrot or the Ladies waiting for me like a car full of clown buzzards. I often think about escaping both, running into the shadows of the neighbors’ yards, hurdling over fences from one lawn to another until … well, I don’t know what. That’s part of the problem, I guess. I wouldn’t know what I’d be running toward. I rush to the curb and leap into the Ladies’ packed Honda before anyone can see. I make sure to slump low in the backseat before we peel away with a screech like we’re a pile of witches in a hurry. Every time, I start out by convincing myself it might not be so bad. Lately, I have to try harder.
You hear it, right? Defiance, but also decisions that, in Fragoza’s lush and dreamy fabulist fiction, might just be what turns out to be most real. Not the pottery you can eat to remember your youth in one of the stories, or the lion that somehow knows who the winners of TV talent contests are. Those are magical icing on Fragoza’s narrative cake. What feels real here are the stakes embedded into each tale. The unfathomable choices that every woman in these pages faces: Loving a child who destroys you. Leaving your country. Killing your love for a partner who doesn’t honor you. But mostly speaking up, protesting, asking for basic things at work, standing up to an abuser. Simple things that carry great risk when you are a woman. That is the cold “real” that coexists with the magical in this story collection and gives it its beautiful sense of urgency. That last quoted passage is from the story “The Vicious Ladies,” a speeding-in-reverse revenge-porn romp showing the benefits (solidarity, power) and the risks (overzealousness, distrust born of fear) of living in a world run by women when their control is continually under threat. Meanwhile, “Lumberjack Mom,” shows an abandoned woman take a weapon to her heartbreak and rattle the roots of all her living things:
We found our mother chopping through a tangle of branches. Her arms were gashed by the long thorns, as if they’d been fighting back for their lives. Her face was also covered in a web of thin scratches, but they were hardly visible against her darkly tanned face. The scratches were lined with tiny beads of black blood that shone like unblinking eyes in the sun. The lime tree, our little lime tree. We were aghast. She had chopped it down. She chopped our lime tree down to brambles. She slashed off all of the leafy branches without regard for the countless white blossoms, heavy with pollen and bees.
Wonderful anger is everywhere in this collection, leads to decisions that sound impossible, but that these female characters make anyway.
Then there’s the title story: a mother watches in terror as her toddler devours her family roots, literally: “I saw my daughter swallow the photograph, her own lips learning to sharpen into that scythe. When she ate my grandmother’s photograph, my daughter looked at me bewildered.”
Amid the fantastical image of a child who figuratively eats her origins, literally cannibalizing everything her mother loves—her own body, the last remaining images of ancestors—is a suspicion, even for this child, that something is being kept from them. They sense there are options out there called “fantasy” because women have been tricked into believing they are not possible. But they are.
In the end, as fiction and as that catalogue for life I wanted, Objects of Desire and Eat the Mouth That Feeds You are both excellent, gorgeously written studies of choices made. What differs are the stakes. Sestanovich’s protagonists have first-world lives and the privilege of their obsessions. They can analyze mistakes, go back to work tomorrow, have a drink with friends after, see the therapist weekly, work it out. Meanwhile, though it might comfort Fragoza’s women to enjoy an afternoon on the couch considering the roads not taken, they can’t. They are too angry, too worried, these ladies. Too much shit continues to go down, and now they will eat your stupid photo, burn down your damn lime tree, and if people call them vicious or unseemly? So what? Like they haven’t been called that before?
Anjanette Delgado is the editor of Home in Florida: Latinx Writers and the Literature of Uprootedness (University of Florida Press, 2021). In addition to being the author of two novels, her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Pleiades, Vogue, The New York Times “Modern Love” column, The Hong Kong Review, and on NPR.
Eleanor in the Village: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Search for Freedom and Identity in New York’s Greenwich Village By Jan Jarboe Russell
Reviewed by Sarah Schulman
The Eleanor Roosevelt of Jan Jarboe Russell’s bumpy yet engrossing book is a person who decides who she must be and then wills herself to get there. When her husband, Franklin, is struck suddenly by polio, she takes a hard look at their six children and the labor of building his future political career. “I would have to become a good deal more companionable and more of an all-round person than I had ever been before.” And so she does. Born on New York’s West 37th Street in 1884, Eleanor’s life was one of constant change. At the center of the nation’s ruling elite, she faced every obstacle by aligning with the poor and refugees, seeking just solutions with, and for, the exploited of the world.
Eleanor’s hard-drinking father and self-involved mother left her under a nanny’s care, and French was her first language for this reason. By the age of eight, her mother and brother had died of diphtheria, and her father, a dissolute alcoholic, died two years later by jumping out his apartment window. By age ten, the orphaned Eleanor was living with her grandmother. Her first biographer, Joseph Lash, saw this experience as key to her future commitments. “Desertion of the young and defenseless,” he wrote, “remained an ever-present theme.”
Eleanor was educated at a private girls’ school located in one of the Vanderbilt mansions. Then her “independent” aunt arranged for her to study in France with Marie Souvestre, an atheist, lesbian intellectual. The teacher’s love affair with a student was the subject of the 1949 lesbian novel, Olivia, in which Eleanor appears as a supporting character. Education at Souvestre's school included discussions of women’s suffrage, socialism, and the useless folly of war. But when Eleanor’s grandmother learned that she was allowed to explore cities unchaperoned, she brought her home. There, surrounded by alcoholics, Eleanor reportedly lived with three locks on her door to protect her from her uncles.
A man she met at her own debutante ball introduced her to Ellen “Bay” Emmet, an artist whose studio in Greenwich Village brought Eleanor below Fourteenth Street. What Jarboe Russell makes especially clear is Eleanor’s comfort with lesbians and bohemians, in sharp contrast to her class and the high society from which she was profoundly alienated. So, Eleanor started going “Downtown” into bohemia, even before she ran into Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her fifth cousin, on a train where they talked for three hours. Once engaged, the couple took different routes through society. Franklin went to Harvard Law School; Eleanor started working at the Rivington Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, where she taught dance and calisthenics to Jewish and Italian girls working in factories and doing piecework. She took public transportation to work and walked through the Bowery each day.
One day, Franklin picked up Eleanor from work, and she asked him to help take a sick girl home. Witnessing the horrible conditions inside the tenements that day, FDR has his first encounter with poverty. It is here that Jarboe Russell misses an opportunity to draw out the implicit connection between Eleanor’s values and FDR’s future political contributions. Her formative experiences with lesbians, artists, and members of the working class provided his first exposures to progressive and inclusive politics. As FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer advanced, and Eleanor’s life became more emotionally autonomous, Jarboe Russell sketches in Eleanor’s subsequent forty-year relationship with the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village, and the values the Downtown neighborhoods reflected.
In 1921, Eleanor became best friends with a couple, Esther Everett Lape and Elisabeth Fisher Read, who lived in the Village at 20 East 11th Street. The three helped each other develop their understandings of children’s rights, unions, and women’s sexual autonomy, and Lape was one of the first advocates for national healthcare in the US. In the 1930s Eleanor rented a pied-à-terre in their building. She also became friends with a second lesbian couple, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cooke, who lived at 171 West 12th, and whom FDR called “she-males.”
When FDR restarted his political career post-polio, Eleanor famously became his “eyes and legs,” going where he couldn’t go and meeting people he couldn’t meet. Her hands-on experience of Depression-era America again formed the basis of his evolving social vision. The more she saw of people’s real lives, the more radical she became, and the greater was her influence on his New Deal recovery policies.
What Jarboe Russell makes especially clear is Eleanor’s comfort with lesbians and bohemians, in sharp contrast to her class and the high society from which she was profoundly alienated.
There are a lot of holes in Jarboe Russell’s storytelling, and her claim gets abstracted. She writes that “Eleanor’s unorthodox activities in Greenwich Village did not go unnoticed by J. Edgar Hoover.” But even a small excavation reveals that the FBI was motivated to start spying on Eleanor because of her support of the League of Nations, not her life on East 11th Street. Hoover’s file on her grew to 3,900 pages, mostly focused on her alliances with internationalists and one-world ideals. Her interest in class, gender, race, and national equity was what bothered Hoover. Jarboe Russell’s thesis is that these radical commitments were grounded in Eleanor’s relationships with the Village, but the author’s own evidence really argues that it was her lifelong intellectual, political, and personal compatibility with lesbians that radicalized her. That some of these lesbian allies lived in the Village seems incidental.
The book makes a few glaring errors, like calling Café Society’s owner, Barney Josephson, Barney Josephine. And Jarboe Russell ruminates on Hoover’s obsession with Eleanor’s sexuality without citing concrete examples. There is also a lot of frustrating filler, like speculating about what score Eleanor would have received had she ever taken the Myers-Briggs personality matrix.
In 1942, in the middle of FDR’s third term, Franklin and Eleanor signed a four-year lease on a fifteenth-floor penthouse at 29 Washington Square West with a sprawling view of the neighborhood, overlooking the park. It had a wheelchair-accessible lobby for the disabled president, though he never spent the night there. After his death in 1945, Eleanor’s lover Lorena Hickok moved to the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, where she lived until her death in 1968. Eleanor, however, ended her life on the Upper East Side, living with a Jewish heterosexual couple, Dr. David and Edna Gurewitsch. There she died in 1962.
This is a thin book with a sketchy premise that does not prove its claim, yet its fascinating subject surpasses the work’s limitations and provides a stimulating read.
Sarah Schulman’s most recent book is Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP, New York 1987–1993.
Women's Liberation! Feminist Writings that Inspired a Revolution & Still Can
Edited by Alix Kates Shulman and Honor Moore
Reviewed by Charis Caputo
While Shulman and Moore aim to capture a diversity of perspectives and preoccupations, certain themes and tensions emerge.
Sometimes I think I have an avoidant relationship with second-wave feminism. In recent years the failures and bigotries of the white bourgeois second wave have been vocally scrutinized. As a white, cis, anti-capitalist woman who aspires towards ever more intersectional thinking, I have my own baggage with the movement that made great strides toward equality and representation in a system that remains fundamentally white supremacist, gender-essentialist, and economically stratified. At the same time, I’m aware that I’m ignorant, that I know only the general contours. My baby boomer mother was not a feminist. I became one as a teenager in the early aughts while listening to my older sister’s Ani DiFranco CDs in secret in our Evangelical household. And lately I’ve wondered whether I persist in my hazy understanding of the second wave out of a sense of impossible indebtedness. Those women fought to give me the freedom to live this life that I’ve mostly squandered on useless master’s degrees and narcissistic men. I don’t want to hear about their struggle any more than I want to hear about my mother’s labor pains.
So, when I agreed to review Women’s Liberation! Feminist Writings That Inspired a Revolution & Still Can, the Library of America anthology of radical second-wave activist writing, I did so not as an expert but as someone seeking a workout in feminist history and theory. Workout indeed! Edited by the writers Alix Kates Shulman and Honor Moore, the anthology is nearly six hundred pages, containing ninety pieces spanning three decades. It’s a record of a multifaceted movement that by turns shocked, informed, chastened, validated, and empowered me. Most of all it made clear as day that it is by speaking and listening to each other’s stories—within and between generations—that we achieve and sustain the radical vision of ourselves as an exploited class within a larger and more complex system of exploitation which we can only overthrow through solidarity. As Carol Hanisch put it (in what I had only known as a slogan but learned from this book is the title of a 1969 essay in defense of consciousness-raising groups), “the personal is political.”
Despite the collection’s breadth and diversity, Shulman and Moore present a surprisingly coherent narrative, beginning with The Feminine Mystique (1963) and moving quickly into the late sixties, during which the liberal feminism of Betty Friedan and NOW was challenged by a more diverse cadre of activists informed by other New Left movements. Women’s liberation, as this more radical streak became known, broadened feminism’s base and goals through the proliferation of autonomous groups around the country dedicated to raising feminist consciousness through “rap sessions” and publishing; organizing strikes, demonstrations, and speakouts; and providing community services such as healthcare, childcare, and domestic violence resources. Women’s Liberation! contains manifestos, analyses, and polemics from many of these organizations—originally published via newsletters, mimeographed pamphlets, and the emergent crop of feminist journals and small presses—including New York Radical Women, Radicalesbians, La Raza, the Boston Women’s Health Collective, The Combahee River Collective, and many more. While these groups diverged (and sometimes conflicted) in terms of racial, ethnic, and class composition, sexuality, political outlook, and even concrete objectives, the editors argue that they shared the goal of creating a mass movement “to transform power relations between the sexes and thus revolutionize society.”
The anthology moves chronologically. During the seventies and eighties, women’s liberation made aggressive inroads into mainstream publishing, while a conservative counter-movement threatened its destruction. Bestselling works of theory, like Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectics of Sex and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, mix with “instant classic” essays published in Ms., and a sampling of the outpouring of radical monographs on everything from psychology and motherhood to religion, rape, and porn are excerpted as well. While Shulman and Moore aim to capture a diversity of perspectives and preoccupations, certain themes and tensions emerge.
One of the stated goals here is to correct the misconception of second-wave feminism as a monolithically white and middle-class movement. Though the term “intersectionality” was not coined until 1989, the theme is apparent in much of this literature. Some of the earliest proponents of women’s liberation, both white and Black, began their activist careers in the civil rights movement: Casey Hayden and Mary King, disturbed by the sexism they encountered in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), authored a 1965 manifesto in which they compare and contrast sex and “caste.” Frances M. Beal, also a veteran of SNCC, authored a foundational 1969 pamphlet coining the term “double jeopardy” to describe the unique exploitation of Black women, demanding that white feminist groups adopt antiracist, anti-capitalist agendas. The evolution of this proto-intersectional consciousness is articulated famously in the Combahee River Collective’s discussion of “interlocking oppressions” (1977), and beyond.
While this anthology makes clear that Black and “third-world” feminist activists and organizations were integral, activists of color were often disappointed by and called out the racism of their white counterparts. In 1979, asked to address the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, Barbara Smith took the opportunity to critique racist attitudes within the emergent discipline of women’s studies. In that speech, Smith defines feminism in a way that continues to hold us all to account: “the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women … anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.”
Intra-feminist conflict over sexual identity and practice is another theme. Many hetero and moderate feminists resented the “lavender menace,” Friedan’s slur for the lesbian contingency whose interests she feared would drag down the movement as a whole. Meanwhile, some radicals took the opposite approach, advocating same-sex relationships as a means of establishing sisterhood and finding intimacy unmarred by heterosexism. In a 1970 pamphlet, Radicalesbians advanced lesbianism as a means for women to forge new identities “with reference to ourselves, and not in relation to men.” Two years later, Furies cofounder Charlotte Bunch, in a “theoretical manifesto” for lesbian separatism, defined lesbianism as a “political choice.”
Lesbian separatism is one example of how these documents, particularly from the early movement, demonstrate (for this millennial feminist) the alterity of the past. In the wild ideological ferment of the late sixties, you sense profound anger, a desire to disempower patriarchy through provocation, and also a very serious struggle—among women of all demographics—to achieve financial and social independence. The stakes of this struggle were real, but no ideas were off the table. Sylvia Federici advocated wages for housework. Johnnie Tillmon, a leader of the welfare rights movement, compared the welfare system to an abusive marriage and called for “Guaranteed Adequate Income.” Activists discussed ways to free themselves from sexual as well as economic domination. Lesbianism was one. Cell 16 cofounder Dana Densmore advocated celibacy as a separatist tactic. Meanwhile, sexologist Anne Koedt’s “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” (1968) celebrated the clitoris as a tool for women’s revolutionary independence.
In the juxtaposition of celibacy and sexual liberation, we see an inkling of what would become one of the movement’s most profound internal conflicts: sex-positive versus sex-negative feminism. While writers like Firestone and Susan Griffin famously theorized the inherent exploitativeness of heterosexual dynamics under patriarchy, there were differing conclusions about the extent to which women can live fully liberated lives while seeking sex with men. As Shulman and Moore frame it, this longstanding internal tension, combined with the external stress of the cultural backlash in the 1980s, culminated in the so-called “sex wars,” the high-profile internecine conflict between Women Against Pornography and pro-sexual liberation, anti-censorship feminists who opposed the notion that porn—and heterosexual sex generally—were inherently violent. Meanwhile the most thoughtful and eloquent thinkers of the period, like bell hooks, recognized that sex could only be truly liberated “through the ending of female sexual oppression.” In 2021 the idea of a porn ban seems almost comically antiquated, and yet, this dichotomy of sexual thinking is, in some ways, more relevant than ever in the #MeToo era.
In an essay that became the first cover story for Ms., Jane O’Reilly uses the term “click” moments: epiphanies in which women suddenly see themselves as part of a subordinate class. While reading this book I had far more “click” moments than I’m able to relay here. Your click moments will be different from mine, and there is more to this anthology than I can communicate from my limited subjectivity. In the end what resonated most was the emphasis on what the movement called “consciousness-raising,” which took place not only through publishing but also in small groups where women shared their “forbidden truths or private humiliations” as jumping-off points for study and action. The dismantling of taboos and patriarchal myths through personal testimony is the same logic that powers #MeToo, but as I read the words of so many women empowered through actual in-person groups dedicated to, as Kathie Sarachild put it, “studying the whole gamut of women’s lives, starting with the full reality of one’s own,” I started to wonder (and maybe this is quarantine talking) if the internet is really sufficient.
Since the early days of the movement, anthologies have provided another important channel for consciousness-raising: for example, Sisterhood Is Powerful and The Black Woman (both 1970), This Bridge Called my Back (1981), and Home Girls (1983) collected radical writings for widespread consumption and demonstrated how integral the work of radical women of color was to the movement. Anthologies can also pass down the lessons of previous movements to successive ones. Moore writes in the introduction of Women’s Liberation! about an encounter with a young woman she met at a reading for an anthology of poetry from the second wave: “That was awesome,” the woman said, “We have to start a revolution.” The woman’s ignorance “reminded me,” Moore writes, “of my own ignorance, as a young feminist, of the women’s suffrage movement.”
This anthology narrates the creation of language for describing reality—sexism, sexual harassment, marital rape, date rape, sisterhood, etc.—concepts that have become so commonplace we forget their origin. As I read the final excerpt, from Susan Faludi’s Backlash (1991), which discusses the cultural hostility that effectively ended the second wave, I began to recognize the culture I grew up in, where the prevailing discourse was that women had all the equality they could wish for, except that feminism had turned them into unhappy spinsters. It was only reading this now—at thirty, left suddenly single in late 2019 by the controlling womanizer to whom I had devoted the better part of my twenties, in my late-pandemic malaise, having just read this anthology—that I realized how much I have internalized that discourse. Most days I still wish that man had married me. How can any of us face this future alone?
I read the last paragraph of the book, which begins, “The meaning of the word ‘feminist’ has not really changed since it first appeared in a book review in … 1895, describing a woman who ‘has in her the capacity of fighting her way back to independence.’” Not necessarily a groundbreaking insight, not even a radical one, just one that came to me when I needed it from deep herstory. That was awesome, I thought as I turned the last page. We have to start a revolution.
Charis Caputo is an MFA candidate in NYU’s Creative Writing Program and Assistant Editor of Women’s Review of Books. She holds an MA in History from Loyola University Chicago.