Editor’s Note: We honor our late former colleague, D. Keith Mano, by sharing over the next weeks several of his acclaimed columns, which were published in National Review every fortnight from 1972 to 1989. The following piece was first published in the March 15, 1975, issue.
The National Organization for Women at Town Hall. A Christian Science reading room would have been big enough and much cheaper. If you count two ushers, there are maybe 17 people in the oceanic orchestra section. A fast start off the blocks for this well-advertised, six program “Women tor Women” series—which has the balls to charge 25 bucks ringside, about what you’d shell out for a good lightweight bout at the Garden. Yoko Ono, tonight’s feature person, is a lightweight all right, but she couldn’t punch her way out of a paper bikini. Later NOW will bring the house down; about a hundred women from the balcony cheap seats. They half fill 15 rows of the orchestra. And, friend, you can tell a book by its blown cover. Census: one dozen befuddled men and the rest—though NOW, America’s largest lib group, has no particular gay bias—the rest are easily three-quarters rip-roaring lesbian.
Bow ties. Sailor suits. Wispy peach fuzz mustaches. One tattoo. Soup bowl butch haircuts, shorter here than anyplace south of the West Point Chapel. And avoirdupois: this could be a Weight Watchers street mission. I think there’s some glandular hookup between gay and fat. Not funny, of course: sad. Desperate hot fudge sundaes. It’s hard to be a successful heterosexual when Charles Atlas would herniate himself carrying you over the threshold. Hard to be a successful lesbian for that matter. They snuggle and steal hugs in the semi-dark around me. It’s disorienting to eavesdrop on a female-to-female pickup. “Hi, there. I’m Zelda. Got a match? Hey, you look like a girl I used to know. I’m working on a book. How about drinks afterward?” The same posturing nervousness, the same corny lines I used to try. It’s weird and sweet. They’ve come not for Yoko or ISIS, the all-girl band, nor for women’s solidarity; they’ve come to find love.
Behind me, six crew cut guerrilla fighters from the Lesbian Feminist Liberation front. One pint of Dewar’s between them. LFL has just distributed an insane handout; the kind that furnishes its own self-satire. Get this; VEGETARIAN FEMINISTS. Woman: The First Great Agriculturists. Sowers of Life!! “Hear a feminist composer sing her own work on animal liberation, explain the relationship and parallel between women’s consciousness-raising and animal consciousness-raising.” You don’t have to explain; the parallel is self-evident. A friend leans over. She has started to canvass for a Coming Out ad in the Times. “I’m afraid it’ll be 98 per cent men. Women aren’t ready to confess.” No help from this cadre of the LFL; names not fit to print. They pass the shot glass.
Maxine Feldman, folk singer, leads off: Jonathan Winters in drag. Maxine would have crippled Charles Atlas and the threshold. A cry from the balcony. “Let’s hear it for Jewish lesbians.” Maxine belts out how we all killed Marilyn Monroe. “We thought of her as tits and ass.” When really, as you know, she had a PhD in geothermics. Maxine exits to her personal refrain, “No longer afraid to be the big word, letter L, Lesbian.” A nice, scared lady comes on; looks like she should he walking around Scarsdale in jodhpurs. Apologizes for the first of 18 delays: “We just fell apart this afternoon.” Next, an ex-president of NOW reminisces about liberating the Statue of Liberty: posters and placards smuggled in under two eight-month false pregnancies. Even the youngest radical movements have their nostalgia. And then . . . Yoko.
Now Yoko Ono is what you’d call the perfect lib emblem: a self-made woman. It only took four guys and about 😯 million man-made dollars to launch her off ground zero. Whither she is fast receding. Yoko has the broad, flat face of a 1949 Packard. She wears a braless white suit to go with her Terry-Thomas gapped smile. And the voice: sounds like one of those hellish Oriental instruments, all bamboo slats and scrap metal. The five male musicians surround her stringy twang with protective noise, jittery as the safety men under a drunken wire walker. Yoko does a couple dozen deep knee bends to show she’s sexy: unfortunately, the microphone wire is stuck and she has as much range—in movement, in tone—as a chained macaw. The audience is disappointed. They wave Yoko’s ricepaper pennants. “Hi! Women of all countries, let’s fight together.”
Even the youngest radical movements have their nostalgia.
Two male volunteers from the audience, please. Yoko isn’t well prepared; she has to read her own songs. Once she stops: The band has made a left turn without signaling. She giggles all the time, says “Y’new” in her Babu English butler’s accent. Yoko ties blindfolds on the male volunteers. “Y’new, so they learn what it is to be helpless.” For half an hour these good-natured saps triangulate, hands out, around the auditorium, getting cracked elbows and shin splints for their trouble. While Yoko sings thoughtful prose: “Woman is the nigger of the world/Yes she is—think about it.” Repeat. Yoko, who has written in the Times, “Curse the day when I was taught to be considerate—it’s so like death.” She is considerate, nonetheless. She exits. It’s not like death at all.
Intermission: the one smoothly run moment we’ve had. Marijuana and assignations in the lobby. After record delays, NOW will present ISIS, an eight-man women’s band. They’re noisy; interesting. The lead guitar has herself got up like Lash LaRue, gold boots, black cowboy suit. The audience has that groupie look. On the seat edge, fingers over mouth to mute secret love words. I hear, “Oooh. The drummer is cute.” Suddenly speakers begin to roar. The lead guitarist runs in circles, “Somebody do something.” Two men come out; they adjust the amplifier. Behind me, the LFL girls hiss.
It isn’t considered proper to say this. Yet it must be said. NOW, like many other lib groups, is not a gay organization, yet the impetus, the activist stamina in Women’s Lib has been supplied preeminently by lesbians. Lesbianism has marked it. Which is why Women’s Lib will remain a fringe movement in America. Playing to empty houses.
— D. Keith Mano was a TV screenwriter and author of ten books, including Take 5, recipient of the 1987 Literary Lion award, and columnist at National Review magazine for 17 years.