Why I gave up feminist activism
Sorting through some old boxes in the basement, I ran across a manila envelope stuffed with 40-year-old women’s-lib literature. It was right under the Earth Shoes. Forty years ago, I was a Mother Earth–type hippie and an enthusiastic “women’s libber” (then the term of choice). In the envelope I found an assortment of leaflets protesting the nuclear family (inherently oppressive) and warning against “female hygiene deodorant,” “the myth of the vaginal orgasm,” and other threats to womankind. There were some huffy letters I’d written to the campus newspaper, and mimeographed flyers for the campus women’s group. The pride of the collection was a 1971 copy of the classic feminist guide to health and sexuality, Our Bodies, Ourselves. This was the pre-mainstream edition, published by the New England Free Press, stapled together and priced at 40 cents.
Most revealing, though, was an old issue of Off Our Backs, the underground newspaper of the radical feminists of Washington, D.C. I was briefly a volunteer on the staff and helped lay out this issue. I saved it because it carried my review of a movie titled “La Salamandre,” which I hadn’t thought about since.
It was a different world, a moment when hopes were high and the movement was at full boil. We looked ahead to a future very different from the one that came about.
The issue, dated February–March 1973, led with a report on the sixth national conference of NOW, the National Organization for Women. It’s a rather cranky report, because the authors were fed up with NOW’s being so wishy-washy. You see, at the conference, NOW’s president, Wilma Scott Heide, had stated that a “masculine mystique” ruled our society, and that it must be overturned by a “profound universal behavioral revolution.” She said that mild forms of social action, such as boycotts, had proven ineffective, so the movement must become more militant — sit-ins, teach-ins, “anything short of violence.” For example, the Federal Communications Commission had failed to practice affirmative action, so women should just take over the stations.
Scorn fairly drips from the reporter’s pen: “Such tactics are clearly not directed at the liberation of a free space for women, a women’s culture, or variants of lesbian separatist proposals, but at joining the ‘man’s world.’” Indeed, NOW’s stated purpose, “to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society,” is deplorable, in the writer’s view: It allows “the basic structure of that society, which necessarily keeps most women in the mainstream of the home and low-paying jobs, to go unchallenged.”
This happened to be the first issue after the Roe v. Wade decision, and the writer’s opinion was — you guessed it — that Roe didn’t go far enough: “What was won was only a significant first start in a continuing struggle.” The decision allowed states to regulate abortion in the second and third trimesters, but we must persevere in “making abortions a matter of choice during the entire pregnancy.”
Leafing forward, we come to the second installment in a series titled “Experiments in Hostility.” The author describes three recent incidents in which she tried to confront sexism: at a party, in a college classroom, and in the studio audience of Dick Cavett’s TV show. She recommends hissing. (The article is accompanied by a rather alarming castration cartoon. Hissing is better.)
Much of what we meet on these pages is long gone, and it’s a good thing. Lesbian-separatist communities were never going to be more than a gleam in somebody’s eye. The odd-looking neologism “chairone” was never likely to replace the old, sexist “chairman”; and “Sappho Was a Right-On Woman” didn’t set a new style for edgy book titles. Today, could you call anyone a “male chauvinist pig” with a straight face?
I had completely forgotten about “consciousness-raising groups.” These gatherings aimed to be part group therapy and part feminist training, and the NOW convention included a workshop on setting up such groups. But the room was too small, and the audience grew testy and complained they weren’t receiving the instruction they needed. One participant pointed out the organizers’ error: “The whole point of [consciousness raising] is to change that cast of mind which makes you feel you have to get expert advice for everything. Consciousness raising is not a skill you can learn from experts.”
Some of the movement’s hopes and plans are almost poignantly absurd. The 18-month goals announced at the NOW conference included “getting rid of sexism on the Dean Martin show, removal of ‘My wife, I think I’ll keep her’ ads by Geritol, and eliminating the blatant sexism in children’s TV cartoons and shows.”
And did you think Marlo Thomas’s album of children’s songs, Free to Be You and Me, took a progressive, feminist stance? (I sure did; I played it for my children.) Nope, for despite the songs’ emphasis on breaking gender stereotypes, most still pair girl characters with boy characters, and thus “assume and reinforce traditional family roles.”
Most endearing in this issue was a young woman’s notes on her first visits to a lesbian bar. She wore a long skirt the first time, and was immediately asked to dance by a “Bogart-voiced” woman who advised her to try to be “a little butcher.” The following week she wore jeans, and “I may as well have had a sex change.” The women who had previously asked her to dance ignored her, and the women in skirts expected her to ask them to dance. The entrenched sex-stereotyping does not escape her notice.
The most horrifying entry in this issue (apart from that castration cartoon) is an essay by a woman recounting the misery she endured because it was a holiday and her eight-year-old and her “man” were home for the day. (A female houseguest is also present, but “she has worked on self-development for 10 years now & tends to play less games than most people.”) The author dreads the daylong presence of these two people you would assume she loves, but tries to set a positive tone with some piano playing. Soon she is screaming at the man to “get out,” but when he complies, she screams that he’s a coward and slams his chair around till it’s in pieces. At this point, “the kids say o dear & put the chair back together.”) She decides to watch TV, but when the eight-year-old tries to quiet the baby, it results in a baby who can’t be consoled because she is “too busy suffering full volume.” The author turns up the TV volume and stares at the screen “resolutely.” When the show is over, she goes out on the patio to scream, “I hate holidays I hate holidays I hate holidays I hate holidays I hate holidays I hate holidays I hate holidays” while the baby cries “momma momma.”
The author points out that “everyone has holidays, everyone suffers through them,” and must find some way to cope. She concludes that, next holiday, she will take a tranquilizer as soon as she wakes up, and will “refuse to play sacrificial lamb again. Next time I will not be the one to collapse on the patio crying ‘how can I fight loneliness when I’m always alone how can I fight loneliness when I’m always alone how can I fight loneliness when I’m always alone how can I fight loneliness when I’m always alone how can I.’ Next time if I want to be happy on a goddamn holiday I goddamn will be happy.” Whew.
The problem here actually has less to do with feminism specifically than with another social phenomenon of the time: the Human Potential Movement, which sought to unleash the immense potential hidden within each person. The movement’s emphasis on getting “real” and revealing your “gut feelings” unfortunately turned some susceptible people into emotional bullies and fountains of self-pity. When it was paired with the “stay angry” element of any liberation movement, it had the potential to unleash some really miserable, and misery-inflicting, personalities.
That was why I began to withdraw from the feminist movement. I did it because I realized I was angry all the time. I was always scrutinizing things for sexism — movies, advertising, conversation, everything. I began to sense how addictive this kind of self-righteous anger can be. It wipes away ambivalence and self-doubt, making guilt feelings unnecessary. I was wronged, the seductive thinking goes, so anything I do is justified. If others think it “wrong,” it’s only evidence of how much sexism has damaged us all.
I realized that I was turning into a kind of person I didn’t want to be and stopped actively participating in feminism, though without changing my opinions. Those were changed later, by the real-life experiences of marriage and child rearing. I was floored to discover that little girls really do prefer dolls and pretty dresses even if you clothe them in blue jeans and keep giving them toy trucks. There was something deeper, more ancient, more body-based in gender roles than I had realized.
That’s no excuse for cruelty and injustice, and where there are excesses, it is right to protest and seek change. But I could no longer deny that (most) males and females really like their opposite-ness; they like to joke about and exaggerate it, and this was something feminist theory was never going to be able to change. People savor and celebrate this opposite-ness because the difference between the sexes is where new life comes from. Perpetuating the species is serious business, but it’s also a source of great joy. This biological reality is so vast and deep in the human race that you just can’t fight it. Before long I didn’t even want to.
I wonder what happened to all the other women who felt as zealous and uncompromising as I did 40 years ago. As in any population, the majority of us were heterosexual, and that tends to nudge women toward pairing up with a man and having babies. In that process a lot of us found we were longing for things we never expected to want. Whatever our theories, real life had some tricks up its sleeve. I’m glad that it did.
– Frederica Mathewes-Green is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex, Feminism and Real Choices: Listening to Women, Looking for Alternatives to Abortion.