We were so rough, so tough, so radical ... and oh so young.
I look back to my own roots in the Women's Movement of the later 1970's, and the shoulders we stood on and recall the retrospective of a dear friend who recounts it vividly in A Year of Living Dangerously: 1968 and how things changed - and the world turned on an idea - Female Liberation!
"It has begun!" The words were galvanizing, chilling; the implications were massive, dangerous and revolutionary; their seriousness precluded euphoria. I knew that the liberation of women was not going to be easily won, nor won through any moderate means. I knew that once I had embarked on this path, there would be no stopping short. Reality shifted, and I felt myself to be in a new world.
It was a different era and we saw a different reality from what young women see today.
It was a terrifying and dangerous time. We felt that we were laying our lives on the line in a way the boys of The Resistance weren't even contemplating. We saw the violence and hatred that demands of personhood and dignity for women brought out in men who until then appeared normal. These were many women's "nice men". They were the apparently-dignified conservatives, the open-minded liberals, the justice-hungry leftists, the apolitical hippies. These men gave us every indication that they would choose open warfare, to the death, rather than yield any privilege, including the psychological privilege of feeling superior. We felt we were girding for an apocalypse in male-female relations. It was startling--and deeply disturbing--how frequently men responded to our direct but courteous remonstrances about sometimes-small issues of behavior with the verbal and body language of physical violence.
And how far we've come.
I am amused today to find young women who scornfully declare that they are "not feminists" taking for granted their rights to do some things we scandalized our feminist comrades for suggesting in the early days. I spoke the other day to a young "not-a-feminist" with a shaved head and remembered the scandal, the uproar, the outrage Cell 16 created at a feminist conference in New York City in 1969. We were speaking from the stage on the subject of the political implications of our making ourselves into conventional womanly women through the cultivation (often at the expense of great time and effort) of stereotypical feminine appearance. To dramatize this, we included a bit of guerilla theater: one of our number who had luxuriant long blonde hair had decided to cut it to a more practical chin length. To help us make the point about femininity, she had also agreed to have us cut her hair on stage. There was pandemonium in the hall, with women standing up and screaming "don't do it!" One woman shrieked, "Men like my breasts, too; do you want me to cut them off?" In 1994, in contrast, my young "not-a-feminist" acquaintance considered her shaved-head haircut practical and rather interesting. If it shocked anyone, or if someone chose to regard it as "unfeminine," so much the worse for them.
It was a time when our lives went on hold,
Beyond the matter of whether one ought to stay in an abusive relationship, we questioned how much time and energy ought to go into working out "personal" relationships even of a more promising sort, and asked whether women ought to be devoting themselves to raising children. Although we didn't condemn good sexual relationships or worthwhile family life, should these be found, it is true that, at that historical moment, we thought it best for women to stay free for making the revolution. Even good relationships take time and energy, time and energy that we needed in getting the word to women about the possibility of a better way of life, time and energy that we needed for the struggle. And isn't it obvious that a guerilla must be free? Hence we wondered at women who professed to be dedicated to fighting for female liberation and who also chose to have children. We felt that children became the hostages of the system; women's need to protect children make us vulnerable to male threats and bribes. We might be willing to bring the world down on our own heads through a revolution total enough to effect true liberation for all, but we flinch in contemplating the danger to innocent little ones. Of course, in our apocalyptic thinking, we never envisaged this struggle being one that would go on for twenty, fifty, a hundred years. In this, too, we were progeny of the sixties: we were going to remake the world in the next two or three or five years. There would be plenty of time for "a personal life" later.
This week Coretta Scott King passed, also and so I think of Martin Luther King's last speech,
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
The women of the Second Wave of Feminism are passing and we still are not free and the ERA is a curious footnote of history.
We wait and wait and wait.
Yet it has been good company that we have kept. We sorely miss those who will not get to that mountain top, but whose example gives strength to those who are still on the climb.