Identity and Community: Forging a Personal Politics
As much as my politics and scholarship reflect the formative experiences of the 1960s and the resurgence of women’s history, they also spring from my own background. From my current vantage point, I can reconstruct a personal genealogy that helps explain how I came to question hierarchy and value women. For one thing, growing up Jewish in post – World War II America supplied critical lessons about social hierarchies along with a deep grounding in identity politics. Despite their near silence about the Holocaust, my family and the tight-knit Jewish subculture in which I grew up communicated a historical lesson about the pitfalls of assimilationist survival strategies and the importance of establishing a strong communal base. We lived in central Pennsylvania, a region dominated by German Protestants. No adult had to state explicitly, “Look what happened to the Jews of Germany who thought they were safe,” yet my elders communicated clearly a message about potential hostility around us. Only once as a child was I called a Christ-killer and only once did swastikas appear on the synagogue doors, but both left lasting impressions. More routinely, the public schools I attended outside Harrisburg inculcated a religious hierarchy when they required participation in celebrating only Christian holidays.
My Orthodox Jewish grandparents, Albert and Ruth Freedman, constituted a counterbalancing force in this social milieu. They insisted that I observe all of our own holy days — even some unheard of by most of my Jewish friends — and they monitored my Jewish education. A deeply religious immigrant who provided a moral compass for the family, my grandfather had little formal education, but he owned biographies of his two American heroes: the renowned lawyer Clarence Darrow, who fought for the underdog, and the talented baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax, who refused to play in the World Series during the Jewish High Holidays. Like my grandparents, our rabbi and other communal leaders socialized me to retain a Jewish identity in a gentile world. Participating in a range of Jewish institutions, from Hebrew school to youth groups to summer camp, furnished a safe harbor. Years later, when I heard a Jewish feminist remark that female separatism had supplanted the Jewish separatism of her youth, I realized how much that early community had affected my own political instincts.
By adolescence, I increasingly experienced the confinements, along with the comforts, of community. My immediate family had already begun to point me beyond our enclave, especially through my parents’ cultural interests, which combined their bourgeois and bohemian longings. My mother,
Martha Freedman, loved words and wit; she published light verse, short stories, and nonfiction in magazines whenever she could. She and my father, Ted Freedman, shared a passion for American literature and theater, which they passed on to my older sister, Mickey, and myself. Our annual family pilgrimages to New York City exposed us to appealing new social worlds, including Broadway and Greenwich Village. During high school, the shortlived repertory theater my parents established in Harrisburg immersed me in an alternate cultural universe.
Like other Jewish girls in postwar America, my sister and I expected to finish college, which our parents had not been able to do during the depression. Unlike most of our peers, however, each of us would choose women’s colleges, in part because they supplied more sustenance for our intellectual aspirations than had the intensely social worlds of our public high school. We each studied American history and, for a time, each looked to Emma Goldman as a heroine. Significantly, both of us chose to settle in metropolitan centers, far from our tight-knit Jewish community.
I should acknowledge that my subcultural base also offered a bridge from a fairly provincial to a broader worldview. The staff at the subsidized Jewish summer camp I attended from 1956 to 1961 introduced me to folk music, which would become a lifelong pastime, and to the civil rights movement. One of my counselors, who served as a mentor as I grew up, worked with Bayard Rustin when he organized the 1963 March on Washington. Her letters provided a lifeline to contemporary politics. The descriptions of the poverty she witnessed in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 opened my mind to the daily indignities of racism. Still in high school, I imagined myself following in her footsteps. Because she had attended Barnard College, I applied there, and I expected that I too would participate in an interracial social movement.
When I got to Barnard in 1965, I encountered the growing separatism of the Black Power movement. Back home, racial integration had seemed radical, but at Barnard many black students were asserting their political identity by creating their own organizations. My first naive efforts to create programs for high school girls from Harlem revealed how much I had to learn about race and about organizing. As I wondered where a liberal white student fit in a radicalizing movement, studying African American history helped me sort through my dilemmas. At a critical moment in my education, my adviser at Barnard, historian Annette Baxter, encouraged me to expand my thoughts on racial separatism in a paper I had written about black and white abolitionists. That project led to my senior honors thesis on nineteenth – and early-twentieth-century black separatist movements, in which I differentiated between the separatisms of racial exclusion (such as colonization) and those rooted in self-determination (such as the Exodusters or the followers of Marcus Garvey).
In the process of writing my thesis, I learned that historical research brought me intellectual pleasure as well as insight into contemporary politics. For the first time, I contemplated graduate study, even though I had no notion of what academic life was like. For personal and financial reasons, however, I delayed graduate school. After college, I worked full-time in a national Jewish organization. In partnership with a network of black clergy, we organized local interracial projects to improve relationships between blacks and Jews in New York City neighborhoods at a time when the historic black- Jewish civil rights alliance was faltering. The job raised further doubts not only about the merits of liberal reform but also about the limitations placed on women in institutions dominated by men.
If working in a hierarchical religious organization was not enough to turn me into a feminist, the dilemmas of the sexual revolution were making me quite receptive to the message. In college during the 1960s, rejecting obligatory chastity often translated into accepting obligatory sexual availability. For example, I recall being asked by men, rather accusingly and more than once, “Why aren’t you on the pill?” After a student activist I knew ignored my refusal to have sex with him, the liberal gynecologist who administered a “morning after” injection persuaded me that I would be safer taking oral contraceptives. It would be years before I acknowledged how violated, yet culpable, I felt at the time. Even in consensual relationships, however, I often longed for greater depth than the casualness allowed by the sexual freedom then in practice.
The revival of the women’s movement would provide a language to describe my daily dissatisfactions, and I began to contextualize the personal within a political framework of gender hierarchy. While still an undergraduate, I had not been able to absorb fully the lessons communicated by my teachers, such as sociologist Mirra Komarovsky, who first alerted me to the disparities in male and female educational aspirations. When Annette Baxter suggested that I enroll in her women’s history course, I had tactlessly explained that I preferred to study “real” history. By my senior year, however, I had sorely regretted that decision. The experiences of the work world after graduation deepened my hunger for insight into women’s secondary status. In 1970, someone handed me a set of mimeographed papers then circulating in New York City called “Notes from the Second Year.” As I read essays on consciousness raising, radical feminism, and “loving another woman,” the proverbial light bulb began to illuminate my own consciousness.3 I began to think politically about gender and sexuality.
The ideas of radical feminism in the early 1970s helped make sense of an unnamed hierarchy that I now observed everywhere. I realized how deeply I had internalized what has since been called “the sexual contract,” in which (white) men had direct access to power, money, and authority while most women were supposed to procure indirect access to these prerogatives by being attractive, nurturing, and dependent on the men who possessed them. The flaws in this system could be detected in my own family history. My maternal grandmother, Jenny Pincus, had been widowed during the influenza epidemic of 1918 and had to raise two small children on her own; my mother had determined during the mid-1960s to return to full-time work, not only because of my father’s faltering small business but also to achieve personal independence. When I became self-supporting at the age of twenty, I felt the constraints of social expectations begin to lift. Shifting my focus from male approval to self-determination had revolutionary consequences for my future and, no doubt, for the historical questions I would later address.
As women of my generation consciously withdrew from the old sexual contract, we expected to select romantic and sexual partners apart from economic considerations. For some, myself included, that choice made lesbianism not only less frightening but also an appealing alternative, particularly in the context of a feminist culture that affirmed the value of women. But it was only after becoming a feminist and, significantly, after I finally gained some economic security, that I consciously chose relationships with women over those with men and began to identify as a lesbian. My experience of sexuality as a choice and not merely a given contributed to my interest in social-constructionist interpretations, although I came to realize the very different paths to lesbian identity followed by other women.
Feminist consciousness, a kind of spiritual awakening, was by no means painless. Older connections suffered, including my ties to the Jewish community. In the early 1970s, I could not imagine acceptance of feminism, and later lesbianism, within the conservative form of Judaism and family-centered social world in which I had been raised. In addition, having to acknowledge pervasive media violence and the persistent limits on women’s mobility made me highly sensitive, sometimes enraged, about threats to women’s physical safety. Even as feminists tried to create alternative models, the dominant culture seemed constantly to reinforce women’s lesser worth and greater vulnerability. Ultimately, I would ask historical questions about sexual violence, but only years after I had reestablished my sense of physical safety. Feminism supplied tools to overcome fear — women’s self-defense classes, for example — and to unlearn the secondary status many of us had internalized as women. It also empowered me to trust my own intellectual, sexual, and political instincts.
My receptivity to feminist politics built upon a habit of questioning hierarchy that had deepened during my educational experiences at both Barnard and Columbia. While I was an undergraduate, the antiwar and student movements had challenged my liberal politics.4 In 1968, the year I first marched for peace, I also made the decision to resist authority on campus. During that spring of international student protest, radicals at Columbia had occupied campus buildings to protest university policies, including support of military research and expansion into the neighboring Harlem community. Rather than resolve the sit-ins peacefully, the Columbia administration invited New York City police riot squads onto campus to clear the student protesters. Although I did not agree with the tactics of the militant students, I was hugely disillusioned by the administration’s resort to force. And so, along with other students and faculty, I positioned myself outside one of the occupied buildings, Fayerweather Hall, to create a buffer zone where we passively resisted the police. The night of the Columbia “bust” was a political turning point for me. After midnight, mounted police chased groups of us down Broadway and away from campus, yet as I walked back to my dorm at dawn, I had a romantic inkling that a new university might arise from the ashes of the old and that I might become part of it.
Two years later, when I returned to Columbia as a graduate student in U. S. history, it was not clear that I would have a place in that academic world. At the first meeting of my introductory seminar, the professor announced that along with a Ph. D., Columbia also awarded a terminal M. A. degree, which might be especially appealing to the women in the class, who could leave after a year and “get a job downtown.” I certainly thought of leaving, given his attitude toward women, but a few supportive faculty members made me feel more welcome. When I later thought of dropping out of graduate school because of mounting debts and an alienating department culture, Nathan Huggins (the first African American historian hired at Columbia) delivered a political pep talk based on his own graduate experiences at Harvard. Did I really expect these people to welcome me?, he asked. And if I left, wouldn’t it simply perpetuate the old regime? It wasn’t going to change, he insisted, until people like him, like me, stuck it out.
My graduate adviser, Kenneth Jackson, helped make it possible for me to
stay by encouraging my interest in women’s history and hiring me as a research assistant. My graduate cohort played a large part as well. We banded together to study, to play, to criticize faculty members for their sexism, to support research on women. The women graduate students formed a caucus, collected stories of discriminatory practices (such as faculty who favored male students in job recommendations), and then called a meeting with the faculty at which we cataloged their discouraging behavior. Above all, the relationship I formed at Columbia with fellow graduate student John D’Emilio helped me not only to survive personally but also to flourish intellectually. Our intimate friendship and energizing conversations about history, sex, and politics have continued for decades, surviving both long distances and later the process of coauthoring a book. John, who wrote one of the first dissertations on U. S. gay history, eased my own coming-out and helped kindle my curiosity about the history of sexuality.
In the mid-1970s, while I completed my dissertation, I began teaching at Princeton University, which was still a very patriarchal institution. Women students had been admitted only five years before I arrived, and the few female faculty tended to be at the bottom of the academic ranks. To survive what felt like a stifling environment, I relied on the small band of feminist graduate students and faculty who met in consciousness-raising and study groups. At Princeton, I learned a great deal about the craft of teaching from the faculty whose lectures I attended and then through preparing my first lecture course with my new colleague Elaine Tyler May, another Jewish feminist who became a lifelong friend. I also learned the joy of teaching my first women’s studies courses, initiated by a handful of exceptional women undergraduates. A group of feminist faculty created a committee on women’s studies, which eventually launched an undergraduate program. My Ph. D. in hand, I moved onto the tenure track. When Stanford University offered me a job in 1976, I was thrilled to leave the East and move to California. Even as I made the transition from struggling student to salaried professor at these elite schools, I continued to feel very much like an outsider — as a Jew, a woman, a feminist, and a lesbian — and I remained highly conscious of the social hierarchies that shaped academic privilege.