THE FIFTY-YEAR RIDICULE
by the late feminist attack. But the convalescence didn’t last long: women were soon reprivatized, their new class solidarity diffused. The conservative feminists, who at least had viewed their problems as social, had been coopted, while the radical feminists were openly and effectively ridiculed; eventually even the innocuous committee- women of other movements came to appear ridiculous. The cultural campaign had begun: emancipation was one’s private responsibility; salvation was personal, not political. Women took off on a long soul-search for “fulfillment.”
Here, in the twenties, is the beginning of that obsessive modem cultivation of “style,” the search for glamor (You too can be Theda Bara), a cultural disease still dissipating women today—fanned by women’s magazines of the Vogue, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan variety.
to “express” oneself replaced the old feminist emphasis on character development through responsibility and learning experience.
In the thirties, after the Depression, women sobered. Flapperism was obviously not the answer: they felt more
hung, up and neurotic than ever before. But with the myth of emancipation going full blast, women dared not complain. If they had gotten what they wanted, and were still dissatisfied, then something must be wrong with them Secretly they suspected that maybe they really were іц. ferior after all. Or maybe it was just the social order: They joined the Communist party, where once again the; empathized mightily with the underdog, unable to a< knowledge that the strong identification they felt with th exploited working class came directly from their own ex-] perience of oppression.
In the forties. there was another world war to thinfc about. Personal hangups were temporarily overshadowed by the spirit of the War Effort—patriotism and self-rigb teousness, intensified by a ubiquitous military propaganda, were their own kind of high. Besides, the cats were awayl Better yet, their thrones of power were vacant. Women had substantial jobs for the first time in several decades. Genuinely needed by society to their fullest capacity, they were temporarily granted human, as opposed to female, status. (In fact, feminists are forced to welcome wars as their only chance.)
The first long stretch of peace and affluence in some time occurred in the late forties and the fifties. But instead of the predictable resurgence of feminism, after so many blind alleys, there was only “The Feminine Mystique,” which Betty Friedan has documented so well. This sophisticated cultural apparatus was hauled out for a specific purpose: women had gotten hired during the war, and now had to be made to quit. Their new employment gains had come only because they had been found to make a convenient surplus labor force, for use in just such tims of crisis—and yet, one couldn’t now just openly fire them. That would give the lie to the whole carefully cultivated myth of emancipation. A better idea was to have them quit of their own volition. The Feminine Mystique suited the purpose admirably. Women, still frantic, stiff searching (after all, a factory job is no man’s idea of heaven – either;- even if it is preferable to woman’s caged hell), took yet another false road.
This one was perhaps worse than any of the others. It offered neither the (shallow) sensuality of the twenties, the commitment to a (false) ideal of the thirties, nor the collective spirit (propaganda) of the forties. What it did offer women was respectability and upward mobility— along with Disillusioned Romance, plenty of diapers and PTA meetings (Margaret Mead’s Mother Nurture), family arguments, endless and ineffective diets, TV soap operas and commercials to kill the boredom, and, if the pain still persisted, psychotherapy. Good Housekeeping and Parents’ Magazine spoke for every woman of the middle class, just as True Confessions did for the working class. The fifties was the bleakest decade of all, perhaps the bleakest in some centuries for women. According to the 1950 version of the Myth, women’s emancipation had already been tried and found wanting (by women themselves, no doubt). The first attempt to break away from a stifling Creative Motherhood seemed to have failed utterly. All authentic knowledge of the old feminist movement by this time had been buried, and with it the knowledge that woman’s present misery was the product of a stiff-virulent backlash.
For the youth of the fifties there was an even more sophisticated cultural apparatus: “Teenagerism,” the latest guise of that persevering romanticism so bent on shoring up, by cultural fiat, a crumbling family structure (see Chapter 7, “The Culture of Romance”). Young girls of all ages dreamed of escaping the dull homes of their mothers through Teenage Romance. The parked car, an established tradition since the era of the flappers, became an urgent necessity, perhaps the one prop that best characterized the passions of the fifties (see Edward Kein – holz’s “environment” of The Parked Car). The rituals of the high school dating game compared in formality with the finest of Deep South chivalric tradition, its twentieth – century “belle” now a baton-twirling, Sweet Sixteen cheer-
leader. The highest goal that a girl could achieve was “popularity,” the old pleasing “grace” in modem form.
But the boys couldn’t take it. The cloying romanticism and sentimentality designed to keep women in their place had side effects on the men involved. If there was to be a ritual of girl-chasing, some males too would have to be sacrificed to it. Barbie needed a Ken. But dating was a drag (“Can I borrow the car tonight, Dad?”). Surely there must be an easier way to get sex. Frankie Avalon and Paul Anka crooned to teenage girls; the boys were tuned out.
In the sixties the boys split. They went to college and Down South. They traveled to Europe in droves. Some joined the Peace Corps; others went underground. But wherever they went they brought their camp followers. Liberated men needed groovy chicks who could swing with their new life style: women tried. They needed sex: women complied. But that’s all they needed from women. If the chick got it into her head to demand some old – fashioned return commitment, she was “uptight,” “screwed up,” or worse yet, a “real bringdown.” A chick ought to learn to be independent enough not to become a drag on her old man (trans. “clinging”). Women couldn’t register fast enough: ceramics, weaving, leather talents, painting classes, lit. and psych, courses, group therapy, anything to get off his back. They sat in front of their various easels in tears.
Which is not to suggest that the “chicks” themselves did not originally want to escape from Nowheresville. There was just no place they could go. Wherever they went, whether Greenwich Village c. 1960, Berkeley or Mississippi c. 1964, Haight-Ashbury^or the East Village c. 1967, they were still only “chicks,” invisible as people. There was no marginal society to which they could escape: the sexual class system existed everywhere. Culturally immunized by the antifeminist backlash—if, in the long blackout, they had heard of feminism at all, it was only through its derogation—they were still afraid to organize around their own problem. Thus they fell into the
spme. trap that. had swallowed up the women of the twenties and thirties: the search for “the private solution.”
The “private solution” of the sixties, ironically, was as often the “bag” of politics (radical politics, thus more marginal and idealistic than the official—segregated— arenas of power) as it was art or academia. Radical politics gave every woman the chance to do her thing. Many women, repeating the thirties, saw politics not as a means towards a better life, but as an end in itself. Many joined the peace movement, always an acceptable feminine pastime: harmless because politically impotent, it yet provided a vicarious outlet for female anger. Others got involved in the civil rights movement: but though often no more di-
rectly effective than was their participation in the peace movement, white women’s numbered days in the black movement of the early sixties proved to be a more valuable experience in terms of their own political development. This is easy to detect in the present-day women’s liberation movement. The-women who went South are often much more politically astute, flexible, and developed than women who came in from the peace movement, and they tend to move towards radical feminism much faster. Perhaps because this concern for the suffering of the blacks was white women’s closest attempt since 1920 to face their own oppression: to champion the cause of a more conspicuous underdog is a euphemistic way of saying you yourself are the underdog. So just as the issue of slavery spurred on the radical feminism of the nineteenth century, the issue of racism now stimulated the new I feminism: the analogy between racism and sexism had to I be made eventually. Once people had admitted and confronted their own racism, they could not deny the parallel. And if racism was expungable, why not sexism?
* * *
I have described the fifty-year period between the end of the old feminist movement and the beginning of the
new in order to examine the specific ways in which the Myth of Emancipation operated in each decade to defuse the frustrations of modem women. The smear tactic was effectively used to reprivatize women of the twenties and the thirties, and thereafter it combined with a blackout of feminist history to keep women hysterically circling through a maze of false solutions: the Myth had effectively denied them a legitimate outlet for their frustration. Therapy proved a failure as an outlet (see the following chapter). To return to the home was no solution either— as the generation of the forties and the fifties proved.
By 1970 the rebellious daughters of this wasted generation no longer, for all practical purposes, even knew there had been a feminist movement. There remained only the unpleasant residue of the aborted revolution, an amazing set of contradictions in their roles: on the one hand, they had most of the legal freedoms, the literal assurance that they were considered full political citizens of society—and yet they had no power. They had educational opportunities—and yet were unable, and not expected, to employ them. They had the freedoms of clothing and sex mores that they had demanded—and yet they were still sexually exploited. The frustrations of their trapped position were exacerbated by the development of mass media (see Chapter 7), in which these contradictions were nakedly exposed, the ugliness of women’s roles emphasized by precisely that intensive character which made of the new media such a useful propaganda organ. The cultural indoctrinations necessary to reinforce sex role traditions had become blatant, tasteless, where before they had been insidious. Women, everywhere bombarded with hateful or erotic images of themselves, were at first bewildered by such distortion (could that be Me?), and, finally, angered. At first, because feminism was still taboo, their anger and frustration bottled up in complete withdrawal (Beatnik Bohemia and the Flower/ Drug Generation) or was channeled into dissent movements other than their own, particularly the civil rights movement of the sixties, the closest women had yet come to recognizing their own oppression. But eventually the obvious analogy of their own situation to that of the blacks, coupled with the general spirit of dissent, led to the establishment of a women’s liberation movement proper. The anger spilled over, finally, into its proper outlet.
But it would be false to attribute the resurgence of feminism only to the impetus generated by other movements’ and ideas. For though they may have acted as a catalyst, feminism, in truth, has a cyclical momentum all its own. In the historical interpretation we have espoused, feminism is the inevitable female response to the development of a technology capable of freeing women from the tyranny of their sexual-reproductive roles—both the fundamental biological condition itself, and the sexual class system built upon, and reinforcing, this biological condition.
The increasing development of science in the twentieth century should have only accelerated the initial feminist reaction to the Industrial Revolution. (Fertility control alone, for example, a problem for which the early feminists had no answer, has reached, in the period since 1920, its highest level of development in history.) The dynamics of the counterrevolution which—in conjunction with temporal crises such as war and depression—obstructed the growth of feminism I have attempted to describe. Because of such obstruction, new scientific developments that could have greatly helped the feminist cause stayed in the lab, while social-sexual practices not only continued as before but were actually intensified, in reaction to the threat. Scientific advances which threaten to further weaken or sever altogether the connection between sex and reproduction have scarcely been realized culturally. That the scientific revolution has had virtually no effect on feminism only illustrates the political nature of the problem: the gods of feminism can never be achieved through evolution, but only through revolution. Power, however it has evolved, whatever its origins, will not be given up without a struggle.
altogether, or radical questioning of family values. Like the NAWSA, it tends to concentrate on the winning of single-issue political gains, whatever the cost to political principles. Like the NAWSA, it has attracted a wide membership, which it controls by traditional bureaucratic pro – In three years, we have seen the whole political speJcedures. trum of the old women’s movement recreated. The broa However, already in the young movement, it is ap – division between the radical feminists and the two typt parent that this position, untenable even in terms of im
THE WOMEN’S LIBERATION* MOVEMENT
didn’t dare officially endorse even abortion law repeal for fear of alienating those who could go no further than reform, now abortion law repeal is one of its central demands.
2) Politicos. The politicos of the contemporary women’s movement are those women whose primary loyalty is to the Left (“The Movement”) rather than to the Women’s Liberation Movement proper. Like the politicos of the Progressive Era, contemporary politicos see feminism as only tangent to “real” radical politics, instead of central, directly radical in itself; they still see male issues, e. g., the draft, as universal, and female issues, e. g., abortion, as sectarian. Within the contemporary politico category is still a smaller spectrum, which can be roughly broken down as follows:
a) Ladies’ Auxiliaries of the Left. Every major faction on the left, and even some unions, by now—after considerable resistance—have their women’s lib caucuses, which agitate against male chauvinism within the organization, and for greater decision-making power for women. The politicos of these caucuses are reformist in that their main objective is to improve their own situation within the limited arena of leftist politics. Other women are, at best, their foremost “constituency,” strictly women’s issues no
more than a useful “radicalizing” tool to recruit womej into the “Larger Struggle.” Thus their attitude toward other women tends to be patronizing and evangelistic, tht “organizer” approach. Here are some (female) Black Panthers in an interview in The Movement, an undergroum paper, stating it in a way that is perhaps embarrassing tc the white left in its blatancy, but that nevertheless is typi cal of (because lifted from?) most white revolutionat) rhetoric on the subject:
It’s very important that women who are more advanced, whc already understand revolutionary principles, go to them and explain it to them and struggle with them. We have to recog nize that women are backwards politically and that we musl struggle with them. (Italics mine)