Monday, April 15, 2013

The Birth of Feminism…and all that jazz


Once every three or four years, someone makes a speech or writes an essay that no feminist can afford to miss—it's required reading. 
Such is author Susan Faludi’s current essay in the New Yorker (April 15 issue), “Death of a Revolutionary” 

The essay is a truly amazing obituary of our famous foremother Shulamith Firestone, author of the feminist bible, The Dialectic of Sex. But the article is much more than a tribute to Firestone, it is a detailed account of the earliest organizational history, the opening hand, of the first women’s liberationists, circa 1967.

I’ve been living through, reading and contributing to this history for nearly four decades, but I didn’t know half the detail rendered in Faludi’s essay. Like, where did it all begin?

The Second Wave—how and where it began in the boroughs of New York City and
Chicago. When and what were those canonic books of ours written, and by whom?  Do any of you know that the three of them—Sexual Politics (Kate Millet), Sisterhood Is Powerful (Robin Morgan), and Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex, all were published in 1970!
And what drove some of these founders of feminism to jettison their self-created movement for a mental hospital?
I won’t tell you the answer to this one because I want you to hit the above link and read it yourself.

Faludi details how and why the women of the New Left—who were trying to stop the Viet Nam war—indeed left that movement to start their own movement of women only.

By way of describing Shulamith's life, and her death last August at 67, Fauludi presents an extremely well written, highly accessible, and almost perfectly accurate description of the earliest “cells” of organized sisterhood.
Apparently Firestone was one hell of an organizer too! As co-founder of the famous “New York Radical Women, and Redstockings, and Chicago’s Women’s Liberation Union—she led sophisticated actions like raiding the annual Miss America Pageant while
pouring that convention hall with dozens of little white rats—yes, mice all over the pretty floor. The contestants screamed and nearly quit.

Faludi’s essay, which names the players and their actions, pulls few punches. The Pulitzer prize winning journalist and author of several books, among them Backlash, she paints fascinating portraits of them all. She justly treats “Shulie” as one of handful of 1960s organizers who founded four feminist organizations, during the same years that she was writing her famous Dialectic. She was 25 years old when the book came out with her ground breaking analysis of “the patriarchy.” Authoring a feminist classic while being a prime organizer seems to me impossible. I’ve tried it myself. But Firestone was by all description a genius and primary mover and shaker who gave her youth to the cause.

One of my strongest reactions—sadness—was to revisit how “trashing” was such a huge practice. Our foremothers were way too quick to level their own scarcity issues against each other.
There was so much of it every where, it’s a wonder that it didn’t kill feminism at birth. Of course Faludi is not a 2nd waver. She came of age as a Gen Xer in the ‘80s. So, in my opinion, she is overly hard on these boomer founders. They had to carve out a space called feminism with no books, no mentors, no colligate speeches.
My view is that these pre-assimilationist wonder women need to be forgiven their raw ambition and talent. First, these are universal traits. Second, the world of politics is a place that draws out both the best and worse of our personality disorders. We see it everywhere in the lives of male politicos.
The early radical feminists were extraordinarily rigid about “elitism,” the rhetoric of the day was virulently anti-leadership. I remember from my own background that displaying or claiming any kind of leadership was enough to get you tossed out of the movement. Faludi gives the example of Marilyn Webb, one of the founders of the core feminist newspaper, Off Our Backs. Webb herself was thrown out of the publishing collective because she had prior professional journalism experience—which meant she wasn’t “equal” to the others. This almost unbelievable example resonates with my decade as publisher of the feminist lesbian magazine Lesbian Tide. I spent almost as much staff time processing and defending my own unruly leadership as I did in writing for the paper.

Among many other gems, Faludi explores the first fundamental split in the Women’s Movement. The opening chasm between radical feminism and liberal feminism. Before feminism became a civil rights struggle led by the liberal N.O.W., circa 1970, there were years in which a truly revolutionary feminism was primary. Radical feminists like Firestone sought to erase the binary of male and female.

Faludi also covers the strange and forlorn death of Firestone, last summer when she was just 67 years old. In many ways this author calls upon younger women to take care of our foremothers in their late elder years.
... One last lesson among many, in this essay’s amazingly well-researched contribution to all women.

5 comments:

Sister Carolyn said...

I blogged on Shulameth's book Airless Spaces... Might be a useful adjunct to the Faludi piece. http://carolyngage.weebly.com/2/category/shulamith%20firestone/1.html

Jeanne Cordova said...

a beautiful comment, Carolyn. I found Airless Spaces too unbearable to read for the reasons you state. have been reading some of your other pieces over the years!

MasterAmazon said...

Wonderful article, sad that so many Feminist elders went slowly crazy after so much hard work creating a movement. It hearkens back to MY Jewish New York roots, as I was a contemporary to Shulamith Firestone, IN New York at that time, and more than likely influenced by her, and the other radical and fiery feminists...at the tender age between 9-12 (1969-72) I took up feminism, arguing with my Jewish grandfather who was a lawyer about it...him saying 'you're one of those women's libbers?' Me responding you bet I am! Even though I was a girl at the time...this would have been between '69-72...my heart was on fire once I heard of Feminism, I took it for life...so I see a direct lineage between Shulamith and myself. I'm just glad I wasn't raised Orthodox! In August of '72 we left New York for Colorado. My grandfather told my father in no uncertain terms to 'get those kids out of NYC, it's no place to raise 'em.' But that's a whole 'nother story...
-M.A.

MasterAmazon said...

By the way, thank you for the link to that wonderful article!!!

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