Friday, 19 April 2013

Do you know your Feminist history?

“Death of a Revolutionary” by Susan Faludi (The New Yorker, April 15, 2013)

Up till this morning, I believed that in the old days (ie mid sixties and before) that since many bars  had a separate entrance for “ladies and escorts” then clearly they also had one large room full of raucous women slamming down the drink, since they were without escorts.  All these years I’ve been a little wistful that I never joined that merry group, unfettered by the disapproving or needy glances of the menfolk. 
Over breakfast I happened to be reading my latest issue of The New Yorker, which has an article about Shulamith Firestone: “Death of a Revolutionary”.  Shulamith was not much older than I.  While I was joining those imbibing and joyous women in my imagination, as late as 1969, she was occupying restaurants that would not serve “unescorted’ women. 

When I looked up from my breakfast, astonished, my partner said no women were allowed in any bar, unless they were escorted by men.  I’d seen the signs labelled “men’s entrance” and as a Catholic school girl who marched into buildings under the “girls’ entrance” signs, I’d always assumed the “ladies’ entrance” to these bars was just around the corner, temporarily out of my sight.  He told me that with a date, he was allowed to enter under the “ladies with escorts” sign. Inside was a dark and dismal room, tiny, with just a scattering of tables, lonely and echoing, unlike the huge and lively area given over to the men. 

There was no “ladies” entrance.  No women were allowed at all, unless escorted, not by each other, but by males.  I suppose any male would do.
How did I not know I was simply ‘not allowed’?  In the late 60s, a time that I consider full of long haired men bringing cups of herbal tea to their womenfolk, supposedly liberal in fact radical left wing men were shouting statements like “Take her off the stage and fuck her!” and “Fuck her down a dark alley!” at the New Left’s Counter-Inaugural to Richard Nixon’s first Inauguration in Washington, DC.  No, these were not red necks in some tavern in southern Idaho.  These were those very men I would assume would bring me cups of herbal tea, muttering the phrase, “right on” every time I said something feminist, wise and philosophical.

I lived in New York City in the early '70s and recall reading the various radical newspapers.  I remember an article by an African American woman saying that feminism was for affluent white women, and no one else.  I didn’t believe it, and I also remember how many older women blanched in horror at the thought of being labelled a feminist.  I proudly proclaimed myself to be a feminist, assuming all correct thinking people were, albeit young, white and affluent, I suppose…  I didn’t enroll in a Women’s Studies course at university, because I assumed I already knew it all.  I assumed the courses were mostly for (long haired liberal in fact radical left wing) men looking to impress the women in their lives.  I recall one such person wistfully telling me that there were lively discussions on masturbation in his Women’s Studies classes, and I remained stoically unimpressed that he was taking the course, since clearly he was just looking for a wife.  Who would most certainly not be me.
It was women like Firestone who endured in order for there to be Women’s Studies courses at the City University of New York, something I took so for granted. 

Had I become formally involved with the movement, where I was at the epicentre, I would have learned of the viciousness not just of men hurling abuse at women, but of women tearing down each other.  While I was quite aware of slogans like “Sisterhood is Powerful” I had no idea that women became so involved in fractional and spiteful politics toward one another.  But I confess it doesn't terribly surprise me.  We still have a long way to go, but so do men, as that goes.
Of course I knew that at the heart of the Women’s Movement lay equal pay for equal work, and even equal opportunity.  I had long been resentful that women made far less money than men, even when doing the identical job.  It still exists to an extent.  Universities may be full of women overcrowding the men, but the outcomes are different.  When men were in the majority taking a degree in medicine, it was understood that financially they would be very well off.  Now that the majority of people taking a degree in medicine are women, the aspects of financial success have lessened. 

In my family, the women were always in charge.  My great grandmother became a mid-wife, and at seventeen years of age purchased tickets for herself and her fourteen year old sister to leave Ireland and go to Oregon, via ship then train, and finally wagon.  Within a few years of living in Oregon she’d saved enough to buy real estate.  Her husband (whom she met in Oregon) never had to work.  He collected rents from her tenants.  She instructed her daughters to never learn to cook.  Instead they were to marry men wealthy enough to hire cooks.  My grandmother was the epitome of filial obedience in that department.  She boasted that she couldn't boil an egg.  She in turn taught her daughters the same cooking lessons, although mine didn’t marry a man wealthy enough to hire servants.  Therefore my mother taught me only one domestic lesson:  if you should ever see your mother-in-law coming up the sidewalk when you’re not expecting her, run the sink with hot water and lots of soap.  Throw all the dirty stuff into it you can.  What doesn't fit must be stuffed into the oven.  Warning: always look in the oven before attempting to use it.
Don’t think for a minute I’ve become completely slovenly, my kitchen filthy and that I've even given up on novels, by the way.  I’m still reading, I just haven’t read a book that seems to fit my theme here.  Having recently finished Anna Karenina, I complained that Tolstoy should have found a better editor.  It has the seed of such a good book.  Too bad he didn’t rein himself in better.  I would be recommending that one for its feminist philosophy, but it ultimately stretched my patience with unnecessary details about minor characters, and the politics of Russia.  Poor Russia.  He certainly understood women well, though.  Even his female dogs are brighter than his male characters.

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver is another compelling feminist manifesto, especially in its examination of the tyranny of women’s enslavement to their own fettered children, but ultimately that one was just too implausible to recommend. 
Apparently Firestone analyzed how constraining and regulating children in modern society , increasing and exaggerating their dependence, also limited women more and more.  One of Firestone’s few accolades at the time came from Simone de Beauvoir who told Ms. Magazine that Firestone was onto something new in that she associated Women’s Liberation with children’s liberation.  The full text for Faludi's article on Shulamith Firestone is here.  You don't need to subscribe to The New Yorker, but you should.  It's brilliant.

If you've recently read an excellent novel that underscores these themes, please let me know!  I have to get downstairs, to the dishes...

No comments:

Post a Comment