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From Barnes & NobleIn In Our Time, journalist Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will and Femininity, looks back at her experiences on the front lines of feminism. She recounts the trials, tribulations, and triumphs the women's movement experienced in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s and recalls the heroic women who led the fight, including such prominent leaders as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Germaine Greer, but her focus is on the lesser-known warriors at the feminist front. In this essay, written exclusively for Barnes & Noble.com.
A Feminist Looks Back
I joke that it took me almost as long to write the history of women's liberation as it did to live through it. No surprise. A different set of skills—reflection, analysis, the ability to transform memory into blow-by-blow narrative—applied.
Good memoirs of great social movements are seldom written by leading activists, but not for a lack of material or clever words. A lasting case of burnout is often the problem. Total immersion in a cause can be so overwhelming that the experience may remain too fraught for the measure of distance that is needed to tell the story.
Another stumbling block, except for renegades and recanters, is a natural reluctance to air dirty linen in public, even if the linen has been moldering in the laundry basket for 25 years. Such large numbers of people are taking potshots at feminism these days that I briefly wondered as I began my book if I'd be handing the snipers fresh ammunition.
Would a no-holds-barred account of some tremendously fractious and divisive disputes in the movement's life be disloyal? Would sharp portrayals of certain colorful but difficult personalities undercut the importance of the causes and issues they and I believed in?
No, I told myself. A sanitized history that glided over the movement's more exasperating aspects would be as deceitful as an authorized biography of a CEO. Plus, it wouldn't fool anyone. All movements for social change are driven by difficult people; "well-adjusted," temperate personalities tend to cope with existing conditions without making a fuss. One of my deepest political convictions is that all meaningful societal transformations begin at the bottom with raging utopian visionaries and then percolate to the surface. The point is worth underscoring time and again.
The women's movement took off in the late '60s, gaining courage and savvy from the civil-rights and antiwar struggles. It soared to great heights in the '70s, winning popular acceptance, and began to falter in the '80s, when Reaganomics and a general lassitude ("Enough, already!") set in. My canvas, therefore, had to cover a sprawl of more than two decades, a rise-and-fall arc, and a cast of thousands.
"Must you credit everyone who ever held a banner in a demonstration?" my editor asked one day. She was joshing, sort of. I have nightmares when I think of all the earnest feminist fighters whose names and contributions I have left unrecorded. Maybe this is the place to offer my apology. A telephone directory would have been more comprehensive, but a telephone directory does not tell a coherent, dramatic story.
Ah, coherence! I've always prided myself as a writer in my ability to advance from point A to point Z via a clear path energetically hacked through the woods. Clarity, structure, and organization are my strengths, yet shaping the narrative of feminism nearly did me in.
Everything happened at once during the '70s. All the great issues—abortion rights, equal employment, daycare, lesbian visibility, the campaigns against rape, battery, sexual harassment—exploded in the space of a few short years. I needed chapters that were issue-driven and chapters that were chronology-driven. I needed to explain the influential role of the media, and to expound on some other roiling social forces that put their mark on the era. I needed to put in some occasional reminders, for young folks and for the forgetful, of the way things were before women's liberation. I needed a linear progression. I needed to pummel this crashing, thrashing giant of a movement into some semblance of order to give the poor reader a break.
Of course it helped that I'd come into the women's movement with a strong background in journalism, the best possible training for a sense of perspective, but by no means did I set out to write a dispassionate book. My partisanship is revealed from page one onward, for my first task as narrator was to capture the spirit of the times. History is soulless without passion, and dry without conflict. In Our Time is an insider's story written from the heart.