In 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 skillsreflection, analysis, the ability to transform memory into blow-by-blow narrativeapplied.
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 issuesabortion rights, equal employment, daycare, lesbian visibility, the campaigns against rape, battery, sexual harassmentexploded 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.
[An] important, gorgeously written history of the Second Wave.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Here is a gossipy account of women's liberation by a New York journalist who was in the thick of many movement controversies--from the pornography wars to accusations of elitism. A freelance magazine and TV news writer, Brownmiller went to her first women's liberation meeting in the fall of 1968. After her feminist "click," she almost single-handedly redefined Americans' views of rape when she wrote Against Our Will in 1975. Brownmiller chronicles the movement's rise out of civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activism; the heady days of demonstrating at the Miss America pageant, in the offices of Ladies' Home Journal and on the streets; the struggle for abortion rights and to define rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment as discrimination against women; and the rise of feminist newspapers, magazines and publications such as Our Bodies, Ourselves. She also covers writers Marilyn French, Shere Hite and a host of other feminist theorists then on the edge and now part of the mainstream. Her memoir concludes with what she views as the final demise of the radical feminist movement, when feminists started to shred one another in the porn wars of the 1980s. For those seeking a narrative rather than analytical history, Brownmiller offers an enthralling mix of lively stories about her own activities (although she doesn't delve into her own background as much as some readers might wish) and interviews with other participants in one of the most influential social movements of our time. Agent, Frances Goldin. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Based largely on interviews and her own experiences, Brownmiller, the author of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, reflects on the history of the women's movement from the 1960s to the present. Topics include the founding of the Women's Liberation Movement, the explosion in women's publishing, and changing attitudes and laws on abortion, rape, battering, pornography, and sexual harassment. Brownmiller records the triumphs and occasional euphoria as well as the rifts and philosophical divisions within the movement while sketching portraits of its well-known and less-familiar leaders. For other perspectives and reflections on the period, see The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation (LJ 10/15/98). Appropriate for large public and academic libraries.--Patricia A. Beaber, Coll. of New Jersey Lib., Ewing Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Susan Brownmiller was in the vanguard of women's liberation, joining New York Radical Feminists in 1968...Brownmiller's latest book, In Our Time, is an engaging memoir that traces second wave feminism's meteoric rise in the late 1960's through its slow, painful decline.
Time Out New York
A cogent, vivid view that conveys the drama and urgency of the women's liberation movement, from a writer who was both a committed activist and a critical observer, sometimes simultaneously. Although Brownmiller has written books on other subjects (e.g., Seeing Vietnam, 1994), she is still best known for her 1975 exploration of rape, Against Our Will. This new history/memoir explores the revolutionary decades that began in 1963 with Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, a book that "changed my life," says Brownmiller. She was attracted to the radical side of women's liberation and recalls with pride and occasional bemusement the women who struggled to formulate new social theories, mine history, introduce consciousness-raising groups, and meld socialism and anticapitalism with the feminist revolution. The usual suspectsFriedan, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greerreceive a share of attention, but the focus is on lesser-known activists, many already committed to the political left, active in the civil-rights and anti–Vietnam War movements and burgeoning New Left politics. Experienced in confrontation, these low-profile women organized meetings and demonstrations, wrote papers, published newsletters, and shared the dark corners of their lives with one another in consciousness-raising sessions. A collectivist bent led to the "trashing" of individuals who attracted the limelight (including Brownmiller herself, who as a successful writer had a higher profile). There was infighting, and splinter groups formed. Some, like the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, hung together and succeeded; others fragmented and disappeared. By 1975, according to Brownmiller, theearly theorists and organizers were too inflexible and impractical "to triumph on the larger stage they had brought into creation." But on that stage were core issues of rape, abortion, domestic violence, and sexual harassment around which all women could rally, although clashes continue over pornography, and abortion is once again under siege. Meetings, debates, demonstrations, church speak-outs, living-room confessionsall come passionately to life in this memoir; close to how it really was for women's libbers.
From the Publisher
Praise for Susan Brownmiller:
Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape:
"The most rigorous and provocative piece of scholarship that has yet emerged from the feminist movement. . . . May significantly change the terms of the dialogue between and about men and women."
"Chilling and monumental. . . . Deserves a place next to those rare books which force us to change the way we feel about what we know."
The New York Times Book Review
"Susan Brownmiller has succeeded in that rarest and most difficult task: She has written a book that not only must be read but also is readable. As a literary experience this book is as excellent as its ideas."
Chicago Tribune Book World
"Against Our Will is a work of stunning originality which goes far beyond the statistics of rape to challenge some of society's most accepted assumptions. . . . A landmark work, one of the most significant books to emerge in this decade."
"A monumental work and a thoroughly chilling eye opener."
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Illuminating and informative. Miss Brownmiller has turned a treacherous subject into a lively and compelling book . . . essential reading."
Carol Gilligan, The New York Times Book Review
"She eloquently tells stories many women will identify with."
The Washington Post Book World
"A positive joy to read!"
Nora Ephron, Chicago Tribune Book World
Read an Excerpt
Of the thousand or so white volunteers who joined the southern civil rights struggle during the mid-sixties, at least half, including myself, were women. Many of us went on to found--or to play a major role in--the Women's Liberation Movement a few years later. History seldom offers parallels this tidy, but as it happened, many of the female abolitionists of the nineteenth century had gone on to organize for women's suffrage. These two vivid epochs were separated by more than a century, yet nearly identical forces applied. After fighting alongside men in a radical movement to correct a grievous wrong, the women then woke up and wondered, "What about us?''
Political organizers understand that the important thing about action is reaction. There you are, taking a stand, struggling to express a new idea, and the response is so powerful--positive or negative--that it reverberates into new responses and reactions, especially in you.
Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were part of the American delegation that traveled to London in 1840 for a World Anti-Slavery Convention. As the high-minded congress got under way, the male abolitionists voted not to accredit and seat the women. For ten days Mott and Stanton watched the proceedings from the visitors' gallery, where in mortification and anger they hatched the idea for a women's rights congress that became the historic Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.
White women in the civil rights movement during the 1960s were also consumed by a vision of equality, one that seemed important enough to risk our lives for. (And one white woman, Viola Liuzzo, did in fact lose her life to a sniper on theSelma-to-Montgomery March.) Although Martin Luther King, Jr., came to embody the stoic heroism of those hopeful years, to kids on the college campuses, and to many older radicals like me, SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the true cutting edge of the movement.
SNCC had been formed after the lunch-counter sit-ins in February 1960. And it was SNCC that sent out the call for an army of northern volunteers to help register black voters in Mississippi during the summer of 1964, the call to which so many white women responded. SNCC was cast in the image of a young, fearless black male, a concept that may have been necessary for its time, but its corollary was that women of both races were expected to occupy a lesser role.
Jan Goodman and I were in the second batch of volunteers for Mississippi Freedom Summer. No longer part of the student community from which SNCC drew most of its volunteers, I was by then a researcher at Newsweek, stuck in a dead-end job, and Jan was directing inner-city programs for the Girl Scouts. During our orientation session in Memphis, we were told that Meridian needed emergency workers. Michael Schwerner, the project director, James Chaney, a local organizer, and Andrew Goodman, a summer volunteer who hadn't had time to unpack his duffel, had just been murdered in nearby Neshoba County, although their bodies would not be found for another forty days. When no one else at the Memphis orientation session volunteered for Meridian, Jan and I accepted the assignment. Between us, we had a good ten years of organizing experience, hers in Democratic primaries and presidential campaigns, mine in CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, and both of us together in voter registration drives in East Harlem. The night we arrived in Meridian, a field secretary called a meeting, asking to see the new volunteers. Proudly we raised our hands.
"Shit!'' he exploded. "I asked for volunteers and they sent me white women.''
On other projects in other Mississippi towns that summer, white women were reminded of their second-class status as movement workers through a variety of slights. Because of the southern white male's phobia about mixing the races, our presence in the volunteer army of integrationists was construed as an added danger to the movement's black men. I do not wish to underestimate this danger, but there will always be a germ of a reason, sound or unsound, behind the perpetuation of sexist practice. When antiwar activism got under way a year or so after Mississippi Freedom Summer, there was also a logical reason why women in that movement were relegated to second-class status: the draft for the war in Vietnam directly affected young men.
Women the world over are required to modify their behavior because of things that men fear and do.
SNCC was a "beloved community'' to Mary King and Casey Hayden, an encompassing lifestyle dedicated to the perfection of moral virtue. They were among the first white women to have staff jobs in the Atlanta headquarters. Mary was the product of six generations of Virginia ministers on her father's side. Casey, from East Texas, entered student politics through the Christian ecumenical movement and helped to found Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the primary force on the white New Left. She had married Tom Hayden but they were living apart.
The two women studied the French existentialists in their evening hours to broaden their understanding of theory and practice. When they'd exhausted Camus, they turned to Simone de Beauvoir. Certain passages in The Second Sex spoke to them so directly that they began pressing the book on others. Some people in the movement started grumbling that Mary and Casey were undisciplined sentimentalists "on a Freedom high.''
In the fall of 1964, Mary and Casey wrote a position paper on women in SNCC that owed its inspiration partly to Beauvoir and partly to their experience in their movement work. "The average white person doesn't realize that he assumes he is superior,'' they wrote. "So too the average SNCC worker finds it difficult to discuss the woman problem because of the assumption of male superiority. Assumptions of male superiority are as widespread and deep-rooted and as crippling to the woman as the assumptions of white supremacy are to the Negro.''
Expecting ridicule, the two white women did not sign the paper they passed around that November at a staff retreat on the Mississippi coast. Thirty-seven manifestos and proposals had been prepared for the retreat at Waveland, and most were being ignored. A wrenching split within the organization was consuming everyone's energy.
One evening Stokely Carmichael and a few others took a welcome break down at the dock. Camping it up, he joked, "What is the position of women in SNCC? The position of women in SNCC is prone.''
Alas for Stokely, his riff became nearly as famous as his later calls for Black Power. While language purists wondered if Carmichael had really meant "supine," his jest came to symbolize the collection of slights suffered by women in SNCC.
One year later Mary King and Casey Hayden gathered the courage to sign their names to an expanded version of their paper and mailed it to forty women activists against the Vietnam War. The second broadside recounted a list of movement grievances--who gets named project director? who sweeps the office floor? who takes the minutes? who speaks to the press?--before it concluded "Objectively, the chances seem nil that we could start a movement based on anything as distant to general American thought as a sex-caste system. Therefore, most of us will probably want to work full-time on problems such as war, poverty, race.'' King and Hayden titled their paper "A Kind of Memo.''
Another year passed and "A Kind of Memo'' found its way to a national SDS conference that convened at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana two days after Christmas in 1966. Fifty women, a lot for that time, caucused in the school cafeteria to discuss it.
"Heather Booth and I were there,'' recalls Marilyn Webb, who would play a significant role in the founding of Women's Liberation in Washington D.C. "When the SNCC letter from Mary and Casey was read aloud, it precipitated a three-day marathon discussion about women in SDS. We'd been dealing with civil rights, with the Vietnam War, we'd been urging resistance to the draft with slogans like 'Women Say Yes to Men Who Say No'--that had been our mentality. This was one of the first conversations where we talked about what was happening with us. We ended up talking about everything, including our sexuality.''
Community organizers trained by Saul Alinsky, who ran workshops and wrote primers on the principles of activism, Marilyn Webb and Heather Booth were soon to marry New Left leaders. They were to try as well to marry the new women's thinking to SDS. The political union, however, was not to be.
The following April, "A Kind of Memo'' surfaced yet again, this time in Liberation, a leftist-pacifist magazine. Having served as catalysts, Mary King and Casey Hayden then retired from the fray. SNCC, their beloved community, no longer welcomed white participation. They had lost their political moorings. It would be characteristic of the emerging feminist movement that various women would surface for brief moments in leadership roles and then, exhausted by the effort, depart from the scene.