Not One Of The Boys: Living Life As A Feministby Brenda Feigen
Brenda Feigen has lived many lifetimes within one -- lawyer, wife and mother, civil rights activist, politician, Hollywood
From an Outspoken Feminist, a leader of the Women's Movement in the 1960s and '70s -- a candid, wide-ranging and deeply personal memoir that is, as well, an illuminating historical document of a time and a fight for profound societal change.
Brenda Feigen has lived many lifetimes within one -- lawyer, wife and mother, civil rights activist, politician, Hollywood movie producer -- and in each she has faced down the specter of discrimination against women. She describes how at Harvard Law School she fought to change blatantly sexist practices such as Ladies' Days and law-firm interviewing processes; how she waged battles for women as National Vice President of NOW; how, with Gloria Steinem, she founded Ms. and cofounded the National Women's Political Caucus in the early 1970s; how she became director with Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project in 1972; and how, in Hollywood, she met obstacles at every turn while fighting for movies with strong, positive roles for women. She describes, as well, the struggles and triumphs of her private life: her marriage (she and her husband were once considered "the perfect feminist couple"); being a (feminist) mother; her relationships with women; her breast cancer. Finally, she chronicles recent advances and losses in the Women's Movement, making clear how far women have come, and how far they have yet to go.
- Knopf Publishing Group
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THE BEGINNING-- HARVARD LAW SCHOOL, CLASS OF '69
In 1966, I graduated from Vassar College. By that time, women were beginning to aspire to careers previously off limits to them. Most of my college classmates were satisfied with graduating from one of the Seven Sisters after having found an eligible Ivy League husband, but some of us applied to graduate and professional schools.
Once admitted to Harvard Law School, I decided to go there, because it would provide a good base for almost any career I could think of, including law itself. One reason I didn't take Columbia up on its offer to enter its joint law/business program, with a full scholarship, from which I would have emerged with a J.D. and an M.B.A., was that I felt I should be in a different city from the guy I had been dating since I was in the ninth grade. Deep down, I didn't think that marriage was in store for us, so my instinct was to head to Cambridge and the most famous law school in the country.
When I got to Harvard, however, my eyes were opened wide. I didn't realize then that a survey to be conducted during that year would reveal that of 2,708 lawyers employed by forty top law firms in six major cities, only 186 were women. Another more sweeping statistic, also then unknown to me, was that women constituted only 3 percent of the nation's lawyers. Perhaps the anti-Semitism I'd grown up with on the near north side of Chicago, my hometown, had prepared me for what I was about to experience.
When I was ten, the Women's Athletic Club, which sponsored after-school swimming classes for the girls in my school, tried to exclude me because I was Jewish. And that was just thebeginning. Throughout high school, there were annual New Year's Eve parties at a private club that wouldn't even allow Jews in as visitors. So every New Year's Eve, my fun would begin after midnight, when the boys were finally allowed to leave the party. I wasn't invited to the Fortnightly Club dances that all my friends, except the very few other Jews in my class, attended every other week. When I was sixteen, I was told that I couldn't visit my boyfriend's apartment after his eminent doctor father had a heart attack, because he hated Jews so much that seeing me there with his son might kill him.
It was common knowledge that former Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold issued a traditional annual admonishment to women entering their first year: they were taking up valuable spots needed by men who, unlike their female counterparts, would have to support families. To the 32 women out of 565 students in my class, this was an ominous echo in our ears as we tried to live up to the expectations that our LSAT scores had predicted -- on average, they had been higher than the men's.
Maybe we should have been grateful. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg entered Harvard Law School exactly ten years before I did, there were only nine women in a class about the same size as mine.
Women were required to wear skirts in class; men, jackets and ties. Short skirts were the fashion in those days, and I'd occasionally note snickers from guys seated below me in the amphitheater-type classrooms who merely had to turn their heads to look up my skirt. Eventually, I decided that if they were distracted it was their problem, not mine.
After classes had been in session for a few weeks, I was startled to discover that A. James Casner, my property-law professor, who later was the role model for the professor in the movie The Paper Chase, held Ladies' Day -- the one day of the year when he would call on women. The other days he'd spar, in Socratic fashion, only with men, whom he could try to intimidate without worrying that they'd burst into tears, the way he imagined women would. When one woman dared to raise her hand on a regular day, Casner curtly answered her question, then redirected his remarks to one of the male students. Harvard was noted for its case-study approach, and a big part of learning was to engage in verbal duels with the professor about arguments used or decisions rendered in various cases. We women were not getting the same education that the men were, and for some reason, probably because I didn't know her, I didn't approach the woman who had tried to engage Casner to express my sympathy for the way our professor had treated her.
Ladies' Day in property-law class was spent on two issues: the dower rights to which a widow would be entitled in her deceased husband's property and who actually owns the engagement ring when an engagement is called off.
In my criminal-law class, the relatively young professor (unlike the avuncular Casner) announced that on his Ladies' Day, we would be discussing rape. And when that day rolled around, the specific question for us women was, How much penetration constitutes rape?
Virtually all our professors would enter the room and issue the standard greeting: "Good morning, gentlemen." It was probably an unconscious wish for the days before women were first admitted to the Law School -- in 1950. And so it became clear, really from our first day of classes, that women were unwelcome at the Law School, and that came as a continuing shock to me. Whereas at Vassar my comments had always been valued, here in Cambridge I began to feel as though I had no right to speak up. During all those years before college when I had attended a coed day school, asking questions had never been a problem. But in this elite of all elite white-male institutions, I was intimidated. At first, instead of taking action, I cried tears of rage, not knowing what to do.
When I wasn't in class, I was bombarded, as were, I assumed, the other women, by male classmates repeatedly asking the same stunningly boring question: "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" I didn't try to answer that question, because it was such a poorly disguised come-on. They really weren't interested in the reasons I had chosen to study at Harvard. I didn't know any of my female classmates yet, so I couldn't tell whether they shared my feelings about the way the Law School was treating women. That was before the time that women went up to other women they didn't know to compare notes on problems they were having as women.
During my first year at the Law School, I lived in a big old house with two former Vassar classmates both studying for their doctorates: one, Alice, in intellectual history; the other, Marcia, in English literature. They didn't seem to empathize with my plight, because, I thought, their departments were so unlike the Law School. But much later I heard a story about a woman who had started studying for her Ph.D. at Harvard in 1961. Naomi Weisstein's field was brain science. And at Harvard she did a dissertation on parallel processing, which led academics in more recent years to talk about how the brain is creative and active and shapes reality -- Naomi's discoveries. But as her husband, Jesse Lemisch, put it at a Veteran Feminists reunion in 1997, "the male supremacist zealots who ran Harvard, people like Jerome Bruner, wouldn't let her use the experimental equipment there -- since she was a woman, Bruner felt, she would likely break it." Naomi decided to switch to Yale in 1963 (three years before I entered Harvard Law School). She used the equipment there, then got her degree from Harvard, first in her class, three years later.
It wasn't until October 1998, at a weekend event called "Vassar and Hollywood," that I heard Vassar president Frances Fergusson's story. I had mentioned over lunch that I'd become a feminist thanks to the way I was treated at Harvard Law School (not that sexism in society at large wouldn't have hit me eventually). President Fergusson's immediate response was that she had become a feminist in the mid-1960s when she was a graduate student at Harvard, enrolled in the Ph.D. program in fine arts. At the end of her first year, the names of her fellow students who had been awarded fellowships were read. All were male. When Frances approached the head of the department, challenging the obvious sexism in the grants that had been awarded, he defended the practice, saying that women didn't need the money as much as male students did (another reminder of the lie that only men support families and therefore need money).
Meet the Author
Brenda Feigen is a lawyer. She was a manager of Entertainment Goes Global, a joint project of the Annenberg School for Communication and the Pacific Council on International Policy. She serves as a literary manager and is president of Reel Life Women, a production company; she is also a member of the Board of Directors of California Lawyers for the Arts. She has been a contributor to the Harvard Law Bulletin, the Harvard Women's Law Journal, Ms. magazine, Vogue, The Village Voice, and various entertainment newsletters. Ms. Feigen lives in Los Angeles with her partner, Joanne Parrent.
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For someone so intellectual, thought-provoking & motivated, Feigen cannot write very well. The whole book was out of chronological order, rendering it confusing, & sometimes read like a chatty gossip column. However, she made brilliant points & articulated herself beautifully in some parts of the book. I don't think she could decide whether or not she wanted this book to be a book of essays or an autobiography. Nevertheless, it was an interesting read but it could have been written much better.
An impressive memoir combined with analysis and history, putting Feigen's life and actions into such perspective that the reader can't help but realize the significance of what she writes.
Here it is, folks! An anonymous American leader finally steps forward and reveals the path to success. If you're a woman and even considering law as a profession, you must first read this title. After reading Brenda Feigen's life story, I quickly understood that nothing is so real as the impossible, and apparently one person can change the world.
I loved this brave book. It is wonderful to read a chronicle of the times we grew up in. It read like a history of my life as a feminist, except that I was involved from the sidelines and Brenda Feigen was actually there, not only moving it along but making it up as she went along. Her observations on the future of feminism are worth the price of the whole book. We were, and I trust are, fortunate to have her fighting for us.
Brenda Feigen's Not One of the Boys does what few memoirs do. It shows that all journeys must come full circle. Starting with her own education at Harvard Law School and the discrimination she bore there, she ends her pages by inviting the daughters of the future to join her in the ongoing struggle in making life better for all women. Writing in prose that is neither preachy or pretentious, Feigen,who helped establish MS magazine, did work for the ACLU, assured the passage of the ERA, and gave Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Gloria Steinem the privilege of tapping into her spirit, allows the reader to retrace her steps that broke ground for all women every time she put her foot down. This book is a gift to all who still believe that differences can be made by people who have the courage to make them. It is a terrific read given birth from a terrific life.
I was moved by Brenda's book, by her passion and committment to leading a meaningful life and not taking any bull from anyone. As a history it was fascinating and a as a personal memoir quite inspiring.