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Up from Radicalism

By
May 1, 2014

A feminist journal, revisited.

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Image by Samantha Wall, Stiff As a Board, 2012. Courtesy the artist

This journal should really start at the beginning of my life, because that’s when the struggle starts. Black kids find out they’re black, little girls find out they’re female. By the time I was six or so, I must have discovered the awful truth, because I made a big point of despising boys—on the grounds that they were stupid and unadventurous. But when I playacted with my girl friends, I always wanted a boy’s part. And my model was my father, who drew me diagrams of magnets and the digestive system, not my mother, who intruded on my life of the mind by making me dry the dishes. Later on things got more complicated. On one level I was determined to prove that except for a little accident of hormones, I was a perfectly good man: I was going to be a famous writer/actress/scientist. Domestic chores were contemptible (I would have servants, since I couldn’t have a wife), and children—who needed them? Women were pretty contemptible too, except those happy few of us who were really men.

At the same time, without any feeling of absurdity, I worked obsessively at making myself a desirable object. I followed all the rules—build up their egos, don’t be aggressive, don’t flaunt your brains, be charming, diet, dance, be with it, wear a girdle, never kiss goodnight on the first date—until I learned that breaking them a little, or better yet appearing to break them, attracted the more imaginative boys. When I finally abandoned the sexual double standard it was less because I realized it was unfair (I always knew that) than because the game had changed—men now wanted experienced women. And if you had to pretend you weren’t a virgin, there wasn’t much point in being one.

At twenty, I graduated from a prestigious college with honors, ready to make my way as a quasi-man among men. And I received my diploma as a woman—I was married. I might as well start there.

1962
I got married against my better judgment. At some point before the wedding there is a mysterious break between my rational and motor faculties. Though I am having more and more doubts, I keep behaving as if nothing is happening inside my head. Finally I make a half-hearted attempt to postpone the date and when that doesn’t work I just abdicate and, as I put it to myself, let the current flow. Obviously something in me is anxious to get married, even if I’m not. Afterward I think maybe that’s how it works for everybody. After all, I have too much pride to admit how I feel, so who knows what other wives are thinking?

We move to Berkeley and I start graduate school. I’m going mainly because of all those vocational conferences at Barnard that transmitted the message: better take typing and shorthand. Anything but that! I hate studying, but cling to the status of student.

I am still pretty militant about housework—I insist that we split it half and half, with the result that nothing much gets done—but I act very domestic when other people are around. No one is going to think I’m a henpecking wife.

1963
I can’t decide what to do about school or about my marriage, and I get very depressed. Try the psychotherapy clinic at the UC health center. But the therapist they assign me is a woman; I know right away I just can’t level with another woman; the distrust is too strong. So I talk around my problems, hoping something will happen anyway. Maybe it does—I muster enough decisiveness to quit school. Okay. But what do I do now?

Kennedy is dead. I am very disturbed; I’ve been caught up in the patriotic idealism myth more than I like to admit, and my husband has applied for a government job overseas. I want some kind of writing job. In college I published a couple of magazine articles and a handbook of advice for freshman girls. After three months of looking—the women in the employment agencies keep telling me to make my hair lie down more—I find a job in San Francisco, writing promotion copy for textbooks at $75 a week.

1964
I decide I should get involved in the civil rights movement. I have all the Jewish-leftist tropisms, I’ve marched for integration and against the bomb, but I’ve never done anything serious. I put on a SNCC button and go to CORE meetings. But I never feel very welcome, and I never think of anything illuminating to say.

Free Speech erupts. I am an enthusiastic partisan, but don’t join the sit-in. I’m not a student anymore; I won’t be a hanger-on.

I read Wilhelm Reich, A. S. Neill, and Paul Goodman and decide I’m an anarchist. If it is the suppression of sexuality by the authoritarian family that destroys the natural communal impulses of children and perpetuates oppressive institutions, then the system is against the best interests of the rulers as well as the ruled, and what we need is not violent revolution but a mass transformation of consciousness. We have to start on our own, building decentralized people’s institutions. I become very interested in communities. Richard Alpert comes to SF and lectures on the LSD community at Millbrook. He talks about how the drug dissolves people’s ego hangups and helps them live cooperatively, and it’s really convincing until he explains how the women at Millbrook are earth-goddesses. He doesn’t say who does the community’s shitwork, but I have my suspicions.

We have more fights about housework, especially cooking. I want to eat in restaurants all the time. My husband thinks it’s a disgusting extravagance.

I am much more taken with the arrangement at the cooperative Sierra Club Lodge, where my husband and I spend a weekend. It’s very cheap because every guest does a chore. Dishwashing, my choice, is an assembly-line operation, done in fifteen minutes. That’s the answer to the housework problem—economy of scale.

1965
We move again. My husband’s name is coming up for his overseas job and he will be training in Washington. I’m uncomfortable about Vietnam, but also poor and anxious to travel.

The only work I can get in DC is typing, and we’re not in great financial need, so I decide to stay home and write. But my husband hints that if I’m not going to do anything, i.e., make money, I ought to pay more attention to the housework. I decide I’d rather type.

My husband is assigned to an African post. I start wondering what I’ll do there. All the references to wives in the agency brochures assume that they are raising children and/or doing charity work and being good hostesses at parties and charming assets to their husbands’ careers. Obviously the government expects two bodies for the price of one. Well it’s not getting mine. I absolutely intend to make my own independent money. But how? Let’s face it, Africa is not the place for a literary career. One afternoon we visit an official who has just come back from “our” post. I ask if there are jobs available on the English-language newspapers. He says there probably are. “But,” he adds, “it’s up to the embassy. If they don’t want you to work, you don’t work.”

We have more fights about housework, especially cooking. I want to eat in restaurants all the time. My husband thinks it’s a disgusting extravagance. I insist that we have more than enough money, what are we saving it for? Which doesn’t stop me from feeling guilty. (It’s his money.) (Good wives cook.) (It isn’t as if he never helps me.) (Why am I being nasty and causing trouble over something so trivial?)

I think I’m looking forward to going overseas and that I’ve accepted my marriage because…life is like that, as they say…and I like my husband, which is something. But on some level I feel a confrontation approaching. If I go to Africa it’s a commitment, I can’t pick up and go home. I get very moody. Write poems about suicide, murder, and mental breakdowns. Fantasize. Become ridiculously infatuated with another man. And finally have this vision of myself as another Carol Kennicott, keeping my hair long, singing radical folk songs to admiring bureaucrats, writing a mediocre novel coyly fictionalizing my situation, my husband beginning to hate me as he realizes. No. Life is not like that. I make the break and move to New York.

1966–1967
I register at the Barnard alumnae placement service. The director tells me I won’t be able to get anything above the secretarial level. So do the first half-dozen employment agency “counselors” I meet. It gets so bad I actually send away for some graduate school catalogues.

Then in the Times help wanted male section, I find an ad for a staff writer on a small magazine. The publisher tells me he wants someone with more experience, but I can have another editorial job. He remarks that his editor gets along better with women. I ask why he doesn’t list the staff writer in the help female section. “It never occurred to me,” he says. The pay is terrible, but I get a prestigious title and a pep talk about my potential.

I realize I’m suspicious of men. Something else to feel guilty about.

I have my first tentative skirmishes with men. I’m pretty rusty. All those years in the provinces, I’m still quoting poets I read in college. Besides, marriage has given me an illusory sense of power. A married woman can flirt with men, tell them her troubles, presume on their friendship, and by the rules they can’t demand that she follow through. If she wants a man (especially a single man) it is not only acceptable, but almost expected, for her to make the first move. In no other situation does she have so much freedom. Furthermore the status marriage confers insulates her somewhat from rejection and humiliation. Whatever another man might think of her or do to her, at least one man has certified her Class A merchandise. Propped up by marriage, I’ve been dealing with men from a position of (relative) strength. Now that I’m on my own I begin to see the point, for women, of the European system of institutionalized adultery.

I realize I’m suspicious of men. Something else to feel guilty about. It’s so unliberated, the old double-standard hangup, fear of being used, fear of being a conquest—conquest, for Christ’s sake—so I’m fucked up, by Dear Abby and a countersexualrevolutionary childhood. The important thing is not to show it. Men don’t want neurotic chicks. Don’t think, just do whatever you want—only what I want is affected by the vibrations I’m getting, or afraid of getting. What I don’t want is for this or that promising guy to think I’m cold, naive, straight, not turned on by him, or conversely desperate, undiscriminating, overinvolved, etc. What I really want is to choose the movement myself, but I’ve learned at least this much: if you’re too picky about details you end up with nothing. I remember all this from before I was married. But as a post-adolescent I wasn’t expected to be cool about it. Now I’m what men like to call a big girl.

I find I can’t keep myself from playing roles. The emotionless decadent, looking for diversion from boredom, is a favorite. Corny, but it works by my criteria: maximum pleasure, minimum anxiety.

I run into B., a classmate of mine years ago. He is a reporter and his first major magazine piece has attracted a lot of attention and three book offers. He is very cocky. His aggressiveness puts me so uptight that I go into my blasé-bohemian rap (if I do sleep with you, it won’t matter). He tells me that his real commitment is to a girl from out of town (don’t expect anything, baby). Great start.

I soon learn why W., my immediate boss, gets along better with women. No man would put up with his total intolerance of self-assertion. I stay twice as long as any of my male predecessors. I’m afraid of ending up a Time researcher.

One of my duties is to criticize W.’s manuscripts. His prose is clichéd, awkward, and wordy, but if I make too many suggestions he sulks and rejects them. After a decent probation I approach him about a writing assignment. He tells me he doesn’t have time to teach me to write. Later he agrees to let me do a profile if he can dictate the slant.

Finally I try a minor power play. Our publisher is hungry for new young writers and I’ve found one—B. I point him out to W. He tells me to keep my friends out of the office because they might steal his ideas. B. convinces me the time has come to go over W.’s head to the publisher, who likes his work. Given W.’s authority complex, I’m pretty sure to lose my job—if our boss has to choose between us, he’s not going to choose me. Still, no man would let someone shit on him this way—why should I?

After the big blowup, B. helps me stave off Time Inc. by getting me some freelance assignments. I am amazed when my stuff is actually accepted, and then chagrined at my defeatism. Why does B. have to tell me twenty-five times that my writing is good before I’ll believe it? Why did I accept W.’s opinion of me, even while I was fighting it?

A friend is hired as editor of a new magazine and asks me to join the staff as an associate editor. When I meet the publisher he tells me he hopes I won’t mind answering the phones sometimes; all the girls in the office help out.

I’m into Marxist theory more than ever before. In international terms, it offers the only cogent explanation of what’s going on.

Even while I was a government wife, I never stopped identifying with the left. This schizophrenia was possible partly because of the lingering Kennedy mystique, but mostly because my political involvements had always been so tenuous. No organization ever seemed to be doing what I wanted to do, whatever that was. And things are no different now. I try joining a radical group. Its ideas are pretty close to mine but its practice turns out to be telling Puerto Ricans in the Ave. D housing project how the corporations are oppressing them. One go-round is enough; it doesn’t take any black power polemicist to make me feel like a patronizing fool.

I’m becoming disenchanted with quasi-religious utopianism. The hippies aren’t making much headway. Sexual freedom, the end of ego games, and communal cooperation can’t be willed into existence. Psychic liberation is difficult, maybe impossible, even for the dedicated. And most people aren’t about to give up their hard-won equilibrium and whatever little they have in the way of money, security, or power for—not happiness, but an ideal of happiness that might or might not be attainable.

Anyway, this approach is impossibly parochial in the face of the urgent conflict between US imperial power and the rest of the world, not to mention the black colony at home. Vietnam can’t wait for the president of Boeing to drop out of the rat race; kids in the ghetto need all the ego they’ve got.

I’m into Marxist theory more than ever before. In international terms, it offers the only cogent explanation of what’s going on. But there’s something essential missing: Marxists don’t understand the political and human significance of sex. When they consider sexual problems at all it’s only to dismiss them as the affliction of a decadent bourgeoisie, to be swept away by the emerging proletariat. But no proletarian revolution has yet been able to sweep them away.

What we need is an analysis that can connect the politics of nations with the politics of our own bodies. A large order. Marcuse’s attempt is the best, and he concludes that nothing can be done.

1968
It’s getting better—if not for the country, at least for me. I’m reviewing rock and working on a book. My combine with B. has miraculously survived and prospered after a series of passionate and/or hysterical adjustments.

February: Ramparts prints a sketchy, rather condescending article on “woman power,” which mentions the new radical women’s movement, the first I’ve heard of it.

April: J., a recent acquaintance, mentions in passing that she belongs to a feminist group, but I don’t take it up. Why?

A young girl, a friend of some friends, comes to town to get an abortion and stays with me. Doctor is a well-known, respected abortionist. Charges her $700, which she has to borrow. I’m disturbed to learn she was given no antibiotics. Next day she starts hurting. Neither of us wants to face trouble, so we wait. But the pain gets worse. I waste an hour calling private doctors, leery of a police hassle at Bellevue. Her fever shoots up and I call an ambulance, panicked that I may have waited too long. The doctor, if you can call him that, lets her have it. While he’s examining her and giving her shots and sticking tubes in her and she’s yelling, in terrible pain and scared to death, he starts in, “YOU WENT TO A QUACK, RIGHT?” keeping at it until she says yes, and then, “That was a stupid thing to do, wasn’t it? How much did it cost you?” and on and on. She asks him if she’s going to die. The prick won’t say no. When he’s through I ask how she is. He gives me his nastiest you-East-Village-sluts-are-all-alike look and says, “She’s very sick,” loud enough for her to hear, and strides out of the ward. The nurse reassures me. She’s full of penicillin and it’s going to be all right.

To me, the communal family, with domestic work shared equally by both sexes, is the only solution to child-rearing without slavery.

She spends a week in the hospital. When she’s ready to go home one of the doctors gives her a prescription for birth control pills, but the clinic pharmacist won’t give her all the pills at once. She has to come back every month. Regulations. I argue: there’s no point to this, it’s harassment. “Don’t be smart, lady,” he says.

August: Chicago, screwing the Democrats. Under siege, my political confusion disappears. But when the battle’s over I get depressed about the we-are-making-the-revolution-now machismo-mongering and we-are-the-people bullshit. We’ve yet to become the people. Am I the people? Are the yippies me? I don’t know.

September: from Chicago, B. and I go west. On our way I read about the women’s liberation protest against the Miss America contest. I’m dubious—won’t people think they’re just ugly, jealous women? But I remember what it’s like to be examined and compared at a party. And I’m proud that women are in the papers for fighting.

J. and husband and kids have moved to San Francisco and we’re staying at their place. She gives me a copy of Notes From the First Year, a journal published by the New York radical women’s group. It disturbs me. Too much “Get off my back, whitey.” All our problems aren’t caused by men—are they? The tone strikes me as frighteningly bitter, especially about sexual relationships. Either I’ve been remarkably lucky, or they’ve been unlucky…or maybe I let men who give me a hard time off the hook too easily.

J. and I talk about communes. To me, the communal family, with domestic work shared equally by both sexes, is the only solution to child-rearing without slavery. Having the sole responsibility for a vulnerable, dependent life, never being able to act on impulse, makes women dull and desperate. Why should we have to choose between being fully, freely human and having a share in raising the next generation? J. envisions a sanctuary for radicals and a center for political activity. I think just making a commune work is a difficult enough political project.

I go with J. to a women’s meeting. It’s somewhat chaotic, a dozen different subjects are discussed, but what impresses me most is just the fact of women getting together and talking. And though I am a stranger, I feel included. There’s none of the prickly suspicious aloofness that brings me down whenever I go to a political meeting. No sense that I have to pass some initiation to be accepted. Or that anyone looks at me as raw material to “organize.”

I resolve to join the New York group when I get home. Notes scares me, but by now I recognize that I’m resisting.

November: the women behind Notes are nothing like my fantasies of anti-sex fanatics. They seem no different from other women, except friendlier. Most are young; perhaps half are married.

The basic activity of the group is consciousness-raising, the loosely applied formula for which is sharing of personal experience: generalization: analysis. Ideally, analysis of an issue should give rise to appropriate action; the action then becomes part of the experience to be analyzed. But the movement is growing so fast, it’s hard to maintain continuity. Already I feel like a veteran. New women keep coming in, women who are just discovering their oppression, asserting for the first time their independence from husbands and lovers, overwhelmed that here they are listened to, respected. They want to talk about everything, their jobs, their husbands, their childhoods, their abortions, their attitudes toward other women. So we talk. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s bullshit, but I learn something at every meeting.

For a while I feel that now I understand and love all other women. It’s a great high until I realize that it’s mostly a defense against the fear and antagonism of a lifetime, a compound of superiority (“Oh, I’d rather be friends with men, they’re much more stimulating!” Translation: I’m not like them, I’ve made it out of the ghetto) and sexual competitiveness. Revise: I’m starting to be interested in other women. To feel warmth and sympathy. To recognize a new loyalty. To realize other women are not the enemy. To understand as a gut reality the phenomenon of rulers setting the ruled against each other.

Also: I stop using certain expressions.

1) “Personal,” as in don’t blame the social system for your personal inadequacies. True, we all have our idiosyncrasies. We each cope with certain situations better than with others. A. is better than I am at the sexual game, I am better at the work game. But the situations themselves are common to all of us. And they all have a common denominator, namely the subordination of women to men. That is politics, not personality.

2) “Extreme case.” W. is an extreme case—most bosses aren’t like that. A rapist is an extreme case. But oddly enough, we’ve all run into our share of extreme cases. A lyncher is an extreme case. In all probability some lower-class, right-wing nut. Decent people don’t approve of lynching. But their racism produces the lynchers. And sexism produces martinets, rapists, and wife-beaters.

If you refuse to be a domestic servant and your man calls you bitchy and unloving, the whole culture backs him up.

December: one night someone says the main obstacle to our liberation is that we’ve swallowed sexist ideology; we must stop feeling guilty about being “unfeminine,” refuse to play our traditional roles. This touches off an emotional argument. It’s not a matter of brainwashing, the opposition insists. There are consequences for stepping out of our roles. If you refuse to be a domestic servant and your man calls you bitchy and unloving, the whole culture backs him up. It won’t help to find another man. Most men won’t accept our individual attempts at self-liberation—why should they? They are organized, we aren’t. Names do hurt us: they’re warnings. If we step out of line too often, the penalties are loneliness, sexual deprivation, and in most cases, the economic and spiritual dead end of menial jobs. Unless we can manage to please a man, even the one significant human activity reserved for women—bringing up children—is available to us only at an exorbitant cost.

So if women are “brainwashed” it’s because facing their powerlessness is too painful. If we can’t change things, it doesn’t help to stew about them. And we can only change things together. As we build a movement, as we organize to attack the institutions that keep us down, our psychic defenses will go too. Guilt is fear.

Fear… What about my fear of sexual exploitation? Isn’t it just a residue of traditional morality propaganda? Isn’t it my father’s disapproval I’m unconsciously worried about? That’s what I’ve always assumed, but as soon as I say it I know it’s not true. I’m afraid of something real. But what? How does it work?

We talk. And again, there’s the exhilaration of finding out it’s not just me. Everyone understands exactly what I mean. All of us bohemian-radical-freaks who consort with men who espouse the sexual revolution agree that something is not quite kosher about the sexual revolution. Notes hinted the same thing, and because I wasn’t ready to assimilate it, I got angry. If you can’t change things, it doesn’t help to stew…

There can be no sexual revolution in a vacuum. Our sexual status, like our economic and political status, has improved somewhat since the Victorian era, but the rhetoric of emancipation has far outstripped the social reality. The “liberated woman,” like the “free world,” is a fiction that obscures real power relations and defuses revolution. How can women, subordinate in every other sphere, be free and equal in bed? Men want us to be a little free—it’s more exciting that way. But women who really take them at their word put them uptight and they show it—by their jokes, their gossip, their obvious or subtle putdowns of women who seem too aggressive or too “easy.” By denying that these attitudes still predominate, the sexual revolution propaganda has undermined our main defense against them, which was to insist, as a prerequisite to sex, that men love us or accept responsibility for us—or at least hang around long enough so that we can know what we’re getting into. Now that all this is unhip we are under pressure to sleep with men on their terms, because if we won’t, other women will. Not that there’s anything wrong with casual pleasure. It must be nice to be able to be casual. But we’ve never had that option. On the contrary, to avoid both the humiliation of being treated as an object and the frustration of celibacy, we have to be supersensitive game players. It’s nerve-wracking and not much fun, except for a few real adepts (the femme fatales). Many women just give up, let men treat them like shit, and call it freedom or innate feminine altruism. A few decide that men aren’t worth the hassle. But most of us try to hang in there.

For the first time I understand what is ultimately wrong with the “change your head” line. Up against the wall, Beatles.

G

“Up From Radicalism,” which was published in US Magazine in 1969, appears in its entirety in the forthcoming The Essential Ellen Willis, University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2014 Nona Willis Aronowitz.

Ellen Willis (1941-2006) was the first rock critic for The New Yorker, an editor and columnist at The Village Voice, and co-founder of the radical feminist group Redstockings. Her writing appeared in numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and The Nation. She established the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University and wrote Beginning to See the Light and No More Nice Girls, both reissued from Minnesota in 2012, as well as Don’t Think, Smile! Her award-winning posthumous collection of rock criticism, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, was published in 2011, also by the University of Minnesota Press.

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One comment for Up from Radicalism

  1. Comment by Pooja on May 12, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    Heart- wrenching.

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