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Feminist Origins


Judy Rebick

With

memories of the Battle of Seattle still dancing in our heads and thoughts of the

World March of Women against poverty and violence beginning to take shape, it

might be a good time to think about how social movements actually develop.

In

this age of celebrity worship, it is hard to remember that most social movements

begin with the actions of a small group of radicals working outside of the glare

of media scrutiny. A good reminder, not to mention a delightful read is Susan

Brownmiller’s new book, "In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution." You

will probably remember Brownmiller as the author of "Against Our

Will," probably the most important book on feminist theory of rape. She has

now taken her skill as a researcher and journalist and looked back on the early

days of the American women’s movement, second wave. What’s remarkable about her

book is that it introduces us to the women who were really the pioneers of

second wave feminism, and in particular radical feminism. She talks about the

women whose names we know like Shulamith Firestone, author of the Dialectics of

Sex, Ti-Grace Atkinson and Rita Mae Brown, but reveals their role inside the

movement, not always in flattering terms. But she also tells us about women

whose names we don’t know. Carol Hanish invented the phrase "the personal

is political," and came up with the idea for the Miss America Protest, the

first action of the burgeoning women’s movement. Anne Koedt wrote, "The

Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm, which was circulated in mimeographed form long

before it was reprinted in books. Kathie Sarachild coined the phrase,

"Sisterhood is Powerful.”

One

of the delights of Browmiller’s memoir is her meticulous research into the

origins of almost every feminist legend, at least those which began in the

United States. The other is that she credits the radicals for many of the new

ideas of the movement. She points out for example that famous feminists like

Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer were more transmission belts of the these

ideas into the mainstream than originators. One of the most interesting chapters

to me was on the media. Brownmiller makes it clear that it was women working

inside the media that helped to connect the ideas of a handful of radicals in

various American cities to the masses of American women who were suffering from

what Betty Friedan called the problem with no name.

I

don’t remember the sex discrimination complaint filed by the women at Newsweek

in 1970 to correspond to the timing of the Newsweek cover story, "Women in

Revolt." Nor did I know about the Ladies’ Home Journal sit-in in March 1970

where two hundred women occupied the offices of editor in chief John Mack Carter

for eleven hours demanding more feminist content and women editors in women’s

magazines.

I

was also impressed with Brownmiller’s fairness in reporting those early days,

warts and all. For example, she acknowledges the role of the Trotskyist

Socialist Workers’ Party with getting the women’s movement out into the streets

over the abortion issue. While I have personal knowledge of the role of the

Trotskyist women in the early days of the pro-choice movement, I have never seen

that recognition from radical feminists before. Reading Browmiller’s book is

also a bit like a stroll down memory lane. The ferocious battles over minor

political differences, the utopian notions of feminism as the opposite of

patriarchy in every way, the tyranny of structurelessness…all of these

problems in the movement are described along with the many strengths.

"I

felt it was my duty to explain to people as vividly as possible how these ideas

emerged," Brownmiller told me in an interview in Toronto during her book

tour. Brownmiller captures the energy, spirit and sometimes crazy idealism of

the times. She tells one story about how she was trashed in her consciousness

raising group because the other women just didn’t understand why she felt it was

necessary to put her name on her rape book as the author. In just a couple of

decades we have gone to the opposite extreme where individual recognition seems

more important than anything else.

While

Brownmiller’s book is more a collective memoir than a political analysis, I

think young people in particular could benefit a lot just from seeing how such a

few women could make such a big difference through organizing and speaking out.

Brownmiller believes the women’s movement was basically over by the 1980′s. In

Canada the height of the women’s movement took place during the 1980′s with the

successful struggles for equality rights in the Constitution, decriminalization

of abortion, federal employment equity (affirmative action) and provincial pay

equity. Even though the backlash against feminism was ferocious in the 1980′s

surely the movement continued and continues to have influence.

Her

view of a movement seems to be based on the development of new ideas. It is a

very ideological notion of a social movement and one that I don’t share. Since I

spent those years in Canada I really have no idea about the accuracy of

Brownmiller’s account. Needless to say as a radical feminist her focus is almost

entirely on women active in the independent women’s movement. I would have loved

to find out what women in the labour movement were doing during that period.

Certainly a similar history done in Canada would have to be more broadly

focussed to be accurate. Nevertheless, the book is a wonderful read and a good

reminder of how a few people with clear ideas and good organizing can make a

difference even without much money.