Aug 12, 2020, 12:19:49 AM8/12/20
(Review from *Chicago Tribune*, 1998)
THE FEMINIST MEMOIR PROJECT:
Voices From Women's Liberation
Edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow
Three Rivers Press, 531 pages, $20 paper
At first, they didn't mean to change history. When they got a tip about the Senate hearings on the birth-control pill in 1969, Alice Wolfson and her young radical hippie friends just wanted more information. Four out of five women in their group, the D.C. Women's Liberation/Welfare Rights Alliance, had experienced side effects, such as hair loss, that they connected on their own to the pill. Meanwhile, the medical Establishment denied any such effects and blamed such suspicions on women's neuroses.
Later, perched in a back row at the hearings, they felt their anger build. The scientists there cavalierly admitted to great medical risks, and yet not a single woman was invited to testify about her experience. "To this day I do not remember exactly what tipped us over--what comment became too much to bear," writes Wolfson in "The Feminist Memoir Project." "All I remember is the outrage mounting. At first we politely raised our hands, but of course we were ignored. . . . And then we were on our feet raising our hands. Still they wouldn't recognize us. That's when we began to call out questions."
The TV cameras turned to them, and their increasingly loud protest made international news. They had raised to mass consciousness the issue of women controlling their bodies--and helped spur the women's health movement. This group and others moved on to publicize the risks to women and mount action that would lead to a safer reformulation of the pill, along with the first informational patient package insert for a prescription medicine.
Wolfson is one of more than 30 women who recount the behind-the-scenes and often complicated stories of their activism in "The Feminist Memoir Project," an ambitious, intellectually challenging, sprawling and sometimes dauntingly unprocessed account of the emerging radical women's movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The book is valuable for providing a much-needed, unfiltered voice to the true diversity of often-unrecognized revolutionary activists who greatly raised consciousness about women's oppression in every aspect of their daily lives. (While celebrating her life as an activist, however, Wolfson's essay is no propaganda for feminism. She criticizes some radical feminists for their increasing political rigidity, evidenced in a request that a splinter group made to her when she was pregnant that she give up her baby if it turned out to be male.)
This large volume tells the story of a particular group, angry young women on the margins, who--despite in-fighting, doubts and fears--ultimately transformed the mainstream. These are the women who staged the first national feminist action, the protest against the Miss America Pageant of 1968, and who read aloud Valerie Solanis' tongue-in-cheek SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto. They put forth the most inflammatory rhetoric, staged the most theatrical protests, lived the most alternative of lifestyles, and tried the least to fit in. Today, in a more conservative era--when the apolitical and shallow Spice Girls stand as popular role models for "girl power"--these real radicals stand out even more strikingly for their commitment and daring.
While lacking the star power of a Gloria Steinem or a Betty Friedan, who took more moderate stances and had more mainstream appeal, these revolutionaries exerted much of their influence by inspiring other feminists. Less popularly known is contributor Michele Wallace, the author of one of the most influential black feminist books, "Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman." Relatively few non-activists recognize the spiraling impact of Heather Booth, a University of Chicago graduate and prominent national organizer, who is said to have helped found more early feminist groups (such as the Chicago Women's Liberation Union and the underground abortion service Jane) than anyone else.
These are the feminists' feminists; many of the followers of these radical women launched their own protests.
The memoir format, gaining great popularity in the 1990s, works effectively to fully illuminate and give texture to political experiences of the 1960s. By offering these women's personal lives, "The Feminist Memoir Project" provides a new, complex layer to feminist history, including a rich Chicago feminist history. These sober, straightforward reflections are more relevant and accessible than the more revolutionary, utopian and incendiary (yet more entertaining) writings by these same women from 30 years ago, such as those collected in the 1970 anthology "Sisterhood Is Powerful," edited by Robin Morgan.
This memoir also goes beyond many popular works of this genre in its lack of narcissism; instead of just analyzing themselves, these women also connect their experiences to a wider social movement. Editors Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow even courageously invite other feminists to critique the essays in a final section. They emphasize that they "seek not nostalgia but continuing engagement with the questions modern feminism has so vividly posed." (This is the first book I have ever read with the industriousness to offer criticism of itself--even harsh criticism, such as in Barbara Smith's critique of some white contributors' blindness to racism.)
Instead of delivering manifestoes about how things should be, these women recount experiences as they were. An example is Alix Kates Shulman, who expresses her real turmoil over her famous marriage contract, which involved both spouses agreeing to share status and household duties--and exposed women to the radical concept of equality in marriage. While she publicly promoted the success of her own equal marriage, she hid when it started to crumble.
Other activists tell of the steep personal price of life on the fringe. After she describes the exhilaration of the Miss America protest she engineered, Carol Hanisch tells, with incredible candor, about her subsequent feelings of financial, personal and physical isolation when the organized radical movement lost steam in the mid-1970s.
A surprisingly large number of contributors also expose the dirty laundry of the early women's movement not revealed by their past writings. Many, even some of the most influential early feminists, discuss their pain at growing extremist and sectarian preoccupations with defining the "pure feminist" and then driving all others out. Among these is Jo Freeman, the publisher of the first national feminist newsletter, who alienated fellow members of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union when she spoke too much to the media and did not live up to communal non-celebrity ideals.
The book's honesty, however, may also pose a roadblock to readers. Probably to preserve the integrity of the pieces, editors have done minimal editing. Often written like diary entries, the essays (such as those by Roxanne Dunbar, Anselma Dell'Olio and Wallace) sometimes lack focus and discipline. Without the help of overarching points, transitions and developed conclusions, the reader often has to do too much work to figure out how it all connects. In a book of 500-plus pages, this can make a difference to a reader, especially one not familiar with radical feminist politics. While reinforcing important points, many essays also wear on the reader by recounting the same tedious, internal political housekeeping debates (which do indeed characterize a communally based activist life).
The honest and complex discussions also reflect, for better and for worse, how the movement itself has changed, matured and sobered. These social critics no longer speak in the platitudes of student radicals who expected a real revolution to take place within a few years. In their introduction, while remaining idealistic, the editors even call the concept of sisterhood "a fiction." They no longer expect women to unite purely on the basis of gender, more widely recognizing divisions along class, race and other lines. But, as the editors write in their introduction, this book is "no elegy." They have hope in women recognizing their differences and then working to create a more diverse and vital movement than ever before. They, along with their contributors, acknowledge that for future generations to make progress, they must honestly assess the gains and the heartbreaks of the past, discarding all illusions.