THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Rape Is a Crime Not of Lust, but Power.” – Susan Brownmiller, 1975
Interviewed by Noreen Connell, October 2019
NC: This is October 11, 2019 and I am interviewing Susan Brownmiller. What was your life like before you got involved in the women’s movement?
SB: I never understood why I couldn’t get a better job wherever I was. We were aware of this discrimination, but we didn’t have that word “sexist” yet. It was all very confusing to me.
NC: And you grew up where?
SB: I grew up in Brooklyn. I was born in 1935 and my parents were lower middle class. I say lower because, except for the war years when people did well, my father had trouble earning a living. He ended up in the garment center as a salesman, which he was really wrong for. But it was the work that he found.
He grew up in a shtetl in Poland. The Poles called it Agastova, but the Jews called it Yagastuf in Yiddish. He had a terrible accent. He was not good at English. He worried a lot about his ability. He was just obsessed with how to support a daughter. He went overboard. He campaigned to have me take the commercial track in high school.
That was crazy. I was very bright, and I wanted to go to college and my mother wanted me to go to college. In fact, she taught me to say this little phrase when I was a kid, When I grow up I’m going to go to Smith, Vassar or Wellesley and then to curtsy. And he’s telling me to take the commercial track in high school. It was a very divided family, but I turned out pretty interesting.
I tell everybody who complains about their parents, look at you – you survived it, you are doing just fine. I ended up at Cornell with two small scholarships. My mother was helping to pay for it. She didn’t have enough money. She didn’t want to tell me that, but she thought I’d be happy with a year at Cornell. I went back a second year and I was a waitress in the dormitories. I was a terrible waitress in the dining hall. They had this thing called “gracious living”. It wasn’t gracious for us. I did not graduate from Cornell.
NC: Then what happened?
SB: I was finding my way toward journalism. I got very lucky. In 1964 I used my summer vacation from Newsweek and went to Mississippi for Freedom Summer. That’s what it’s called now. Then it was the summer project. I was assigned to Meridian where Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were murdered outside of Meridian in the town of Philadelphia. And then returned to New York. It seemed important to vote for Lyndon Johnson.
I went back and resumed working at Newsweek as a fact checker, but I just couldn’t take this bourgeoisie life and I returned to Mississippi. This time I was assigned to the central office of COFO, Congress of Federated Organizations in Jackson, MS on Lynch Street. The movement was in terrible shape. It was just awful. There was very little spirit left and the press was not interested in the civil rights movement in Mississippi after Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were murdered.
But I had heard that there was a federal program called the Cotton Allotment Election in the Delta where blacks could vote. It wasn’t like going to the courthouse and registering to vote, you could vote in the Cotton Election in your Delta town. A guy and I went to Panola, MS and I wrote something about it. I couldn’t get the official press to write anything, but I had a friend at the Village Voice, Jack Newfield. This is in sixty-four.
I mailed my article to Jack and he gave it to Dan Wolf, the editor in chief, and Dan ran it. It got a lot of mail. The mail section of the Village Voice was very popular, because it was free. People wrote their letters, they agreed, they disagreed. Dan was pleased with the response to my article on the Cotton Election. He told Jack, “Do you think she might like to contribute to us at the Voice?”
That was a miracle for me. Did I know it was a miracle? Not particularly. I wasn’t really a Village Voice reader at that time. I started freelancing for the Village Voice and I had lots of friends who gave me tips for under the radar stories, because the Voice didn’t want something that would be in the New York Times. I was scrambling for stuff that nobody else was covering. And it worked very well. It really worked very well for me.
NC: So how did you get involved in the women’s movement?
SB: Well there was an early group, a very early group in New York called New York Radical Women. It was the first group in New York, and they would say at every meeting we’re not feminists. They were red diaper babies for the most part. But they wanted to meet and talk about stuff that the men were not willing to talk about.
My friend Jan Goodman told me, “There’s this group that’s meeting. They’re really talking about women.” I said, “Oh yeah, sure they’re talking about women.” I went to a meeting with Jan and just my luck Kathie Amatniek, later Kathie Sarachild, was a big deal in this group, and she said, “Tonight’s subject is when you want to have a child do you want to have a boy or a girl?”
Peggy Dobbins said, “Come on, Kathie, we’ve been over this before. And I told you that I had a child, a beautiful boy and I had to give him away.” Boy did the ice break. One by one the women in the room started to talk about how they found an abortion doctor. Some went to New Jersey, to a mafia place and were blindfolded. I mean the stories were amazing and they were all about one abortion and it was coming around to me and you know I’m competitive.
I said, “Well, I’ve had three illegal abortions all outside of the continental United States.” And then I sort of started to cry. I said, “I guess I’m lucky to be alive today. Because you put yourself in such great risk trying to find an abortion doctor who’s for real, who’s a good provider.” I turned to Jan Goodman and I said, “Jan, my last one was six months ago, and I didn’t even tell you did I?”
NC: This was a consciousness-raising group?
SB: Yes, it was consciousness-raising. But it was definitely anti-feminist, because as red diaper babies they had this view that feminism was bad. It was eugenics or something like that. For them, rape was a white woman falsely accusing a black man and then he gets lynched. That was their theory. A couple years later, in 1968, New York Radical Women did the Miss America Protest and Carol Hanisch, whom I knew, hadn’t invited me to the meetings. She thought that I was so successful as a writer for the Village Voice that I wouldn’t get what women’s oppression was.
NC: So, she invited you to the meetings?
SB: No, she didn’t invite me, my friend Jan Goodman invited me after the Miss America Protest. Carol knew who I was and didn’t invite me to the planning meetings. And then a few years later Kathie Amatniek said to me, after I published Against Her Will, she said, “I haven’t read your book, Susan. It’s not that I wouldn’t read it, but there are so many issues to deal with and rape isn’t an issue.” She said this in front of Joan Lester who was married to Julius Lester who is black. Joan Lester’s face just went, huh?? And my face went, huh?? But that was Kathie’s leftist background.
NC: How did you get to New York Radical Feminists?
SB: New York Radical Feminists was Shulie Firestone and Anne Koedt.
NC: How did you get from New York Radical Women to New York Radical Feminists?
SB: New York Radical Women eventually broke apart. It had a lot of people; we would meet I think on University Place once a week. I saw Kathy Boudin there. I knew it was Kathy Boudin. This was before she became involved in the Weather Underground.
NC: How did you get from that group to New York Radical Feminists and who started NYRF?
SB: New York Radical Feminists was basically Anne Koedt and Shulie Firestone. They wanted to keep the leftists out. The leftists were always our problem. They were nervous, so they set up their group called the Stanton-Anthony Brigade. Jane Kramer wrote about them for The New Yorker. But for some reason I don’t know, either the women were afraid to use their real names or Jane Kramer decided that she would make up names and change their identities.
Short women became tall women, blondes became brunettes, she messed up everything in that article and it was published in The New Yorker. But their feeling was that we had to be nervous about these leftists and we are the Stanton-Anthony Brigade and we’re going to form all these groups on a neighborhood basis, which was a brilliant idea.
NC: So, you were in the original Brigade?
SB: No, the original one was the Stanton-Anthony Brigade and because NYRF was organized on a neighborhood basis, we were West Village One. We had a group that lived in Greenwich Village. So that’s who we were, but their idea was that we were supposed to study for six months and then apply to them for full membership. It was so elitist. It’s unbelievable. We had monthly meetings at the General Theological Seminary in Chelsea, beautiful space.
NC: And by that time there were lots of different groups right? There was the Village One. And I was on the Upper West Side. And there were about three groups on the Upper West Side. And then once a month on Sundays we would go to the meeting at the General Theological Seminary. Right. And I was at one of the meetings where they discussed having a rape conference or speak-out first.
SB: Yes, we all have our memories of that. At one of these monthly meetings, one of the leftists came in and said, “What do you people do besides contemplate your navels? What are your actions?” And in truth there weren’t any actions – we were very involved with consciousness raising.
The idea for the Ladies Home Journal sit-in started in a group called Media Women that I was also in. That was another group altogether. So, when the leftist said, “What do you people do? What are your actions?” Anne Koedt had to say something. She said, “Susan would you like to talk about this upcoming magazine action you’re having?” So that’s how I got the news to New York Radical Feminists.
NC: Was that your idea?
SB: There were 5 or 6 of us. It was not only my idea, there was a group of us. Of course not, if it was just my idea it would go nowhere. No, this group called Media Women was made up of media women. This was in 1968, and at Columbia University, students had occupied several buildings. That concept that you could do something impudent was very much in the air.
I said at Media Women, “I think we should have some sort of action at a women’s magazine. We should build it around Good Housekeeping doesn’t have my seal of approval.” That was their slogan, Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Then this woman named Sandie North said, “Let’s do it at the Ladies Home Journal. I used to work there. I have contacts that are still there.” We all said, YAY! And that’s how it happened. We chose the Ladies Home Journal.
NC: And you sat in their office, right?
SB: We sure did. And we sure got a lot of people to come – about 200 women. It was amazing that so many people showed up. We had Barnard Women’s Liberation, Columbia Women’s Liberation, New York Radical Feminists, even Redstockings. Yes, people came. A lot of women came, and a lot of reporters came, and it was remarkable. Our sit-in lasted eleven hours.
NC: And you were in the office of …
SB: John Mack Carter. Now, there is a guy who probably didn’t think it was a great success in life to be the editor for a woman’s magazine but that was the card that life dealt him. It never occurred to him that there were lots of women who didn’t care for this magazine and what it represented and had a male editor. And no blacks whatsoever, that of course was one of our issues. Sally Kempton was my pal then from the Village Voice. She did 20 pages of article suggestions and I wrote the demands.
I also called Marlene Sanders at ABC TV News and she was very helpful. She walked in right after we got there and went right over to John Mack Carter and said, “What is your response to what these women are saying?” He lost his voice. He couldn’t believe this was happening. He later said that it was the most transformative day of his life.
But there were people at the demonstration who felt it wasn’t radical enough. People have said that maybe were agent provocateurs. They were not agent provocateurs deliberately. They were just difficult young women. At one-point Shulie Firestone came over to me and said, “Susan, am I your leader in New York Radical Feminist’s?” I said, “Yes Shulie, I guess you are.” I had so much trouble getting them to go to the sit in. I said, “Yes, yes you are.” She said, “You tell the press they have to talk to me.” I said, “Shulie, they’re going to talk to whoever they want. Every woman here should be able to say something to the Press if they’re asked.”
That wasn’t good enough for Shulie, so she jumped on a chair near his desk. She had a copy of the Ladies Home Journal and she tried to tear it. It was a big substantial magazine and she couldn’t really tear it. Then she cried out, “We can get him. He’s small.” She leaped onto his desk; he was just sitting there frozen. I was frozen. The lesbian feminist Karla Jay was standing on the side. Karla had taken some karate or judo classes.
And I’ll be damned, as Shulie was hurling toward John Mack Carter, Karla managed to deflect her and Shulie landed in the arms of some protesters. It was just amazing that that happened because if Shulie had grabbed John Mack Carter the Journal people would have called the police and it would have been all, all over. But it wasn’t all over.
Now there are some people who believe that Shulie’s action got John Mark Carter to start taking us seriously in terms of negotiations. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But he was very weary, and he said, “All right I want to negotiate with a small group of you.” Everyone said, “Karla…Karla!” Some said, “Do what you want.” There were others who said, “This isn’t radical enough.” They wanted to turn over some filing cabinets.
I had anointed Jan Goodman as our legal advisor. She was then in law school and she said if you turn over the file cabinets you’re going to get arrested and it’ll probably be too late for us to get you out. You’ll be spending the night in jail. And they said, “What? We have to go to school tomorrow.”
They were unrealistic. Anyway, the sit-in was a great success. We got enormous publicity and the Journal gave us ten thousand dollars to produce a six-page supplement in the magazine that August.
NC: Which I read, and it got me involved in New York Radical Feminists. I read it, it was after the march I think or the big march on Fifth Avenue and I wrote to NOW and New York Radical Feminists and New York Radical Feminists was the only one who wrote back. NOW as usual was totally inefficient but that’s a whole other story. How did you get from that action to the rape conference? Because you were one of the organizers.
SB: By that time, I wanted to write. I really wanted to be a writer and I had gotten a try out at ABC TV News. It was the longest try out in the history of ABC News. They finally had to offer me a job.
NC: But you were already a well-known writer for the Village Voice. Yeah. Yeah. What happened when you were ABC News?
SB: I was a well-known writer at the Village Voice for seventy-five dollars a story. I had a category at the unemployment office called partially employed and I could not live on it. I said to Dan Wolf, “I need more money.”
And he said, “I could put you on staff for a hundred dollars a week.” That wasn’t really much of a salary, because at ABC the writers got a minimum of three hundred dollars a week. I said, “I can’t do it, Dan.” He said, “Michael Smith is leaving his eighth street walk up and I’ll tell him he should give you first crack at it.” I said, “I’m getting too old for a walk up.”
NC: How old were you then?
SB: I was always older than most of them. Every time I met Gloria Steinem she’d say, “Just remember I’m six months older than you.”
NC: You were working at ABC and writing for the Village Voice.
SB: I had to say goodbye to the Village Voice on a regular basis, because I was in my thirties and it was time to be a grown up.
NC: At that time there were things happening. There was infighting at New York Radical Feminists and yet this conference was on and I don’t remember Shulie being active in NYRF.
SB: No, because she was writing her book, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, published in 1970 when she was 25 years old. All the people in the Stanton-Anthony Brigade had book deals. They had one black person Celie, Celestine Ware, she got a book contract. Editors wanted Anne Koedt to write a book. Shulie had a book contract. Ellen Willis wasn’t ready to write a book, so she recommended Shulie to William Morrow and Company.
NC: And Ellen was in the Stanton Anthony Brigade too?
SB: No, she was in Redstockings. But she had come to New York Radical Women meetings. And she became an insider instantly, Ellen Willis. She looked right. That red hair, she’d rock up and down on the floor and spout her theories. I got in trouble with her once because she started talking about housewives, the problem with housewives. She said, “We’re going to go into every household, and we’ll form a union of housewives.”And me and my big mouth, I said, “The shops are too small.”
She was really upset that I made a wise crack. And Judith Duffett, who was there in the room, came to me and said, “You better watch it or you’re not going to stay in this movement.” And then we had something called the Congress to Unite Women that I called the Congress to Divide Women. Judith Duffet and some others started a petition to condemn me and Lucy Komisar for seeking to rise to fame on the back of the women’s movement. Because at that time there was this whole anti-elitist thing. Even in my own consciousness raising group.
I went to the New York Public Library where I wrote this history of rape. It took several years, and I was still going to my consciousness raising group. I went to a meeting and said, “I finished my book,” and one member of my own group said to me, “Why don’t you be the first feminist who doesn’t put her name on a book, your ideas came from all of us.” I thought, this is not good for my health.
NC: We still have to get to how you planned or were part of the planning group of the speak-out and then the conference on rape and who were the key people. Because you were one of the key people.
SB: So was Lelia Melani.
NC: And wasn’t the person who did something on incest?
SB: Florence Rush.
NC: Was she on the planning committee or she was a speaker and a presenter?
SB: She went to the speak-out and spoke at the conference. Florence made this miraculous leap from the old left to the new politics. Florence was amazing. She was in OWL, Older Women’s Liberation. She actually came to the speak-out. And then she was proposed as a person to speak at the conference and she did.
NC: And you spoke and so did Phyllis Chesler.
SB: Yes, Phyllis has said that she thought she was at the speak-out, but she wasn’t.
NC: No, she wasn’t, and I think I was part of that mistake. I actually didn’t go to the speak out, I went to the conference. And it was like a million explosions in my head at that conference. It was so great from beginning to end.
SB: Florence was the star. It was not Phyllis Chesler.
NC: Well Phyllis Chesler was my star. Because I had worked as a mental health worker at a halfway house for ex-mental patients.
SB: She published Women and Madness in 1972.
NC: I had talked to a lot of women at the halfway house in Chicago who recounted how often they had been raped. To even get that job I had to have a test for syphilis. Anybody who worked in mental health in the state of Illinois had to be tested for syphilis because they assumed there would be this sexual relationship between the staff and the patients – it was rampant rape and assault. And all the women were disbelieved because they were mental patients. But they were being raped.
SB: There was a woman in the Stanton-Anthony Brigade named Diane Crothers and she was well aware that the other members in the Brigade were no longer organizing the neighborhood groups. They all had book contracts. Diane asked if she could join West Village One. And she did. And one evening she walked in with a paper from California, It Ain’t Me Babe. It was a women’s alternative paper. These things were just happening, and she threw the paper down. It had a transcript of a hitchhike rape.
Diane said, “This is our next issue: rape.” And in my usual way, I was a bit behind, there were always others who had a vision before I did, I said, “You’re saying rape is a political crime against women?” Because I had absorbed the liberal and the left theory that rape was a white woman falsely accusing a black man. Sarah Pines in our group, a very quiet person, said, “I’ll talk about my hitchhike rape.” And she did.
She’d gone to one college was going back to her college from the weekend and two guys in a car came over to her and said are you looking for a ride? She was a very trusting person and she got in the car and sure enough they pulled to the side of the road and they raped her. She called the police. They didn’t harm her physically with bruises. She called the cops and a cop said to her, “Who’d want to rape a nice girl like you?” That was the cops’ response. So, she learned something. She told us this at a meeting of the New York Radical Feminists, West Village One.
And then Susan Frankel talked about an experience she had in Paris with a friend. They had invited two guys to their hotel room. All of a sudden it was like a near rape situation, but they got the guys out. It was revelation to me, because I’ve done a lot of hitchhiking but somehow I’d known that you never get into a car with more than one man in it. I don’t know how I knew these rules of the road, but I felt that listening to Sarah Pines and Susan Frankel that they were much more trusting of men than I was. I just knew there were rules of the road and you just gotta be careful when you’re out hitchhiking. So that was a revelation to me.
I said,”Let’s have a conference on rape.” And then somebody else said, “Come on Susan, we start with a speak-out and then we have the conference.” I said, “Oh right.” Rosemary Gaffney said that. I was always learning from the other people in my group. We had the speak-out and I took tickets at the door. That’s what I did. And then I went in to listen.
NC: Did Lilia Melani do a lot for the speak out or the conference?
SB: For the conference she definitely did. She chaired the meetings.
NC: For the speak out, who knows, it was a collective action.
SB: Yes, people volunteered.
NC: You just have to book the place, get the word out and they get the speakers.
SB: Yes, It was astonishing. Our women had different skills.
NC: I know a few hundred showed up as I remember it, as I was told.
SB: Yes. That’s when Alix Shulman testified. The speak-out had all kinds of people. It ran the gamut of what sexual assault was all about.
NC: And the particulars of it. First you were raped and then the police were incredulous. It was like you had both experiences. And the aftermath was as bad.
SB: One woman who testified at the speak-out said this guy was trying to get her down an alley basement, he was trying to drag her, and she kicked him in the balls. Then he gave up. So, she told this story to a cop. He said, “I think you did enough to that poor fellow, we’re not going to go out looking for him.” The testimony was amazing. After the speak out, Gail Sheehy the reporter – our people knew how to get reporters. They were always trying to get Gloria Steinem. One of our people had gotten in touch with Gail Sheehy. She was at New York Magazine then. And she wrote a great piece on the speak-out.
And that’s when I began to think, am I just an organizer or am I a writer? It was very nice that Gail Sheehy wrote this terrific piece for New York Magazine. I was one of many people who facilitated the speak-out, so that got me thinking about a book. Eventually, because of my Village Voice contacts I had gotten a lot of letters over the years from people saying if you have a book in you, please let me know. I didn’t have a book in me then, but I kept the letters.
I chose one agent and one editor. I called the agent. And she said, “Yes I think if you deliver a book in one year it will be very timely.” She asked who were my editor contacts. I said, “Jonathan Dolger at Simon & Schuster.” She said, “He’s a friend of mine. Let’s take it to Jonathan.” So, it happened…one, two, three.
NC: And this was before the conference?
SB: It was just before the conference, because what happened is that Minda Bikman and I were handing out flyers for the conference on 8th Street near the Eighth Street bookstore. And a guy stealthily came up behind me and pinched me in the rear end and then kept walking. I was so angry I followed him and what did I know about self-defense? I had taken some modern dance classes, so I swung my foot at him, and my foot came down on the pavement and I sprained my ankle, but I got him good in his rear end.
I had to go to the hospital to take care of my ankle. And then I wrote a piece for the Village Voice called On Goosing. It was a joke title. Many leftist articles were called On this, On that, On the Jewish question, On the woman question etc. Yes, I called it On Goosing. When we got to the conference I was hobbling.
NC: There were several hundred people at the conference I remember.
SB: There sure were.
NC: It was at a public school on the Upper East Side and jam packed. Absolutely. The morning started with good presentations at the plenary. And then there were excellent workshops.
SB: I wasn’t the only one from New York Radical Feminists at that conference who thought, hmmm, there must be a book in this. I wasn’t the only one. One woman wrote a very poignant piece called, Why I’m not writing a book about rape. It was because she went to the New York Public Library and looked in the card catalogs and there was no category for rape. I got to the New York Public Library and I discovered they had this room there called the [Fredrick Lewis] Allen Room and if you had a book contract you could get in but there were so many people on the waiting list. It took me a long time to get in.
It made all the difference in the world to me, because they let you keep your books for a month at your desk and the librarians were so helpful. I said to a librarian one day, “I’m looking for rape in World War I.” And she said, “You look up www.worldwar1atrocities.” So, I did. And that’s where all the testimonies of women getting raped in World War I was, who would have ever known that? Only a librarian. I went to the Jewish division and asked, “Is there any information on rape during the pogroms?” He said, “Absolutely.”
I couldn’t have done it without the New York Public Library, and I couldn’t have done it without the new friends I made in the Allen Room. This is the first time that I was in the company of writers who were writing long books, which was very different from writing a short piece for the Village Voice or doing book reviews for The New York Times, which I was doing a lot of by then.
NC: And you weren’t active in New York Radical Feminists at that time.
SB: I’d go to meetings but there came a time when I stopped. I remember very well. I went to a meeting and said, “I finished my book.” This is like three and a half years after I started the book. A woman in our consciousness raising group said, “Why don’t you be the first feminist not to put your name on a book?” I thought, this is now a negative place for me here. It’s funny, because my father who I told, “Hey Dad, I turned in my book on rape.” My mother had died by then. And he said – and you know it came out of his feelings of failure in life – he said, “So they bought your book. That doesn’t mean they’re going to publish it.”
I had a lot of support elsewhere, because rape was happening. I got two small foundation grants. By that time rape crisis centers were pretty much around the country, run by women who eventually burned out. There was a whole network of rape crisis centers sprouting up.
NC: We, the New York Radical Feminists went to Mayor Lindsay and asked him to declare August rape awareness month. And he broke out into laughter. He broke out and laughed, he thought it was so stupid. His aides were very embarrassed about his reaction. But there was a rape awareness month as a result of that meeting and that’s when I met the Women’s Political Caucus who were active in changing the laws and they got the laws changed in New York State.
SB: Yes, the corroboration laws. It was ridiculous. Rapes are not usually committed at high noon and in front of lots of other people.
NC: And then after the publication of the book and you did have an excellent review of the book.
SB: Yes, in the New York Times Book Review. It was on the front page and it went on for pages. It was remarkable.
NC: And the book was a bestseller.
SB: It was.
NC: And now it’s been translated into I don’t know how many languages all over the world.
SB: I’m now getting a South Korean translation.
NC: And if you open the book, every single issue is still under discussion, unfortunately.
SB: Unfortunately. We’ve lost tremendous ground on rape and we’ve lost tremendous ground on abortion. And of course, a lot of it is Mr. Trump our unstable genius.
NC: Well since he dominates all discussions we will not talk about him. But after the rape conference and after the book, you then became a leader of the anti-pornography movement in New York City, which was as difficult as the rape issue. Tell me how you got involved in the anti-pornography movement, which was so pivotal.
SB: It started in California as many of our issues did start. And actually, Detroit was a big center too. There was a group in California called WAVPM, Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media. They had a conference in San Francisco, and they invited me and Andrea Dworkin. We both went. It was at a daylong conference and then we had a march. What I remember about the march is that everybody was waving at us with this smug look of oh aren’t we wonderful in San Francisco there’s always something interesting here. I asked the two organizers, Laura Lederer and Lynn Campbell, if they’d consider coming to New York. Lynn came. I thought that the future of the movement was in her.
NC: She got a little office here in NY.
SB: She did. We had a meeting here in my apartment with a guy from the city.
NC: From Times Square.
SB: Yes, from the Times Square Midtown Enforcement Project.
NC: And they gave a little office right?
SB: Yes, the guy came to my apartment and asked what do you need? And Lynn Campbell piped up – office space. There was a bar in the Times Square area, I think it was on 9th Ave., that the city had foreclosed because the owners were so far behind on their taxes. He said I think we have the space for you. And then we got in touch with the New York League of Theater Owners and they saw our mission as a clean-up Times Square mission, which at that time offended us. This was a national movement. It’s not just clean up Times Square, but I’ll tell you the work that we did do did help clean up Times Square – [it] was terrific.
NC: And you had tours.
SB: Oh, we sure did. I’m trying to think if that was a Lynn Campbell idea too. Incredible idea. We announced that we would take people on tours of Times Square of all the peep shows. And it was so popular that people in Europe learned of this tourist attraction. It got into their newspapers. If you go to New York, there is a tour that’s absolutely free and will knock your socks off. We had a slide show. We had the famous picture from Hustler of a woman’s body being put in a meat grinder and her legs were up in the air. We showed pornography of Nazis assaulting women. When a Jewish War veterans group came, they were apoplectic.
NC: I went to a conference in Barnard. I’d been assigned to go to this conference at Barnard by Planned Parenthood and it so happened to be the same day as my sister’s wedding. So, I was furious. But there was no way of getting out of this, attending this conference and lo and behold at the end of this conference you and others of the anti-pornography movement showed up to protest this conference.
The conference, unbeknownst to Planned Parenthood or me, was promoting S & M. The wars between – there were several wars. They were the people who were against censorship. And then there was the pro pornography group that Ellen Willis and Alix Kates Shulman who wanted to define the anti-pornography movement not as a feminist critique and exposition, but said you were anti sexuality, so it was really fierce fighting within the women’s movement.
SB: It was a really damaging slogan. They call themselves the pro sex feminists. The implication was that we were the anti sex feminists. And then they had this group called FACT, Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force. Maybe six of them, but they created a lot of trouble. And on the West Coast there was a woman named Pat Califia who was their person defending sadomasochistic practices as part of women’s natural sexuality. There were tops and bottoms and she was a top. And it’s true, unfortunately most of the women drawn to her were bottoms and they were masochists and she rode high for a number of years. And then she transgendered and became Patrick Califia.
NC: Now there’s a movement to legalize prostitution.
SB: Well yes. And needless to say, I’m against that.
NC: What issues besides rape were of greatest concern to you? You’ve mentioned abortion.
SB: Those have been my two big issues and those were the issues that united women to have a real feminist movement. First on abortion rights, where we’ve lost badly, and then with rape. We didn’t have rape kits when I was writing Against Our Will.
NC: Yes, we did for hospitals, but they wouldn’t use them. That was the battle, right? They had the rape kits – they wouldn’t use them. We got them to use them and then nobody actually looked at the DNA results.
SB: Yes. And therefore, there were serial rapists going from state to state and they could have been stopped in their tracks.
NC: That’s still a problem of unexamined rape kits. And that’s still a problem. Because it’s expensive to do analysis.
SB: There was a guy just recently in the news. The FBI used to call them career rapists, now they’re understood as serial rapists. He went from state to state and mostly he found young prostitutes, young women who were so vulnerable and they assumed that he was a trick and then he’d kill them.
NC: He killed 93 women so far. That’s what he said.
SB: You’ve heard that story? It’s the most astonishing story. And he has this vivid memory. He draws pictures of his victims. He remembers them all.
NC: That would be a tremendous boon if they would analyze the rape kits. And then they don’t.
SB: They would have had DNA evidence.
NC: After the anti-pornography activism, when did you sort of fade out of that? Because it’s still going on.
SB: There is this woman, Gail Dines, who has made that her life’s work.
NC: It branched out to anti-trafficking, Charlotte Bunch, Dorchen Leidholdt. We worked on the surrogacy issue together. She linked surrogacy to the trafficking of women which accompanies surrogacy.
SB: My activist days were behind me, but I followed it. It was interesting to see it.
NC: What were your major accomplishments personally and that you were involved with?
SB: I have to say that publishing the book on rape was probably my best moment. Sometimes, I’m just amazed that people still remember my name because the #metoo movement seemed to get by without me. I think it happens to most writers – like you think you’re unassailable. It was my feeling that my work is going to talk for me for the rest of my life. I don’t have to go out there anymore. But it’s not true. People will try to tear you down anyhow and they do.
I was in the lobby of a movie theater when a woman came over to me, didn’t say who she was, a reporter for New York Magazine and asked, “What do you think of the people who feel that they can wear whatever they want?” I answered you can, but you know there are predators out there and I would advise you not to wear whatever you want to wear. I also would advise you not to go to a fraternity house and get drunk because even though it’s not supposed to, it will affect the minds of a jury. Truth is that there are a lot of women haters out there who say, oh no this was not a rape; it was obviously consensual. The story she wrote – “Brownmiller blames women” – hurt me badly.
NC: We do not live in an ideal world.
SB: No, we certainly don’t.
NC: And pretending that we do is sort of foolhardy.
SB: And with P.C. language getting to be what it is, it’s like destroying language. You know, I just have to feel positive. I have to feel we will win on abortion and I have to feel we will stop all this nonsense about “it’s God’s will if you are raped”.
NC: How has your involvement in the movement affected your later life personally and professionally?
SB: I’m just so glad it happened, that we had a movement. And it was never easy. In our famous West Village One, Sally Kempton brought in Grace Paley who she stayed with us for 13 weeks and then said thank you very much. I’ve learned a lot but I’m going back to my anti-war work. Fair enough for Grace Paley. She and I had an ideological tangle over the “crazies”. I said, “I’ll never forget as long as I live how many people in our movement were crazy.” And she said, “Don’t attack the crazies; they do a lot, they accomplish a lot.” I guess she was right. In retrospect the crazies had their role too. Sometimes they were helpful.
NC: I was surprised at how many angry women joined NOW. And then when NOW attracted less angry women, we did less. I mean it was just bizarre. And I think there was a tremendous brain drain, but this is now, when women could succeed in their professions; and before, you had this sort of underemployed, under compensated women who had a lot of talent and they brought that to the women’s movement.
SB: And then the big surprise was how many women turned out to be our enemies. I mean Women for Trump. How can there be Women for Trump? There are.
NC: I’m reading now a very boring book about the suffrage campaign in New York State. And then last night I was trying to figure out whether I should bother reading the Suffrage Campaign in Maine. And again, the shock that there would be women on the other side. And in the Maine history you get all the money that went from the liquor interests to the campaign against suffrage. People forget that the temperance amendment passed before the women’s vote. And if that hadn’t happened we wouldn’t have gotten the vote. The liquor interests had already lost.
SB: Susan B. Anthony started in the temperance movement.
NC: And the anti-slavery movement too, which is something Brent Staples doesn’t really seem to recognize.
SB: There are still people out there trying to paint our movement as racist. They call Margaret Sanger a racist. They attack everything we’ve done.
NC: Have you been involved as an activist in the women’s movement or other areas since your second wave experience?
SB: There was a first big women’s march after the election of Trump. It was a big thing in Washington. I was marching in New York. And I thought, what poster should I carry for this? I made a poster that said Abortion is a Good Thing and people I was marching with were not happy. I went too far. But it is a good thing. You know it really is a good thing.
NC: Tremendous amount of freedom and choice.
SB: We didn’t talk about the gay/straight split.
NC: Go ahead. That was the other issue during that time too.
SB: It was a huge issue.
NC: It was sort of an anti-elitism, they didn’t want the famous Susan Brownmiller there, but they didn’t want a straight woman either. It was a hostile environment.
SB: I know. I remember I once said I didn’t organize a conference to have a women’s dance afterword. I didn’t come into this movement to dance. And then they made up this fake quote from Emma Goldman – it’s not my revolution if I can’t dance to it – she never said that.
NC: She never said that, she wasn’t that sort of person anyway. Are you currently involved as an activist?
SB: I’m 84 and that puts a blight on my activism right there. I’ve not been asked to speak at any current events on the stage. Someone reluctantly asked me to go to Binghamton and then she said, “Could you tell us your fees?” And I’m thinking – oh, Binghamton. She said, “I know you went to Cornell and Binghamton is nearby.” And I said, “I know, but I’m 84 and I just had a terrible fall and I can’t go to Binghamton.”
NC: I’ll tell you the college fees will collect money for speakers, and it can be up to two thousand dollars.
SB: Before I had this terrible accident I spoke at three colleges and made very good money, but I have to say at each college I ran into people who said, “You’re all wrong. That’s not what we think. We think sex work is a good thing.” That was one of their issues, and then at another college they said our issues are transgender rights these days. I don’t like being repudiated like that.
At Medgar Evers in Brooklyn I got twenty-five hundred dollars. I was going along very nicely in the speech. I was making fun of Harvey Weinstein and that was fine and then I mentioned Bill Cosby. This was a school that was mostly black. The president of the college was on the stage and he came right over to me and said wrap it up. He didn’t want to hear anybody attacking Bill Cosby. I was stunned. I said I’m almost finished – he said you should stop now. I said just a few more words – he said stop now.
That was unpleasant. I just hope that I have enough money to last for the rest of my life. But it’s not going to be giving speeches around the country. I want to be respected, not attacked.
NC: We live in strange times where there’s a thousand opinions on everything. Almost confusing I think for a young person given the plethora of different theories and ideological points of view. But you’re now a supporter of Elizabeth Warren. We rarely agree on the candidates to support but I’m so glad to be alive to see her candidacy. I hope she wins, but who knows?
SB: I wish her the best of luck.
NC: Now is there anything relevant that we haven’t covered?
SB: No, but it’s nice that we agree on Elizabeth Warren. She’s likable and you know Trump is nervous.
NC: I really want to thank you for your time.
SB: It was my pleasure.