THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Our Ideas Became Our Lives.”
Interviewed by Linda Boyd Kavars, 1991
LK: When did you get involved in the women’s movement?
VG: I was in my 30s, it was 1969 or ’70 when I started. I am a child of working-class communists. I grew up inside a home that was dominated by the Marxist romance of class struggle so I have been political since I was a child. My sense of the political-ness of life is very strong and very early developed. It was a great, exciting romance for me. I felt before I ever understood that politics is a vitality that transforms the poorest of lives, that was really the lesson of my childhood.
By the time I was 16 or 17 years old, the Marxist romance was over for me: I went to school, I went to City College. It was called the proletarian of Harvard and it was. We were all smart, fast talking, Jewish kids mostly, and working class. We all were fired immensely by the life of the mind. And once I discovered the life of the mind, I lost socialism. I drifted away through a turbulent life composed of a lot of wandering, two marriages, two divorces, starting and stopping PhD programs, depression, diversion, difficulty, not knowing – like everybody else. I wandered in my own life without knowing what to do, what I wanted, who I was.
I cannot account for why or how a girl like me who was reading novels since she was six years old, was filled with the nineteenth century romance of the “independent girl.” That was part of the romance too, but of course I knew that wasn’t really true because I always felt the need to get married and to have someone. My mother said to me, you’re a smart girl, Vivian, make something of yourself; but always remember love is the most important thing in a woman’s life. That was fundamentally the message of the entire world. Nevertheless, I said, it’s a man’s world and I’ll have none of it. But I didn’t know what I was talking about and I didn’t mean it. But we always talk that rhetoric. That’s a rhetoric that remains in culture from the ’20s on, from the time of the new woman.
The fantastic thing about feminism is it raises its little head every fifty years or so for the last two hundred years, and the rhetoric never completely dies. The rhetoric remains when the political life goes. We talked the way women in the 1920s talked about being the “new woman.” Girls like me, like my friends, but we didn’t mean it anymore and we didn’t know what it meant; they were empty words. It was the rhetoric of independence – I’ll never marry, marriage is slavery for a girl. I remember talking about this and not knowing what the hell it meant, meaning none of it. So, I wandered like everybody else in the ’60s.
I cannot account for what happened towards the very end of it: that history of cancel culture, the civil rights movement with all of its effects, and how slowly light bulbs were going on in women’s heads. They weren’t going on in my head. I was not part of the ’60s in that sense. I was not part of the cancel culture; I was not part of the civil rights movement. Having been a red diaper baby, I was cynical in my 20’s. I would have nothing to do with politics, it meant nothing to me.
I didn’t directly experience what many women on the left experienced, who came out of SDS, came out of the world of civil rights, who saw that they entered the revolution and they were just running the mimeograph machine and bringing coffee, that there was no real place for them and that this whole wave was beginning to form again inside of profound female dissatisfaction and a great sense of one’s self as being part of a world that would always institutionally and immemorially and historically shunt you to the side. You were never going to take part in the major central action of your time or conceive of your own life in that way.
That is big political stuff, and that comes every 50 years or so and it was beginning to form. I was not feeling it directly because I wasn’t in there doing these things as many others were in the ’60s. But I was feeling it subliminally, as many others like me were. I drifted around for a lot of time, on the verge of my second divorce, living in California. I returned to New York in 1970. I was in my middle thirties and I was ready to try to make a living as a writer. I went to work at the Village Voice and I had written enough so that they were willing to give me this job. I’d written a piece a year for five years for Dan Wolf, who ran the newspaper.
Now it’s 1970, I appear in his office and I ask him for a job. He says to me, “You’re a neurotic Jewish girl, you can only produce one piece a year, how can I give you a job?” I said, “No more, I’ll do anything you want. I’m not that girl.” I didn’t even know what I was talking about, but I wanted desperately to live a writer’s life. I had made that decision that I was going to come back and do that no matter what it took. I had done enough so that he was willing to do that. He said, “OK, any assignment I give you, you have to take no matter what.”
It’s important that I didn’t go to Newsweek or the New York Times. I didn’t want to become a newspaper woman. I wanted to work for a writer’s newspaper, I wanted to work for a place where I could become a social critic. I wanted to think and write. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but what I wanted to do was personal journalism, I didn’t have the words to put to it. That’s what I had done in the five years that I had written for him on and off. It was always taking my own experience, making a story out of it, and interpreting it from a social perspective. That was what personal journalism was and what the ’60s writing was all about. I instinctively wanted to do that.
I said “Yes.” I think Jack Kerouac died that year and they sent me to the funeral and I ended up covering Jack Kerouac’s funeral and writing a long piece about Kerouac and his work in America for my first assignment. The very second thing was within a month or two. It was like 1970 and the other editor said, “There are all these chicks out there on Bleecker Street and they’re calling themselves women’s libbers. Why don’t you go and find out what the hell this is all about?” I try to remember what the hell did those words mean to me when I heard them. It felt like a familiar atmosphere, like granules in the air. I must have been hearing bits and pieces, a sentence here or there, a gesture, a motion, I don’t know what the hell it was. It’s impossible to know. I couldn’t put a word to it.
I went out that week and within one week I met Ti-Grace Atkinson, Betty Friedan, Myrna Lamb, Shulamith Firestone, Anne Curt, Nanette Ranoine, Susan Brownmiller, Phyllis Chesler, the world. I was like the last girl on the block to get it. And they all just talked a mile a minute. You know what every one of them sounds like and every one of them sounded like that full strength, first shot out of the box. They were all doing their lives and they were all in their spaces and they were all saying the same thing, each in their own way, each in their own perspective and I saw it was a real movement because they ran a gamut from conservative to radical.
In a certain sense, Brownmiller and Nanette were on the conservative end of it. Shulamith was way out at the other end of it and everybody took a space. It was all intensely radical. Within that context there were 32 takes on it. But everybody saw that women have been made not by nature, but by culture. One thing I came away from with that was that women have been taught from birth, that men take their brain seriously by nature and women do not. That was the thing I saw, and one way or another we all saw that, but I saw it clearly, centrally, and I never forgot it. I saw it that week. I came back and I wrote a piece that has since been much anthologized called, “The Next Great Moment in History Is Theirs.”
I got converted on the spot and I sat down and I wrote my own manifesto. That piece said there are all these women now, all over New York and this is what they’re saying. I rehearsed all of their arguments and said, what they’re saying is true and let me tell you why. I wrote this long piece and that was it. It was like instant conversion, instant and total. There we all were. Speaking on how he became a Marxist, Arthur Koestler once said it was as though light and air and music were crashing across the top of his skull and he knew he’d never see the world differently again. That is what happened to me and I think I’m safe in saying that is what happened to every single feminist of my age.
Everyone one of us that was there then, felt this as a profound and a conversionary experience. It became central to our lives, central to the way we see the world, central to the way we interpret life and the world, and that it never leaves you. Our ideas became our lives, our lives became the embodiment of these thoughts and feelings: that is what I consider a feminist. I think every feminist of my generation is someone who lives by ideas. We run a fantastic gamut of personalities, psyches of predilections, of sensibilities, temperaments. Those things are very dividing: differences of personality and temperament are powerful when the politics dissolves out.
When you have a powerful revolutionary movement, a pioneer movement, an effort, it subdues your differences. You are all so dedicated to the shared project that you willingly subdue your differences to the central, common good. We don’t have that, we unaffiliated urban intellectual feminists, we don’t have that. If we made a country and we were running a government and we had to do this revolution I’m sure we would have gone on doing it. In the beginning we were like that. All we all wanted was to be together constantly in order to tell each other what we were learning. That lasted a good five or six or seven years.
We had a long run for our money, but it couldn’t hold us together because how many times can one get paid for saying the same thing over and over and over again? Now it’s the turn of the world to do what we told it to do. What we were involved in is not a classical revolution. We’re involved in a piece of change in social consciousness. If you’re lucky, it’s two steps forward and one step back. We had this extraordinary moment that lasted a long time and had immense consequences, but the concreteness of the project was not there to keep it going. That’s the meaning of institutional life.
Somebody once described the efficacy of the Catholic church or any religious group as keeping you in grace when you’re out of grace. It’s the structure that holds you religious because you go and do this automatic ceremonial thing. It’s the meaning of ceremony. You go and you pray in this church, you listen to this priest, you make yourself accountable even when you’re not feeling it any longer for the times when you will feel it again. It’s what holds you there.
We didn’t have that concreteness. And then we all only had our own separate personalities and our dividing temperaments after a while. But we each continue to live it within our lives. That’s my point. We may have dissolved out as a community of revolutionaries, but we were each changed for life and that is what remains. And I do believe with all my heart that for 20 years people like myself continue to influence. Over 20 years, every one of us has probably influenced hundreds of women profoundly. Wherever we go, whatever we do I’m in, in the flesh forever. As long as there’s us in the world and there’s plenty of us, there’s really an astonishing number of us, certainly a few thousand. For our lifetime, feminist influence will stay alive and will have all of its unshapely, unexpected, peculiar uprisings.
It is very painful to absorb the fact that life didn’t change. When I wrote that piece, I really thought this is all so simple and logical as soon as I explain it everybody will get it and fall in line. Today there’s me, tomorrow there’ll be 500 more, the day after that a thousand. Just like the old communists, I was raised among people who used to say in ten years the revolution will happen. They were like people of the apocalypse, always predicting the end of the world. Communists were always predicting the revolution. When I was growing up, people around the kitchen table said they believed in ten years comes the revolution. People used to walk sometimes on Central Park West and say, when the revolution comes, the government will confiscate all these buildings and here we’ll have the Ministry of Culture.
I grew up in a world like that but the same spirit filled me in 1970. I really thought it’ll just be a minute and then everyone in the world, men and women, would all see instantly that this was unjust. That all we wanted was simple justice. It was unjust for women to be raised to be mothers and wives and therefore to be raised categorically never to take their place in the world enterprise, never to take their place in the life of the world. That’s unjust. It’s not right. It’s not true. Not fair. Not legal. Cruel, unethical, anyone will see.
Of course, you got wiser as time went on and you began to understand more deeply how penetrating this whole thing is; how long is its history, how deep is its meaning, how complicated. We began to understand what the second wave of black civil rights understood: the psychological roots of racism. We began to understand the power of the fears and anxiety that had tainted the idea of independence for women. That it is a powerful and a terrible thing. Once you begin to understand that, then you calm down and begin to understand what a long haul it is. We are talking about overturning the emotional habits of hundreds, of thousands of years.
The idea that woman was born to nurture and man was born to make; that men were born to think and women were born to secure. I never had a maternal feeling in my life. I have never had the desire to be a mother. Maybe for a minute. The idea of myself as an earth mother, mother, lover, living through the central principle, living through sex. My mother would say to me, does he make you feel like a real woman? I didn’t feel anything. To be able to live in a moment where I’d say, I am a woman and whatever I am, is what a woman is. That was a thrilling, fantastic thing to be able to do and to say, I live through my mind. What I want to do is think. I want to be in the world. I don’t want to be a mother. I don’t want family life. That’s not me. That produced mass terror from Plato on.
LK: After you did that first article, what was the response from your paper and the man you worked for?
VG: The mail started to pour in like we were running a lottery. Mail poured in from all over the country, from every conceivable kind of woman from matrons in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, who were sending me notes on embossed stationery to keypunch operators who were writing on cinograph pads. It was testimony. They were shocked; they were galvanized and they were shocked. These guys were ordinary New York liberal intellectuals, your ordinary garden variety pig. Totally uninterested, they didn’t get it, they didn’t give a shit, they didn’t know what the hell it was all about.
The thing about the Village Voice, its integrity was whatever the social outcry is, we will honor it, we will go with it. They were a great counterculture paper for some years. Towards the end, feminism was their last hurrah. What they began in the Cold War in 1955, in the middle of McCarthyism, when just to be liberal was to be radical, just to open your mouth and say political repression is wrong and we are practicing it – they did that. And that was the beginning of counterculture newspapers. The Voice was a place where you could say what you couldn’t say anywhere else. I was the first feminist there.
I wrote this piece and they got this response and then they began to hear it everywhere. It was like a word you never heard and then all of a sudden you hear it constantly. They gave me total and complete freedom. I wrote this stuff morning, noon and night. They never censored, they never edited, they never questioned – nothing. I had this astonishing platform and I went with it. There was nothing I did in those days that I didn’t see feminism in front of me. I didn’t go to a dinner party, I didn’t go to a movie, I didn’t read a book, I didn’t walk down the street. I didn’t do nothin’ that I wasn’t interpreting as a feminist. And as soon as it was in my head, it was in the pages of the the Village Voice.
Those were great years from that perspective and that’s what I did. I never became an activist because I was really temperamentally unsuited to it. So I didn’t join the organizations with people wearing red stockings and neo-radical women in all kinds of organizations. I didn’t do any of those things because I wasn’t desirous of it. I wanted to make myself a writer and I trusted that writing about feminism would be my proper instrument. I’m not really sure if I thought that consciously – I did what I wanted to do, to write this stuff all the time. That’s the part I played. And I went to all the parties!
I had this memory of one long collective party in those years in which you were constantly in a room full of these same people talking, talking, talking, endless energy, endless interest. As somebody once said, everyone was interested and everyone was interesting. Everyone was converted and really that’s the meaning of a social movement. All these people who otherwise would have had not very much to say to each other, found endless conversation. You never asked yourself if anybody you were talking to was smart, stupid, nice, not nice. You were all just in a passion of self-discovery and making large sense of it, that was the exciting thing. It wasn’t therapy, it wasn’t confession, it wasn’t self-help. You were in there making large, exciting, intellectual, philosophic, spiritual, artistic sense of things through being a woman.
LK: Did you feel it was more of a group process than the individual “star” process?
VG: Absolutely. All this business about stars – I never knew what anybody was talking about because I wasn’t in the organizations and I didn’t feel what other people felt. You’re in a political organization and meeting constantly and it’s inevitable that some people have gifts of leadership, articulation, organization and others of support. As soon as people start doing things together, your natural gifts begin to surface. In other revolutions, people immediately make use of what they see and reestablish the hierarchy. It’s typecasting very quickly.
What happened among the feminists, and rightly so, was we wanted to be a movement of equality. What women were discovering was the meaning of inequality and therefore they were going to make their own revolution of great corrective to this. So hierarchy was going to be done away with. It was an experiment like many utopian experiments. It was an impulse; it was a response. But it was like a utopian experiment in egalitarianism, in participatory democracy. It’s happened a thousand times and every single time it falls and there is no way.
The communes of the ’60s fell apart and then reconstituted themselves. They fell apart because people were not doing away with hierarchy. It’s a terrible, terrible problem. It’s to feminists’ credit that they entered a historical problem. It’s a tremendous problem between equality and individuality and hierarchy. These are large issues and the feminist movement just stumbled on it like everybody else. People began being accused bitterly; Shulamith Firestone was destroyed by it and she was one who had a fragile grasp. You found a fragile, internal being, very brilliant and marvelous and exciting. We started calling her a star and she fell apart.
Other people got very bitter; it was a bitter experience for people. But I was outside of the organization, I never experienced it. You could imagine with my big mouth I would have been analyzing and articulating and explaining everything in two seconds to everybody. They would have hung me from a lamppost and everybody who was like that: Ellen Willis, Kate Millett, everybody who had a big mouth and was smart and could articulate, was loved and hated instantly. It was a turbulent, interesting, exciting, distressing time. Everything was at a high pitch, at a high level, and constant. I know a lot of people burned out on it; they went through everything, rapid, within ten years.
LK: Going back to a long time ago, when you first went out and they said they were women libbers, chicks, that sometime in there that word feminist came in. Do you remember that? I would like to talk about that word.
VG: This young woman Laura Shapiro now writing in Newsweek ends her piece with women saying, “I don’t think I’m a feminist, but you are.” She is saying this word. She is in her 30’s and it’s now 1991, and she is recapitulating this history and saying that word has filled us all with anxiety over and over and over again, but there is no way to do away with it. It’s like if you’re a communist, you’re a communist, and you cannot call yourself other, and if you do it has a consequence. People now, because of the bitter failure of contemporary communism, are floundering to call themselves other things.
Communist parties all over Europe are reconstituting themselves and leaving the word communist out. It’s just like feminism. Feminism is a time-honored word, it’s our word, it’s what we are, it’s the meaning of what we do. The equal rights movement for women is made up of feminists. Feminism is an ideology, it’s a principle, it’s an organizing principle of experience, it’s a way of seeing, it’s an analysis. There’s no way around the word. People are afraid of the word as they’re afraid of every strong woman. To say you are a feminist is to say, I’m this, I’m not that. It’s to make those choices that are frightening.
People who say they’re feminists loud and clear and without fear of it are declaring themselves serious people, ideologically persuaded people, they are declaring themselves people with a point of view and a perspective, with a take on life, with an analysis. If you see the historic relations between men and women as a tool of analysis for the world, for the way in which we live, the way of seeing how aggressions have grouped themselves and institutionalized themselves, if that’s your way of seeing it, you cannot be anything but a feminist.
If you further see that your aim in this life is to correct the terrible consequence for women to live in a world finally where all women are born into the same existential miseries as men, no more, no less, and not to be undone by having been born into the wrong sex, to be deprived of so much of the rights and equalities of mind, spirit, will, energy. If you see the world that way and you want to correct this, you’re a feminist. That’s what you are. I know that the word is frightening because most people are afraid of taking a stand on anything. It seems immensely consequential and it is, but there’s no way out of it.
For hundreds and hundreds of years, the word Democrat terrified the masses of people who thought it was a crime against God, king and country to imagine oneself as a citizen rather than a subject. The same thing has to happen here. The astonishing thing about feminism in the ’70s in America as opposed to the 1850s or the 1920s, is the huge mass of people who got behind it. When you think about the numbers in relation to those other periods of time, all those suffragists, all those women’s liberationists of the first generation before suffrage of the 1850s, they were in the hundreds. They were nothing. Their influence has been immense, but their numbers were tiny. If you were able to take a poll or get the census on how many women there were in the ’20s, it was much, much larger but certainly nothing like now. So we don’t have to be afraid.
LK: They were big in numbers the women’s movement, but we got nothing in writing. We have no guarantees. Everything that was accomplished during that time can be taken away from us.
VG: That’s true. Every single part of the body politic that’s not part of the ruling class, nobody has anything in writing. Workers feel the same way. Unions are disintegrating and people who have radical politics and who are workers were sobbing over the destruction of the unions and the constant loss. It’s constant fighting. You’re up against the ruling class and you’re not in it. We, as women, have a better chance than workers do or black people. Think about all the people who have nothing in writing; there’s so many different kinds of people. What is the class of people who are homosexuals whose lives are determined by that sexual identity, what’s going to be in writing?
No, we have nothing in writing. What we have only is the slow alteration of a shared sensibility. Any set of people will become more and more real in a society, that’s what you’re working for – that slow change inside, so that people will look at women and not see a human being relegated to the second class. That can’t be legislated. The legislation chips away at it and sends the process flying forward. Feminism is 200 years old. Modern feminism starts with Mary Wollstonecraft with The Vindication of the Rights of Women. She was the first person to lay out the case and say everything that we had been saying.
You read The Vindication of The Rights of Women. Everything that [we] were saying throughout our lives is said there. She’s speaking practically in our voice. She’s saying to a world that still doesn’t get it, let’s be reasonable about this, let me tell you who I am, what I really feel. It’s a testimony from an extremely intelligent woman whose hunger to live out her intelligence is monumental. She’s telling you that she is as driven to live out that intelligence as any man around her. That’s been said every 50 years for 200 years and then it dies down.
She got exhausted, but before she got exhausted, Frances Wright had come along in the 1830s. Fanny Wright was a great English socialist feminist and heard Mary Wollstonecraft’s words. Wollstonecraft died in 1796 but thirty years later there was overnight socialism. Among them was Fanny Wright. She got it at full strength. She comes to America and she meets Lucretia Mott and it keeps going. Lucretia Mott says to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, you wouldn’t believe what she said to me. She says, my dear, let’s call a convention.
Then you have the next wave and a lot of women get all exercised and they see the same damn thing over. What we’re constantly doing is rediscovering out of original passion of something that dies. You’ve got to ask yourself why doesn’t it take, why is it so slow? Why is there this incredible hurling effort and then only a few get it and the rest don’t get it? And why? It’s just like with black people: why, why? It’s fear, more than anything else. The idea of evil is not true or corruption or meanness. Yes, people are mean, but it’s fear. It’s incredible fear in women more than in men.
The conversion to independence is the difficult part. You ask women to really deeply give up romantic fantasy, those words carry a multitude with them. It is so hard for a woman deep within to give up the fantasy of being a cherished object. The idea of being desired is so deep, it’s so wide, you could write volumes, and volumes have been written. In these 20 years, much of the literature in psychology and philosophy and in literary criticism, when you get to the bottom of it, this is what we’re dealing with. That’s what you have to give up.
On the other hand, men are being forced to give up the desiring- it’s two halves. It serves a lot. It’s hard to be alive. Dorothy Dinnerstein wrote a very important book called The Mermaid and the Minotaur, about the existential deal that was made subliminally between men and women. The deal is we together will form one, so that one of us will go out and do it, two lives will make one so that one of us will be able to have the courage to go out and do it in this frightening, dark, fearful, indifferent, hostile universe. So we subscribe together. “Oh my dear, you are wise and strong and large.” “Oh my dear, you are fragile and sweet and beautiful and need protection.” You will protect me and I will be protected.
That’s a terrible, difficult thing to break. I want to breathe fresh, free air, I will stand on my own two feet and if that means being lonely for the rest of my life, I’m willing to take that consequence. That’s fundamentally what we’re talking about. If you go back to Plato, that’s what you will find; the fear that women’s independence will end the family, end the civilizing unit, end the small circle of protection and comfort, of emotional solace, in the name of, and for the sake of the idea of an independent self. That’s a very modern idea. That’s what it’s all about. Thousands of women tearing themselves away from these expectations and desires to say, I want to be myself. I want that more than I want protection, solace, family. The devastation of loneliness pushed away. I want this more.
That’s what modern feminism is about. When they screamed at us, Broadburn is an unnatural woman. It’s out of the terror of knowing this is what comes next. Imagine when every woman in the world is really motivated by the development of her own self and not “taking care of the children and loving the husband.” From Plato on they’ve all seen it. There’s a wonderful book by Susan Okin called Women in Western Political Thought, in which she traces this fear in Plato and Rousseau and John Mill, who was supposed to be our great proponent. There were five political philosophers and they say the fundamental definition of a human being is liberty of thought and political liberty. They just turn themselves in two, bending themselves over backwards to demonstrate that women don’t need what men need.
She clearly shows this terror of women deserting the home, of deserting the family. That will be the end of the family. When women need political liberty just like men, that’s the end of the family. It’s in the name of that, that we have been sacrificed. The thing that’s so fantastic about feminism and so moving, is all the women who are against this have pushed up to say “No.” That is a very hard thing to urge the world to do. I’ve watched my own mother and the mothers of women like myself who all became feminists and look at the ones who are temperamentally suited to become feminists.
None of them become feminists because they’re too old and they don’t know quite know how to do it. But my mother absolutely would have been a feminist. I look at other mothers her age and I see the temperamental differences: the fears, the insecurities, the defenses. And I look at my mother who’s not at all educated and who’s romanticized her whole life. She is a woman who gave her whole life to love, but I know that’s bullshit. I know that she didn’t know what else to do with herself. She didn’t know any other way to see it. When she was 68, I made her a feminist.
I made her see that all the things that she was in this world: being working class, being Jewish, being an immigrant, all the disenfranchised parts of her being, being a woman was the most important of them all. These ideas that she had, that a man was at the center of life, that she was incomplete without a husband, and everything else should go by the boards to serve that connection. She saw that that was wrong, deeply wrong. She never lived out her life because she was in service to the notion that love is the most important thing in a woman’s life. We’d go through a circumstance that’s familiar to both of us and she’ll tell me what she did then and I’ll say, why did you do that? And she’d say, “Papa wanted it.” I’d say, “Ma, if Papa was alive today and you were both young now, what would you do?” She always says the same damn thing. She looks at me very thoughtfully for a minute and then says “I’d tell him to go fuck himself.” I say, “Right on!” And let us hope that Papa would appreciate that.
LK: You said that you were thrilled that 52% of the women thought Clarence was telling the truth or Anita was lying, and you said that’s wonderful.
VG: The one thing being raised in the left gave me was “the long view.” I feel it’s just part of a long history.
LK: And I’m more impatient. We talked about the word feminist and the way you were describing it, yes that’s a fear. However, why does it have to go to that extreme? That we get more female representation, that the word feminism only means we want equal rights and we want to get paid the same amount of money. We want child care centers, we want our medical bills paid for, the type of thing which comes with the theory of matriarchy.
VG: It comes with the theory of enlightened society. I don’t see it as matriarchy. After all, socialists want the same thing. This morning, an old left friend of mine called and he is thrilled because of the governor elected in Pennsylvania yesterday. He said to me, there’s a terrible struggle going on in Pennsylvania now and I believe if the right man wins, Mario Cuomo will run for president. If the wrong man wins, he may step back. And the right man won from his perspective, the Democrat. He won on the one issue of health care for everyone. He won on the issue of socialized medical health care.
It is a tremendous concern for everyone and women can fight in the forefront of these issues because they have such a tremendous stake in it and because their own condition is so acute. A lot of feminists find my point of view very distasteful. I wrote a piece from this perspective last year in the Times that brought down mayhem on my head. It was about how far we’ve come. But of course, I can’t get over the fact that we started with nothing and I’m always amazed that we have this much. That’s my temperamental take. But definitely if I was an activist, it wouldn’t stop me for a second from bitterly demanding more and more. I hardly think the revolution has been won.
A point of view that is really dangerous is Betty Friedan’s. Friedan’s book, The Second Stage, is an ameliorating conservative view. That book urges women to raise high again the banner of family. Carol Gilligan in a different voice. These women are conservative feminists who are falling back from clear sight about what is required. They talk as though the goddamn revolution is won. They speak in a language that is like something out of George Orwell. They sound as if they’re speaking progress and they are in fact speaking regress. That’s a dangerous view.
In my view you still have to keep fighting and fighting for the rest of your life. Katha Pollitt in The Nation wrote a very smart, analytically wonderfully intelligent, bitter, angry piece about the Thomas hearings, saying all the things you would want her to say, what a scandal it was and how terrible it was. She took the whole thing apart and put it back together again and she said, “Now you have Clarence Thomas for a Supreme Court justice. The women of America who support him are going to get their thank you note immediately with a reversal of Roe vs Wade.” She laid it right out.
I think it gives you more heart, keeps you from terminal depression, if you take a long view. It gives me distance and the distance is very healing. It helps me come back again, fresh. I grew up among people who gave me that political insight, the people who were able to stay with their notion of revolution longest, in a life where those who were amazed and gratified by the inroads that had been made, and the amount of change that had taken place. For some people anger is stimulating, but not in my experience. Anger burns you out a lot faster.
LK: Going to a separate thought now. The whole movement got a lot of press. The media was wide open because nobody took it seriously. Then all of a sudden, they realized that this was a dangerous movement. And Kate said the radio was just turned off; it was like somebody pulled the plug. Do you remember how it phased out?
VG: It’s like the whole left movement, just think back on the ’60s. Whenever there was a great issue and if people were still demonstrating in the streets, the radio would still be alive. Whenever there was a great issue in the ’60s and you immediately had a tremendous surging demonstration of thousands of people in the street, everywhere: Berkeley, Chicago, the Civil Rights drive in the south. The ’60s was a time in which everyone swirled quickly into burning ardent protesting action. And as long as that was happening, the radio was on. The media doesn’t create or un-create the political life, it just literally reports on it. Now it can make it larger, it can ignore it.
I think what happened was this: For ten minutes, they thought we were going to really put on combat boots and crash helmets and walk uptown and destroy the banks and the government. For one minute they thought we were dangerous, that we were really going to become violently eruptive, and that we were able to do that for a minute. That lasted four or five or six years. Same with the left: free speech movement, days of rage, the bombing. Ten years of incredible political violence, which exhausted itself and then they stop putting a microphone in front of you.
With feminists, where we were foolish and naive, we all imagined one day we’re going to open our mouths and the next day like magic, things would change. What we didn’t understand was the meaning of two hundred million people and the intense plurality of the country, which is what the left doesn’t understand. The left in this country has never made a revolution, nobody ever was going to take over the government. What it was always doing was protesting for social change. Social change is composed of a lot of separate people. Millions and millions of people had to have that light bulb go on in their head and what you found was it was a temperamental response. Then the point was when that response didn’t take place in huge numbers, we began to exhaust ourselves, saying the same thing over and over and over. You couldn’t keep that high up. It’s impossible.
In America, revolutionary, constant explosions from the populists to the Wobblies, to the communists, to the feminists, to the new left – it lasts a minute. And then it has tremendous fallout. The ’60s will be with us forever. They have changed the sensibility of this country, but they didn’t make a revolution. It’s slowly changing. No black child who is born today will live out his father’s life, not one, no matter what. I don’t give a shit what the changes are, however minuscule, however great is the economic backlash. No black child will grow up internally feeling himself or herself the way their parents do. None.
Now I believe that is true for men and women too. It’s only the last few years that I’ve begun to realize we are probably going to be eclipsed again in history. We are not going to live to see the revolution. I don’t think I’m going to live to see the kind of equality I want to see between men and women in society. But I think a lot is going to happen that will never be completely erased and that it’s our job to spend our lives in struggle. It’s our job to fight. It’s a privilege. We are so far ahead of the left and even of black people. I believe that more women will struggle with more results and with more spirit and with more hope longer than either black people or those devoted to socialist change. I believe we have a better shot at it than anybody.
Within this generation, we have kept the second wave of American feminism alive longer than a lot of others who came before us. And it’s still very much alive. When things like the Thomas hearings or the abortion struggle are raised, you really see how much spirit and energy and interest and ardor and pain and thoughtfulness still accrue around feminist thought. Abortion has been invaluable for keeping the feminist movement alive. The appointment of Thomas to the Supreme Court will have reverberations for a long time. This is passing into the popular culture and is going to stay with us. More people are going to go on talking for a long time about all the issues that [Anita Hill] raised and the fact that it could be so grossly ignored. And a man accused of this so strongly and in such detail could still be elected to the Supreme Court, that in itself shows you how far we have to go.
It has aroused more men and women to think about it all in a long time. It’s painful but it’s definitely an enlivening issue. Yes, there are things to be done. I think one thing that will come out of the Thomas hearings is definitely a revived effort about getting more women into public office. That is a drive that comes and goes, comes and goes. In 1980, I interviewed congresswomen for a story on women in Congress, and it was astonishing. The same number of women in Congress for 25 years at least, was tiny and unchanging. And all the women who had been in office until then were the wives, the widows, or the daughters of congressmen.
Now, when I interviewed them in 1980, the number was the same as it had been for years and years, but not one of them was the wife or the daughter. They were all grassroots independents; so the statistic was misleading. The statistics didn’t show what had changed, but in the ten years since I wrote that story, the number has tripled. It’s still tiny and as my niece who spent a year in Europe said, two women in the Senate is a disgrace, in every European Parliament 25% at least of the members of Parliament are women. This is a time to make another great drive for women in public office.
LK: What would be your suggestion? How do we reach those people? How are we going to reach less privileged women?
VG: Just by being ourselves and multiplying in our numbers and being actively ourselves all the time everywhere. There were three generations of women who fought for the vote; it took 60 years to get the vote. Susan B. Anthony was a stopper, she was an organizer, she wasn’t a visionary, she was a politically savvy creature. She got on the covered wagon and took the horses and went out to all those towns all over the Midwest and the prairies. And she traveled, talking constantly. When it finally came down to getting the vote, it was literally done town by town, state by state, legislature by legislature. It wasn’t done with large conversations and large meetings. “Women of America, you must see,” it was done in that way.
They were great organizers; that’s what you need now. There are plenty of organizations in America that you can get involved in with people who have organizing capacities and for whom politics is very real. It isn’t visionary. For me, it’s just talk. I’m full of inspirational talk, analytic lucidity, and I write about it, but I wouldn’t know how to get anybody elected to office. There’s no way to rabble-rouse again in the way that we did, because by now it’s a litany. You have to renew the litany. We can’t go on repeating matriarchy and patriarchy and the pig. That language is gone and approaching people in that way is kindergarten stuff.
It is in the consciousness of the country. Those words have lost their power, their potency. You can’t repeat those words, you got to find new words. You don’t raise the consciousness by saying, I want to raise your consciousness. That was the meaning of the 60 years of the suffrage movement; it’s like a little composition. She was started as a visionary and ended up as a bare bones organizer. That is where we are now: you can organize around an issue. You can organize for abortion. You can get half a million women marched in Washington; I was one of them. I don’t do anything. It was a galvanizing issue, it got those of us who were active and inactive, old feminists, women who never marched for anything ever.
I walked with women who never marched for anything. They organized very well. Planned Parenthood was a great organizer, they organized the trip. The time for inspirational speech is over. It’s useful at the right moment, in the right time and place. This Anita Hill thing was like a godsend. Look what happened. That was the great piece of evidence. The charge of sexual harassment was made and the information was given to the Senate committee. The Senate committee ignored it, but made the mistake of allowing it to be known to the public. It was leaked. So it was known that he was charged with this and they were going to ignore it and not investigate it. Within 24 hours, the telephones were ringing off the hook in Washington from thousands of women calling to say, what the hell is this? Which showed you all those people were out there waiting to be stimulated further.
All those people in the end are only a few thousand. But this tells you what can happen. They could bring on this extraordinary national drama, this great trauma, but they couldn’t stop him from getting the appointment. This is what we could do and this is what we can’t do. What we could do to get stronger so that eventually can stop him from getting the appointment and indeed, the only way to do that is to get more women in a public office. There’s absolutely no question about it. If half the people in politics were women, he wouldn’t have gotten that appointment, no question. That’s the only way to do it.
I remember once years ago taking part with a group of writers in an effort to petition the Times. We’d all written for the Times and a new editor was coming in and we wanted him to understand that we considered the paper sexist in a million different ways, and ways in which we thought it could be made un-sexist. Everybody had different ideas, more reviewers, more this, more that. But I knew, if you ever see the city room of the Times, it’s a mass of desks, and it’s all men. It’s all men. It’s just a sea of men. They are all editors and they are what make the newspaper. Those people can never see the way a perspective of a story is sexist. They can’t see it. It’s not that the reporting is, it’s they can’t see the way the language has effects.
I knew nothing would ever change until half the people in the editorial spaces were women who would see when the language was sexist, when the perspective was sexist, when there weren’t enough women as subject of the story, writing the story. I can’t think of anything better than to get more women into public office. Right now, they’re a caucus, they’re a little beleaguered group, they’re nothing. There were two senators and one of them was this dumb reactionary. An organization like Planned Parenthood now seems noble. They’ve stayed in there and now you see how much good they’ve done and what a noble effort they’re involved in and how clear is their way. They are a passionate organization for legal abortion; they know how to do it.
They’ve had years of being this pedestrian, hardworking, obscure, group. They’ve come on strong in these last few years and there’s all that organization they can put to good use. They were wonderful in organizing that march and wonderful at organizing fantastic protest letter writing campaigns which have had an effect and let’s hope they’ll have enough effect. All we had to do was open our mouths and our words would spread across the country by virtue of the interests of the so-called media. You can’t repeat that in 1991. What have I got to say that’s any different than what I said then? Nothing. Something else has to be done and it is being done in a thousand obscure places, but not enough.
LK: Maybe the young people need to know and to be made aware of what the struggles were. They just came out and thought they could be a doctor; they didn’t realize that you and I didn’t have that choice. Or we didn’t know we did. We could let them know that there still is a struggle going on, that you are still living this life, Kate is still living this life. Like a prod. That if you don’t get involved, you’re going to lose it all.
VG: They know.
LK: I don’t know if they do.
VG: Well, there’s no “they.” It’s a broken up “they.” Some do and some don’t. I see in my classes there are always boys and girls who sit and stare dumbly at me, but there’s always a significant number of young women who are nodding, and I draw them out. People like me are everywhere. The way in which they know about us is when they’re galvanized by an issue. The Thomas hearings must have sparked thousands of conversations all over the place with people yelling and screaming and accusing and thinking.
More young men came out of this with more clarified knowledge than I ever could have dreamed was possible. That was a real shock and that’s been very gratifying. The New Yorker had a fantastic editorial by a young man who identified himself as part of the generation of the ’60s. He said he considered feminism “an article of faith I grew up with; my mother is a feminist; my four sisters are feminists.” He’s in his 40’s now and his wife is a feminist. But he never realized really in his gut what it was all about until the hearings. So you get that.
LK: One last thing, last night you said NOW was conservative. Right from the beginning?
VG: Absolutely, always. The best thing about NOW was its organizing capacity to isolate the need for certain kinds of legislation and to get behind it and mount to a really good struggle. In many places in the country where there’s nothing and NOW is the only thing, it really has its place and it serves wonderfully for women who have access to nothing else. There are places where there’s nothing available to women except the NOW chapter and in those small places, they become an instrument of social rectification of injustices and struggles and difficulties with unions and with business, the issues of life.
But in fact, it is an intensely conservative organization with very limited views of what feminism is all about. All the issues that radical feminism raises NOW shrinks from. It always was conservative. Betty Friedan, who’s a firebrand, began it and the minute she saw it was in the hands of very conservative women who wanted to do the legislation and petition in the ladylike way and no lesbians and no women who didn’t want to get married, she separated from it. They’re at one end of the spectrum and the radical feminists are at the other end of the spectrum.
To our bitter shock, when the Thomas hearings came around, there was no organization left in place except NOW. There was no apparatus for organizing except NOW. We have failed ourselves terrifically in that way. We mourn and are so pained over the complete absence after 20 years of feminism, of an organizing apparatus for our point of view and for organizing ourselves when the time comes. There’s a group that calls itself No More Nice Girls and they’ve been in the abortion struggle for 20 years. That is Ann’s organization. It reconstitutes itself around every time there’s a march or an issue out of different people. But the principle has held for 20 years, so they’re always gathering.
When I went to Washington, I marched as a “No More Nice Girl.” They put on black clothes and chains and they used to do theater in the streets. They came out of the ’60s doing theater. They put on black clothes and chains to march. No More Nice Girls called a meeting in Ann’s house when the Thomas hearings were on. They didn’t have anywhere to go and there was no place to make use of them. They’re great little organizers, they’re great at making posters overnight and doing the stuff that’s necessary to make a protest. They appear at little abortion protests here and there, and march in every abortion march. But they saw there was no way to organize all this new energy. They didn’t know what to do with it. They are dynamite. These women are all academics and journalists and lawyers. They’re all doing stuff and continue to gather in this way.