THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Alix Kates Shulman
“I Remain an Activist Always”
Interviewed by Heather Lewis; Videographer, Hannah Calderwood, June 2018
AS: My name is Alix Kates Shulman and I am a feminist. A feminist and a writer. That is how I define myself.
HL: I’m going to ask you some questions and we can go back and forth and in and out – as you want. If you could just tell us where you were active in the movement, what years and what movement.
AS: I was, and still am, in the women’s liberation movement from late 1967 until now. I was active in New York but also for a while in Boulder, Colorado, and in Honolulu, Hawaii, where I was teaching. During those years I continued to do my organizing. I first heard about the movement – well, first let me just give a little background. Before the movement I had a lot of education.
I had been in graduate school at Columbia studying philosophy. And I was married pretty quickly after I moved to New York from Cleveland, Ohio, where I was born and raised, because I was living in a female dorm, and even though I was a graduate student, there were a lot of restrictions on what I could do. So I got married in 1953. Age 20 – the age at which one became an old maid in the 1950s. That was my starter marriage. And I didn’t really expect it to last very long. I think he understood that. But I’m not sure.
It Was Impossible For A Woman In Philosophy
Anyway, in graduate school it was impossible for a woman in philosophy – impossible. I don’t know what else to say. And I had to stop being a graduate student because my husband, who was also a graduate student, needed to be supported. And in those days women who were married supported their husbands through graduate school. It was just a given. Women supported their husbands through medical school and the premise was, I suppose, that eventually he’d be earning money and it would be ok – It would be worth it.
HL: Just one quick question about why it was so impossible for women in philosophy.
The Male Preserve
AS: There were no jobs for women in philosophy. There was a tiny handful of women philosophers in this country. It’s still not great. But now there are associations of women in philosophy who fight. And the usual sexism – well, in various departments it was better or worse. There were more women in literature, which my husband happened to be studying. And in social work and the caring professions it was not that bad for women. But in any of the – what were considered male professions – the sciences, most of the social sciences. Even the humanities – in history, religion – there were few women. And in philosophy – forget it! That was a male preserve.
There were a few of us women in the department. Maybe two or three. And if we ever spoke in a seminar, the conversation would stop until we were done, and then they would go right back to talking the way they did before we spoke. We were just completely ignored.
And at gatherings, of course, we had to do the kitchen stuff. So it was very difficult. And I resented it a lot, but I didn’t have any language or concepts to explain it. It was just a given. “Oh – right – I was ignorant and went into the wrong subject.” In fact, once, one of the graduate assistants asked me – Why are you studying philosophy? What do you want to do with that? By then I knew it would be impossible to get a job teaching. So I said well maybe I can be an editor on a philosophical journal. (Which, later, I sort of was, briefly.)
Putting Husbands Through School
I had to drop out of graduate school and go to work to help put my husband through graduate school. And the only jobs I could get would be file clerk, receptionist, bank bookkeeping machine operator. By the way, women were not allowed to be tellers in the banks because tellers touched the money. All the tellers were men. But women could operate the bookkeeping machines, which was a clerical job. Although it was more than clerical because you couldn’t go home until your machine reconciled. What came out of the machine and what was on paper – checks, deposit slips – had to match, and sometimes you’d have to stay till 8:00 or 9:00 to get it to reconcile. But anyway, I did love my big bookmaking machine, I have to admit.
Eventually I finally landed a great job, as an encyclopedia editor. And I won’t go into how I got it – but it is a good story. By that time I’d married my second husband, Martin Shulman, who became the father of my children. And the reason I had to leave my great job was because I got pregnant. If you were pregnant you had to leave your job.
No Such Thing As Maternity Leave
The very concept of maternity leave would have been laughable. Anyway, there were no childcare facilities. The only way you could be one of those few women able to go back to work after having a baby was if you had a nanny. And that was not something I could face. I never had anybody working for me until my old age, when my husband had dementia, and I was starting to wreck my own body taking care of him. Then I did have to hire caregivers for him, in order to keep him at home. But until then I never had any of what was called help.
So I’m home, a mother of two young children, taking them to the playground in Washington Square Park. And I hear on the radio – WBAI I think it was. Anyway one of the People’s Radio program stations. I heard some young radical women talking. This is 1967, my youngest child would have been four. And they were talking about how unfair it was and unjust for women to be in this situation. Then they announced a meeting.
I was so excited I called up one of my best friends, who was a mother of children exactly my children’s ages, so we were playground buddies. And I told her they were talking the way we sometimes talk. Both of us were trying to write, while the children napped, or when we traded off watching all 4 children so the other could have some writing time. She was a playwright; I was writing fiction. So what I meant when I said they were talking “like us” was that they were talking about “serious” things. They weren’t being what women were presumed to be, which is frivolous – only consumed with recipes and whatever.
That Meeting Changed My Life
I walked into this meeting. It was in an East Village tenement, in a small walkup apartment. And there was this room full of young women – I was already in my mid 30s, They were in their early 20s – and they were talking as I’d never heard women talk before. They were very serious. They were also hilariously funny and they were quite angry.
Women With A Purpose
They had a purpose in life. Which was to create a revolution to make women accepted as equal human beings. It was so amazing. And by the time I left that meeting, I knew that from then on that was going to be my purpose in life too. They were all also anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist; they were radicals. Many of them had come out of the New Left – the radical movement – the student movement. And they had been ridiculed and put down in those movements for raising questions of women’s equality.
And so they realized that they had to have a separate women’s movement where they could talk seriously about what mattered to them and not be ridiculed and put down and expected to make the coffee. That had not been my experience. Although, I had been in the Civil Rights Movement, an activist with CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] – I even named the seven arts Chapter of CORE. And I had been in the antiwar movement as a draft counselor and as a protester. I had been arrested shutting down a draft induction center. But I hadn’t been in the New Left. I hadn’t been treated with contempt or demeaned as a woman but was welcome in those two movements.
So Many Made A Difference
This meeting was of a small group within an organization called New York Radical Women. I started to go to their small group meetings and also to the Thursday night New York Radical Women meetings, which were larger, much larger, that met at the SCEF office, because one of the women in our small group worked for SCEF. Her name was Carol Hanisch and she was able to get their offices for our meetings.
We met there on Thursday nights. In the beginning, the meetings were small enough that most everybody got to speak. But then it grew and grew until it finally couldn’t accommodate everyone speaking. I should say, I joined the movement in late 1967.
Movements Were Alive
I’m going to interrupt myself again to give a little history of New York Radical Women. It was founded in 1967 – so I was there near the beginning – by Shulamith Firestone and Pam Allen. Now, Shulamith Firestone had founded the first women’s liberation group – I think – in the country. Well, anyway one of the first. In Chicago. It came to be called the Chicago West Side Group. When Shuli, who was an artist, a painter, moved to New York, she got the name of somebody in New York who was interested in feminist issues – Pam Allen. She looked her up immediately.
They got together and founded New York Radical Women. After New York Radical Women folded in – I think – 1969, then Shulamith Firestone organized Redstockings – this time with co-organizer Ellen Willis. These women were radicals. That is, anti-capitalist etc. But they did not believe that just overthrowing capitalism was going to do it for women. It wouldn’t settle the “women question” – as it was called – because it wasn’t working in any of the other new left anti-capitalist groups. They realized that they had to have a separate women’s liberation movement of radical women to take on what were called women’s issues.
I know that some people – including your husband – didn’t realize that New York Radical Women and Redstockings and WITCH and I think New York Radical Feminists were all anti-capitalist. They didn’t know that. I wonder why? Probably because they never read any of the women’s liberation writings, because they were men and not interested. So that’s why they didn’t know – shame on them.
OK, back to New York Radical Women. The first national demonstration of the women’s liberation movement was the New York Radical Women’s protest against the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City in September 1968. That idea was proposed by Carol Hanisch. And it seemed like a perfect place to demonstrate because it was about beauty standards, and being judged by men.
Women Were Treated One Way
It was about being treated as a sex object or piece of meat, which was a common thing then. In fact, there was a big poster put out by one of the big meat companies that pictured a woman’s body labeled with the different cuts of beef – the rump and the ribs and so on. We used that poster at the Miss America demonstration – it was a real poster. People think we made it up, but no, we didn’t make it up, we just appropriated it.
Our leaflet protested racism, pointing out that there had never, in the history of the Miss America Pageant, been a contestant who wasn’t white. In the early years of the Miss America Pageant it had actually been in their bylaws that the contestants had to be white. That was deleted at a certain point, but they had still never had a woman of color as a contestant.
Our flyers were also anti-capitalist because we protested the exploitation of the Miss America contestants, who had to publicize and work for the corporations that sponsored the Pageant, to sell their products. So it was an ideal event for us. And while we were there marching on the boardwalk – this is going to segue into another part of my life – while I was marching there, protesting the Miss America Pageant – which is a beauty contest, where women in bathing suits were judged by their looks – I realized that the prom queen, celebrated at practically every high school in America that had a prom, was the same thing. A beauty contest, judged by men, celebrating the same beauty standards with the same demeaning of women.
I Was Inspired to Write a Novel
It was at that demonstration that I was inspired to write a novel. My first adult novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. I was never a prom queen. It’s not a memoir. It’s fiction. But since it was my very first novel for adults, I didn’t know how much you were allowed to make up or how much you could get away with inventing, so a lot of it is based on episodes in my own life, though I was never a prom queen.
Really what I was trying to show in that novel, through my protagonist’s predicaments, were the reasons a movement was needed – although I never said anything like that in the book. I described the life of my protagonist, a white middle-class Midwestern girl, from her early childhood through her jobs, marriage, and having children, and what a rotten deal women got. It’s a comic novel as well as a serious one, kind of satirical, inspired by that protest.
Too Big for Consciousness Raising
Back to New York Radical Women. When it ended soon after that demonstration, it was because it got way too big for consciousness raising, which is going around the room and everybody talking in turn from their own experience about a given subject. Maybe seventy, eighty, or a hundred women by then. So it was decided at a big meeting to break up into small groups. Some people were going to assign themselves to groups by lot. But others wanted to be in a group with their friends.
One group was WITCH, which stood for Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell. WITCH did a lot of very funny actions and spawned other WITCH groups in other cities. Another one was Redstockings. I joined both. I should say here that the planning committee for the Miss America protest included people who founded WITCH and Redstockings. Also in the planning committee for Miss America were Kathie Sarachild and Carol Hanisch. WITCH met at Robin Morgan’s house in the East Village. So I went to those meetings.
After I had taken a little hiatus from going to meetings, following the Miss America protest, I started going to a few of those WITCH meetings, which were fabulous. One night I was going to my WITCH meeting on, I think, East 4th street, and on the sidewalk I saw Kathie Sarachild. She asked where I was going. I said I’m going to my WITCH meeting over there. And she said, oh no don’t go there, come to Redstockings, we’re meeting here. They were meeting across the street from each other. I don’t know that they knew it, but I knew it. So she said – oh come to our meeting. Now, Kathie was very much a leader, charismatic, brilliant. Not that the WITCH women weren’t.
Inventing Something That Hadn’t Existed
In fact, many of these early women’s liberationists were brilliant, because they were inventing something that hadn’t existed since women got the vote. They were inventing something new, and they were so rebellious and so anti-establishment that they had to be brilliant to be able to do new thinking on this. So anyway, there was Kathie urging me, and I did. I walked into the Redstockings meeting and I believe it was one of a number of Redstockings meetings in which consciousness raising was being done about sex.
What Could be More Interesting and Alive Than Women in Their 20s Talking About Sex?
Well of course, what could be more interesting and alive than women in their 20s talking about sex? And also for me in my 30’s, very much a sexual being. So it was very exciting. I don’t mean titillating – not at all. All right – another digression. This women’s liberation movement started in 1967 more or less. But before that, in 1966, the National Organization for Women – NOW – had been founded by, among others, Betty Friedan, who had written The Feminine Mystique, a huge bestseller published in 1963.
In 1966, a number of these very high-powered women, somewhat older than the women’s liberation women, founded National Organization for Women to be a large grassroots organization for women’s rights. They were primarily interested in discrimination against women in the workplace and in education and legally. Which was quite different from what women’s liberation was interested in, which was the nature of relations between the sexes in everyday life, including even about sex itself.
What a lousy deal women had in sex! Women would just have to be available to men. Men had no idea there was even such a thing as a clitoris. Few women I’d ever met in those days had ever had an orgasm. We were all faking orgasms instead, to please the men and to get them to please stop already. You could fake it and then they’d say, did you cum – have you cum – did you cum? And if you said yes then they’d roll off you. So sex, and women being demeaned, and raped, and not being able to have abortions or any kind of voice in the world – in the workplace – in education – in the family.
What We Were About
All of that was what women’s liberation was interested in, which was different from changing laws. And I am absolutely not putting down the importance of changing laws in education and employment. Not at all. But that wasn’t what we were primarily about. So when I say it was very exciting to hear talk and have consciousness raising on sex, I certainly don’t mean titillating, which is what I’m sure the men hearing this will think.
No – it was about getting to the depths of the oppression of women. Which starts in the very body, and in the bedroom. Which is of course why the New Left men said women’s liberation was trivial – trivial! Right, they might have to change their ways, give up some of their privileges. OK. I’m sounding pretty angry, and I don’t really feel that way. Well, I don’t know.
HL: No, keep going with the chronology. Wait, actually one quick question. So the group sounds as if the leadership – were their specific roles for people in the group?
AS: Women’s liberation was anti-leadership and egalitarian. In fact, it was one of our missions to make sure that everybody in the group could do everything. So at a certain point in Redstockings, and I think also I’ve heard in The Feminists – a different group I was never part of. Because they were anti-marriage and I was married, and only 1/3 of their members could even be living with men. So that group wasn’t available to me. Although I did join everything I could.
Anyway, in order to do away with leadership and to promote everybody being empowered to do everything, at one point we tried using chits. At the beginning of each meeting everyone was given a certain number of chits, say six. And whenever you spoke you threw one down. And when you were out of your chits you weren’t allowed to talk again. So that the people who were generally considered silent would have to speak, and the people who were non-named leaders but were actually leaders, would shut up. Eventually the leaders objected to it and it didn’t last very long. But the goal was equality. Definitely there were no elected or acknowledged leaders.
The jobs, like the chair or minute-taker, or cop, rotated. Whereas NOW, National Organization for Women, was hierarchical, had officers, leaders, Robert’s Rules of Order. Eventually a big critique of this leaderlessness circulated through the movement, Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” And in fact these groups had pretty short lives.
They lasted a few years and then they fell apart, whereas perhaps if they had had some kind of actual basic organization with leaders, or elected officials, I don’t know, they might have lasted longer. NOW, by the way is still going strong these many decades later and they have 500 chapters – in every state and in cities all over the country, with hundreds of thousands of members.
HL: NOW does?
AS: NOW, National Organization for Women. But our women’s liberation groups – no.
HL: You were talking about Redstockings.
AS: Oh yes. So there are no official leaders, but there are leaders. People with strong ideas, voice, charisma, or who founded the groups. Eventually, a lot of the unacknowledged leaders were kicked out of their organizations.
HL: Did that happen in Redstockings?
AS: No, although I’ve heard that Shulie did leave feeling that she was being kicked out. Then she went on to found yet another group. She had founded the first women’s liberation group in Chicago, then New York Radical Women, then Redstockings. After she was kicked out of or left Redstockings she founded New York Radical Feminists. Redstockings didn’t last a long time after that and when it folded I joined New York Radical Feminists, because I couldn’t be without a feminist group. It was my life.
HL: How much time do you say you were raising children?
AS: And I was writing, too. I went to a meeting at least twice a week often every night and on Sundays depending on when, because we’re talking about years here.
I Couldn’t Get Enough Of It
We in Redstockings started organizing other groups because we couldn’t take more people into our group. So we had these Sunday afternoon, once-a-month teas for organizing people who had contacted us and wanted to become Redstockings. Sometimes three or four different groups would be formed at one of those Sunday teas, because the movement was spreading like crazy, all by word of mouth. And each new group would be assigned a member of the original Redstockings group, who would stay with the new group for at least a month of meetings, and then leave them on their own.
HL: Could you say a bit about who the people were – like the age?
AS: You mean the new people?
HL: Yeah, just in general.
AS: Those new Redstockings groups were mostly young women, I’d say. But in
New York Radical Women there were a number of older women – older than even I was – who had remained feminists after women got the vote and the first wave of the movement kind of disintegrated.
They Were Thrilled to See it Starting Again
Just as I am thrilled to see it starting again today, they were thrilled to see it start again. One of them was Elizabeth Fisher who founded the first feminist literary journal – Aphra – named after Aphra Behn, said to be the first woman who earned her living by writing, in English. I was grateful to Elizabeth because when I started writing, my first fiction was published in her journal, Aphra. I’d submitted my work to a few mainstream places, but of course they wouldn’t publish me, because it was totally feminist. It’s hard to explain how misogynist the literary establishment was in those days until the movement challenged it. It’s still pretty hostile to women. Although now in 2018, since the election of Trump, things are starting to be on a new basis. But let’s not get there yet. I’m probably going too slowly –
HL: So you’re in Redstockings and helping to –
AS: And who are these people in Redstockings? They were people who’d been active in organizing and starting New York Radical Women. Ellen Willis – the most brilliant nonfiction writer of women’s liberation in my opinion. Kathie Sarachild, whose prior name was Kathie Amatniek. I think she was just starting to call herself Sarachild, because after all, we all have our fathers’ names or husbands’ names – men’s names.
Another Kind of Oppression
And another kind of oppression of naming was we were all called either Miss or Mrs. to indicate what our marital status was, until after a huge battle to get Ms. used instead. Although even now people call me Mrs. and I have to correct them. I mean interviewers – media people – or people at call centers. Who else? Irene Peslikis was an artist. She’s dead – many people of our movement are now dead. Since she can’t be interviewed because she’s dead, I’ll say a few words for Irene.
She was a co-founder of the Feminist Art Institute in New York, an art school to teach art and feminism. There was another art school in California started by Judy Chicago and – not dead people, so I’m not going to talk about that. So, let’s see – I’m just talking about who are my friends. Well, one of my good friends I made in WITCH, Cynthia Funk and I’m still in touch with her and she’s alive. They were young radical women absolutely dedicated to the liberation of women.
HL: Were the majority of them white?
AS: The majority of them was white. Though the thing about the women’s liberation movement is that it was both white and black but not integrated in their individual groups. Just as, at a certain point in the black civil rights movement, blacks organized by themselves and whites were asked to leave the black movement and do anti-racist work among whites. By the time the women’s liberation movement started the Black Women’s Liberation groups – of which there were plenty, from 1968, 1969, through the 70s and 80s – were mostly separate.
Black women didn’t join white groups and didn’t invite white women into black groups. Although, some white groups did try hard to interest black feminists in their groups. Because anti-racism was deeply important to women’s liberation. There were a few black members in mainly white groups – Celestine Ware was in New York Radical Feminists.
Flo Kennedy was in New York Radical Women and at the Miss America protest and in some mainly white groups, including NOW. Flo was a group of her own – an organizer. She organized white women too. For example, skipping ahead to when there was a Democratic convention in New York City. I’ve forgotten the date of it, but it can be found. Maybe the mid-70s. The mayor said he was going to clean up New York of prostitutes and low life for the convention.
HL: So it was Koch probably.
AS: Not sure. Anyway, the word went out that the police were going to arrest all the prostitutes, so prostitutes better not be on the streets during the time of the convention. So Flo Kennedy, African American lawyer, always wore a cowboy hat. Fabulous witty woman. Flo organized the women she knew in women’s liberation to go stand on the street corners and in the hotel bars as if we were prostitutes, and then, if we were arrested, sue the police for false arrest. That was one of the actions Flo organized. And we did it. None of us was arrested, but neither were the prostitutes, who, I was told, moved to the outer boroughs until the convention left town. But we did try to protect the prostitutes. Another of the many actions that Flo organized was a pee-in at Harvard, to protest the paucity of women’s bathrooms.
Helping New Groups Organize
I was starting to tell you before about Redstockings organizing new groups. Let me go back to that. So those organizing teas were on Sunday afternoons at a church in Chelsea. For each new group of maybe a dozen people, one of the people from our original Redstockings group would stay with the new group for a month of meetings at least, to get them going, so that they would know what we were about. Because who were they? What was their interest in the movement?
They hadn’t had the experience of having started out in the New Left. They had varied backgrounds. So that meant I would go to my Redstockings meeting and my new groups meeting every week and then once a month to these organizing meetings. And then whenever a demonstration or some event was being planned it would be another meeting. Of just those people who wanted to work on it. And then there were also coalitions among the different groups to do other kinds of projects.
Always a Project
For example, there was the Ladies Home Journal project, in which women’s liberationists planned to sit in at the Ladies Home Journal offices until they gave us the right to do the contents of a whole issue. This was a brilliant idea. I can’t remember whose. I think it may have been Susan Brownmiller’s. She was certainly one of the leaders of that project, which had to be carefully planned in great secrecy. A lot of people wanted to work on it, so representatives from all the different women’s liberation groups around the city would send delegates to plan it. That’s what I mean by coalitions.
HL: Can you talk about it?
AS: Yes. It was called the Ladies Home Journal takeover. On a certain date we were to go in, dressed like ladies – that is, wearing skirts – and go up in the elevator a few at a time, so that we wouldn’t be detected as wild radicals planning something. And then we all converged in the office of the Ladies Home Journal. We went in and we took over the office. We sat in and said we wanted to see John Mack Carter, who was the editor in chief. Of course we were attacking all the so-called women’s magazines – this was just one representative one. All of them, except Cosmopolitan, had editors who were men.
So we went in and we got into Carter’s inner office and there he was. I see it all in my mind, though it may be because I’ve since seen photographs of it – which is the bad thing about memory. Photographs replace true memory. Also when you write about something it replaces memory. Because every time you call up a memory it’s redone, as you know. Which should be a caution for everything I say here. Anyway, we made our demands – and we stayed there for many hours demanding that he let us have one whole issue.
Well, we didn’t get a whole issue but we got a, I think, an 8-page supplement within an issue and a $10,000 payment—for the movement to use. That was agreed to. Afterward, we broke into volunteer committees to write the different articles. We would have one on sex and one on housework, and so forth. Because those women’s magazines, they all had nothing but fashion, recipes, homemaker advice, how to get a man. That’s what they were about. You can see the status of women just from that. And we wanted to make a difference, so we had – well, I don’t have to describe it because our issue of the Journal exists.
I Volunteered to Write About Sex
I have to go back now to Redstockings. We are in Redstockings. New York Radical Women had put together one of the very first anthologies of the women’s liberation movement called Notes From The First Year (and Second Year, and Third Year), edited by Shulie. A mimeographed, stapled group of articles. Many of these articles are now famous.
Anne Koedt’s “The Myth of Vaginal Orgasm.” Pat Mainardi’s “The Politics of Housework.” Carol Hanisch’s “The Personal Is Political.” At one Redstockings meeting Kathie said – We don’t have an article on sex. Who would like to write one? And I raised my hand and volunteered because sex was my subject. I considered it so. Because we had been trained as young women and girls that that was how we got ahead in the world. Right? That was our training.
Ok, so I volunteered to write an article on sex. And remember, I had been a graduate student in philosophy. I had majored in history. I was a scholar. I’d written many term papers – I knew how to do that. I gave myself over to writing the sex article. It was called “Organs and Orgasms” and it ended with the sentence, the imperative sentence, “Think clitoris.”
It was to be published in Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran’s 1970 anthology Woman in Sexist Society, but with my first serial rights I got it first published in The Evergreen Review, which was an East Village, kind of dirty – I’m using that word in quotes – journal, written by and run by men, of course. That was my first article – my first piece of feminist writing. And then I started writing articles on feminism for feminist journals and suddenly – although I had been secretly writing fiction before –
Suddenly I Had an Audience Eager to Read These Articles
Suddenly I had journals happy to publish me and an audience eager to read those articles. There was a whole non-establishment literary world developing and there I was. And so it was the movement that enabled me to become a writer. (Much later, in 2012, many of my feminist essays were collected in the book A Marriage Agreement and Other Essays: Four Decades of Feminist Writing.)
HL: And this would have been around 1970 – 69?
She Writes Like A Man
AS: 69 – 70. And then I published my first fiction, a story, in Aphra, the first feminist literary journal. I wrote it under a pseudonym because I was still so injured by the hatred of women writers in this society. You would be ridiculed. The term “woman writer” or “lady writer” was used as an insult. The best praise that those men in the literary establishment could give you was – she writes like a man.
I started collecting those hateful anti-woman reviews of women’s books from the New York Times Book Review and other places, in which it was just de rigueur that women’s writing would be insulted. “Trivial.” They’re probably now at my archive at Duke. One review I remember – even in the headline it said, “Baby Carriages in the Hall.” (I later learned this was an echo of a famous put-down of women by the English literary critic Cyril Connolly: “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”) I mean the fact of being female, being a mother, living a domestic life was heaped with contempt. And now suddenly there are these journals that have an opposite point of view.
And So I Was Able to Write
That first story I published in Aphra became – in a slightly different form – the opening episode in Memoirs of an Ex-prom Queen. I dedicated the book to Redstockings and Aphra. My writing was inspired by women’s liberation. Actions like the Miss America protest. An editor at a major publishing house read my story in Aphra. He was a man I had beaten at chess in the olden days, so he thought I was smart, and when, after many years, we remet at a party, he said – I see you’ve been writing. If you ever write a novel, I’d be interested in seeing it – let me know.
I Ran Home and I Wrote a Proposal for My Novel
I ran home and over the next weeks wrote a proposal for a novel. And that novel was Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, though it didn’t have that wonderful title yet, that was the last thing to come. When I wrote the proposal, every chapter had a flashback from the protagonist’s early life and also an episode from the present, at the Miss America protest, which took place over 24 hours. But after I had written a few chapters, I saw that the Miss America frame was cumbersome and unnecessary, so I dropped it. OK, where are we now?
HL: You were going to tell me about another protest.
People Needed It
AS: Yes, in New York Radical Feminists. OK, that first novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, was intended to show how and why a revolution – a feminist revolution – was needed. It became a very surprising – to me – bestseller. I thought that I was writing it for the amusement of the 10 women in my women’s group. But it really took off, because this new consciousness was alive in the air. People needed it. They needed to get free of that literature that was so anti-woman and to see life from this new point of view. It was one of the first novels written from the new feminist point of view. Not that the feminist movement occurs within the time frame of the novel. But my interpretation of the protagonist’s experiences was certainly feminist. And it was gobbled up by women readers.
The Rise of The Women’s Movement
My next novel, Burning Questions – a title taken from Lenin’s What Is To Be Done: Burning Questions of Our Movement, by the way – was a historical novel about the rise of the women’s liberation movement. That’s what Burning Questions is. And the irony in it is that my middle-class characters are consciously pushing forward a revolution as did all those revolutionary women of the past whom they cite.
So my first novel shows why we needed a revolution and the second one is a historical novel showing the rise of the women’s liberation movement. And my next novel, which brings me back to the movement event that I alluded to, is On the Stroll. OK, so Redstockings has folded, I’ve joined New York Radical Feminists – Oh, I should just say this, that when Shulamith, and she’s dead so I have to speak up for her – when Shulie left Redstockings some people said she said it was because Redstockings was more interested in theory, and she wanted action, so she founded New York Radical Feminists for action.
Redstockings Had Pioneered the Speak-out
The first speak-out was on abortion. Abortion was illegal. You could go to jail. The abortionists would certainly go to jail if they were discovered. So Redstockings had a speak-out in a church where women got up and talked publicly about their abortions for the first time.This was a very important event and it made the speak-out an important movement technique.
Then New York Radical Feminists continued that tradition by having the first speak-out on rape, which I spoke at. Because when I was a child I was waylaid on the way to elementary school and pantsed, that is, the boys would capture you, take you into the woods or the vacant fields, and strip off your underpants. Which is an episode in Memoirs of an Ex-prom Queen that happens to be one that actually happened to me. But at the time it was just – hahaha boys being boys. So I testified to my pantsing at that speak-out on rape.
HL: And how did you get people to come to it?
Life Before The Internet
AS: Flyer’s. Before the Internet there were flyers. You mimeographed them and then you handed them out on the street corners. And they went through the movement – you put stacks of them at every movement event, and also by word of mouth. People ask, how did we contact each other before the Internet? We had a telephone tree. So that in our group, if we had to change a meeting or something, everybody had their telephone number on a paper list, and each person called the next person on the list. Believe me, it worked.
HL: So the speak-out, how many people would be there?
AS: We allowed women in free and charged men. Maybe a dollar. Notes – on the cover of Notes from the First Year it says 50 cents to women, $1 to men.
The hall would be filled. There would be, I don’t know 50 or 60 or 70 people. And then there would be maybe half a dozen to a dozen people doing the speaking out. At the rape one I spoke about my pantsing. But then, there was another NY Radical Feminist speak-out – on prostitution. That one was a conference in a school, in 1971, I think. They invited some prostitutes – street prostitutes and maybe call girls – as well as non-prostitutes, to speak at this conference.
But then some feminists in the audience started yelling at the prostitutes to stop being prostitutes and get jobs. As if prostitution itself wasn’t a job, or was a bad thing to do. And all hell broke loose when that happened. I mean the prostitutes answered back, as well they should. It was utterly outrageous to me, and it sure looked like bad news for New York Radical Feminists.
At the meeting at my apartment immediately after the speak-out, the criticism-self-criticism – and by the way, I forgot to say, every meeting of women’s liberation in the groups I was in always ended with a period of criticism-self-criticism, which was what the Chinese revolutionaries did. And also the civil rights groups in the South often did, though I think they had a different name for it. So during the criticism-self-criticism about our prostitution conference, at my apartment, we had something of a battle, with people on both sides. But I thought the criticism of the prostitutes was so terrible that I resigned from the group on the spot. And I determined that night that the next novel I wrote was going to be about prostitutes. So that’s what I mean about my writing being inspired by the movement.
Embedded in Events of the Movement
All of my fiction has been feminist and much of it actually inspired by events of the movement. So next I wrote On the Stroll, a novel about a teenage runaway from Maine named Robin, who comes to New York – she’s a runaway. And as soon as she arrives on the bus at the Port Authority Bus Terminal a pimp named Prince gets her. This is how it often happened—probably still happens. And the third character is a shopping bag lady named Owl. (I named her after the women’s liberation group OWL, Older Women’s Liberation, for which you had to be at least 30 to belong.)
The novel is about these three characters over one summer. Now, my shopping bag lady is in there for another feminist reason, because at that time – this book was published in 1981, so I was writing it in 78-80. During that time a lot of movement women had left marriages. Because marriage was – it was very hard to get husbands to change, and it was intolerable to stay in an old kind of marriage.
Without A Safety Net
So a lot of women were frightened – a fear spread that through the movement by word of mouth – that they would end up as bag ladies. Because they had no safety net, they were on their own. They had no training for jobs that would support them, and many people weren’t hiring women anyway. It was very scary, so the image of the bag lady became a bugaboo. Women wrote poems about it. That’s why my three characters are a Prostitute, a Pimp, and a Bag Lady. They all interact one summer in the Times Square area, the strip on 8th avenue, with lots of dives and porn parlors, where the prostitutes did their street walking and the pimps were in charge. It was called The Stroll, which gave my novel its title On The Stroll.
HL: Can you just talk about when you resigned?
AS: I resigned because I didn’t want to be in an organization that was against prostitutes living their lives, according to their own reasons. Lots of feminists defended prostitutes, but not most in this group. There were prostitute organizations like COYOTE, headed by Margo St. James and supported by Flo Kennedy, that wanted better working conditions for prostitutes and an end to their harassment and arrest. So after the prostitution conference I resigned. I just never went to another meeting. Though, I remain friends with some of the women I disagreed with, because that’s my nature. It’s not the nature of all of them, though, unfortunately.
It Was Politically Unacceptable for Me
I have to say that there were other aspects of that group – some of their other actions – that were also unacceptable to me. Actually, it wasn’t New York Radical Feminists but a related group, called Women Against Pornography, which included many people from New York Radical Feminists. They mounted a huge campaign to do away with pornography. Their position was based on exaggerated, moralistic generalizations about sex and porn, as well as a violation of free speech.
It’s not that I was an advocate of pornography, but I was against seeing all pornography as anti-woman and violent, or as causing violence. Which was what the women in Women Against Pornography believed. Some actually wanted to outlaw it, to bring in the government. But it’s not only men who have sexual fantasies and desires; women do too, in great variety.
The Women against Pornography held tours of the Times Square porn places. I took a tour and looked at the peep shows on Forty- Second Street, partly for writing On the Stroll, because I had to immerse myself in that world. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t simply condemn it, either, as the anti-porn people did. They wanted to deny the agency of the women who perform and also of prostitutes.
The Backlash Had Set In
HL: Did you still remain involved in protests [after you resigned]?
AS: Yes, absolutely. Definitely. It was just that group I resigned from. In 1975, after the backlash had set in and so many white women’s liberation groups had fallen apart, Ellen Willis and a few other former Redstockings, and members of other former groups, started a new group. Or, rather, Ellen called a bunch of people together to meet about forming a group with the purpose of analyzing what had gone wrong and getting the movement going again.
And that new group, which had no name – although in my novel Burning Questions, I gave it a name. But that’s fiction, so it isn’t really that group – it’s fictionalized. But I named it The Third Street Circle because for some years our new group met on 3rd Street at Ros Baxandall’s apartment. I consulted the group – What should I call the group in my novel? And everyone agreed that name would do. This unnamed group lasted for 12 years, meeting once a week, except in the summer, and then another three years meeting maybe once a month. It was an amazing thing.
Whereas all the earlier groups lasted two or three years max, not counting NOW, of course, which is still going. We were like family, in a way. I was trying to remember the names of the women in our new group. Ellen Willis, Ros Baxandall, Irene Peslikis and I were all former Redstockings. And then Ann Snitow, who had been a member of New York Radical Feminists – though I think she was still in England when that prostitution conference happened here. Ellen Willis by then was working at The Village Voice, and she enlisted her good friends from work, Karen Durbin and M Mark, who had not been part of the earlier movement.
Here, in our group picture, are Ann Snitow, Brett Harvey, Cynthia Carr (that’s C. Carr the writer), Karen Durbin, M Mark, Ellen Willis (pregnant), Shelagh Doyle, Alix Shulman, Bonnie Bellow. That photo was of the members in later years, but in the earlier days there were, you know, those other Redstockings too, who met at Ros Baxandall’s apartment, and Dierdre English before she moved away, and Judith Coburn, among others.
HL: But did its name remain?
No Name Needed
AS: It didn’t ever have a name. Unlike the group in my novel. We assigned ourselves the mission of continuing radical women’s liberation during this whole period. And, I want to get to another question listed here which is very important, which is what issues are of greatest concern to you? And then I can come back and do what ever you want, but I do want to say this. After the backlash set in –
HL: In the mid 70s more or less?
AS: And on through the 80s, and in some ways, in various forms, up until the election of Donald Trump, and after. Our old group members still march together sometimes, though we don’t meet otherwise.
There was still lots and lots of feminist activity going on during the intervening decades, after women’s liberation groups stopped meeting – except for ours and probably some others somewhere that I don’t know about. But that activity wasn’t unified – It was splintered. People working on single issues instead of trying to change the whole society from the roots up. And to me that’s not our movement. So when you ask what issues were of greatest concern to me –
All Issues Were of Equal Concern to Me
I have to say all the issues, because I didn’t see our movement as a collection of issues – I saw it as a revolution – as a mass movement to transform the entire society. It didn’t matter which issue you were working on at any time because they all converged. Because it was one great transformation of the entire society that was required. So in the early days reproductive rights may have seemed the most important because that’s what was most important to young women at the moment. It was extremely important and it still is, especially since abortion rights have been so hacked away that only people with money can have abortions in much of the country. But so is everything else.
Little Miss Muffet Fights Back
Early on, I think 1969, I worked very hard on a project about sexism in children’s literature, which at that time was all about boys and shamelessly sexist. I should know; I’d read hundreds of books to my children. In fact, the first book I ever wrote, which was before the movement, titled Bosley on the Number Line, was a mathematical fantasy for grade schoolers that had only one human character, a boy. The other characters, all numbers, were genderless.
Of my next two kid’s books, picture books, written after I became a feminist, one had a female protagonist, and one had both a sister and brother. Anyway, I had a contact at the American Library Association and tried to set up a feminist slot at their convention. Then I sent the word out in the movement that we in New York were organizing a group to examine sexism in children’s books. We called ourselves Feminists on Children’s Literature. (Later, after our project was over, it expanded to include a critique of TV, movies, etc, and was renamed Feminists on Children’s Media.)
We met at my apartment for about a year. One of the members of our group was Jacqueline Bernard, who had written a YA biography of Sojourner Truth and had earlier founded Parents without Partners in New York. A few years later she was murdered in her apartment. Never solved. I loved her. OK, after we’d started meeting we heard about a group in New Jersey, I think from NOW, which was analyzing sexism in children’s textbooks, so we invited them to join us. We met at my apartment, the two groups together, every few weeks, and it was all so smooth, no fighting, no conflict.
Many of those early projects were like that – at least in my experience. In fall of 1970 we presented our program to the annual convention of the American Library Association. We presented a talk (which was published in 1971 in the School Library Journal and reprinted in Notes from the Third Year), and a slide show of picture books, and a bibliography of non-sexist children’s books called Little Miss Muffet Fights Back. The librarians loved it! We found that they had never heard the word sexism. But that project happened only because of the accident of my having had a contact.
When that project was over, what did I work on next? Whatever came to hand. It wasn’t that one’s vision was limited by “this is my issue” – as it was later, after the movement splintered, and it continued that way for decades. Though maybe it will change now that we have a revival or new birth of feminism. No – I would work on any feminist issue that came up and seemed urgent, because they were all part of a united vision and goal. There was no distinction to me and so much needed to be done. Not that I agreed with every project; if I didn’t agree, I didn’t work with them, or I opposed them.
As I told you about the anti-pornography movement or anti-prostitution. They weren’t to my liking at all. But I didn’t do nothing. I didn’t just not participate. I engaged those very issues from a different side. For prostitution I wrote my novel about it: So there! And for pornography, I joined FACT – Feminists Anti-Censorship Task Force. We did a lot of work, as feminists, to try to make distinctions to counter those anti-pornography, sexually conservative positions.
Not A Victim
Oh and I must tell you about this wonderful thing that happened. Women Against Pornography held a weekend conference – The East Coast Feminist Conference on Pornography – in 1979. Susan Brownmiller, who had been big in New York Radical Feminists, was one of the organizers of that conference. She describes it
in detail in her indispensable memoir In Our Time. As she reports there, the conference was held at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in New York and had an attendance of 700.
Well, Ellen Willis and I decided that we wanted to do a workshop at that conference – a little subversive workshop. I pitched Susan, who kindly agreed to let us, though she knew we did not share her view of pornography. Our workshop was called “Prudery, an Infantile Disorder” – one of Ellen Willis’s great titles. She was very good at naming things. She named the rock band in one of my novels.
What we wanted our workshop to do was show that not all pornography was violent or anti-woman, and that it wasn’t even that easy to define what pornography is. And I’m just going to insert here that FACT, Feminists Anti-Censorship Task Force, believed that if the anti-porn people, whether right wingers or feminists, succeeded in making laws against pornography, as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon were trying to do, we feminists who wrote about sex – just even wrote about orgasms, say, or pregnancy or lesbianism or abortion or rape– would be victims of the censorship.
In fact, we would be the first victims. Who would the guardians go after? Like Anthony Comstock of an earlier social purity movement, they would go after people who are expected to be goody-goody nice girls, right? Women. Especially feminists.
No More Nice Girls
By the way, one of our groups – and let me tell you about it in a minute when I finish this story – is called No More Nice Girls. OK, so Ellen Willis and I held this workshop, where I presented a short story I had written called “The Story of a Girl and Her Dog.” Very much anthologized for a while. In it a young girl – she’s totally innocent – she’s a prepubescent girl – I don’t remember, 8 or 9 or 10. She gets out of the bath one evening – this is at the end of the story. She raises her leg to examine her foot, and her dog comes up and starts licking her. And she has her first orgasm.
This story is about innocence. I mean – and I’m sorry to have to describe it this way because it doesn’t sound it, but I took great care to make it a very innocent, joyous story. So I read it to the workshop, without saying I had written it. And Ellen found a piece to read from Hustler or some other magazine considered pornographic. (And often was pornographic. We weren’t saying there’s no such thing, only that it’s quite various.)
And in it the guy is really paying attention to the pleasure of the woman. Which can happen in some pornography. I don’t really personally read or watch it, but I take Ellen’s word for it. After the reading we presented the question to the people in our workshop – is this pornographic? What do you think? That was all. And quite a thoughtful discussion followed. But we did feel as if we were subverting the conference thesis, or anyway introducing some other ideas, and that was a delight.
This is what I mean when I say that I don’t drop out of the fray. I remain an activist always. If something comes up like pornography, prostitution, child-care, maternity leave, violence, sterilization abuse – anything, if a feminist group lets it be known, and I’m free, and I care about it, I’ll do it.
The Unified Vision Disappeared
To me the difference between our radical movement and what happened after the backlash, is that the unified vision kind of disappeared. And that to me is what revolution is about. It’s always about seeing every aspect of oppression under a single searchlight; or, to change the metaphor, seeing how everything is connected at the root.
Now what was I going to go back to? Oh, No More Nice Girls. I’m sorry you’re not getting to ask any questions.
HL: The questions are all being taken care of.
Take Back the Future
AS: No More Nice Girls – So, during those middle years, when our unnamed group was meeting, Ann Snitow, who founded the Women’s Studies Program at the New School, undergradute and graduate programs, and was a very important activist organizer and a member of our small unnamed group, she started having meetings at her loft. They included men and women activists.
One of our groups was called Take Back the Future. That group started meeting and marching during the first Gulf War. We also did a lot of street theater and we were always at demonstrations. We have our fancy signs and sometimes costumes, and we still march today. Those of us who are still alive and able to march. With our signs. That’s our activist group. It’s not just women but of course it’s totally feminist.
HL: So it’s the group, not the small group that was meeting but a larger group that can be – which includes men.
AS: Yes, exactly. But it is definitely a feminist group and it’s always there for any abortion demonstration or anti-war. We go together on the train to D.C. when there’s a big demonstration. We carry our Take Back the Future signs. Another group that began at that in-between time, as I’m calling it, when our long-lasting unnamed group was functioning –
HL: Late 70s and 80s.
We Did Have Fun
AS: Yes, and maybe 90s. It was a group called No More Nice Girls. And again, I think Ellen Willis named it. Anyway, No More Nice Girls was a street theater group. A reproductive rights street theater group. And we did a lot of outrageous demonstrations, really fun, like one against a European psychoanalytic association. They had a big meeting at the Plaza Hotel when the Plaza was still a hotel. This is probably in the 80s.
We all dressed up as barefoot and pregnant, in black robes, all chained together, because the organization was not pro-abortion. The idea of our costumes was that they wanted to keep women barefoot and pregnant. I forgot what was going on at the moment, but our actions were always in response to something happening at the moment. They called the police on us, but we got out of there just in time. Take Back the Future had a big caterpillar or maybe it was a dragon or a worm. I don’t know – it was a long green thing that we could march inside of. We have artists in our group so they make our props.
We marched inside the caterpillar – wherever we were. In defense of Muslims who were forced to register, under one of the Bushes, I think Bush 1. It was about deportation. And we tried to be wherever there was some important radical action being done.
When I went to teach in Honolulu, at the University of Hawaii, in the early 90s, there was a federal case being tried in Hawaii, something called the Guam Case, about a case on Guam Island where they had passed a gag order against doctors speaking about abortion. The Federal District Court hearing the case, for that whole area of the Pacific, was in Honolulu. So my students and I organized a Pacific Branch of No More Nice Girls. We had an abortion speak-out downtown, and we did street theater in front of the courthouse while they were hearing the Guam case.
Scott, my best and longest and final husband, dressed up as a doctor with a gag around his mouth. Just like what Trump is saying now – that doctors can’t tell patients about abortions – can’t mention it. So Scott had a gag, and he was dressed in white, with a stethoscope. And at his feet is one of the students acting dead, with blood all over her, and he has blood too. There’s a lot of blood. And I’m the nurse. So No More Nice Girls Pacific Branch put on street theater in Hawaii.
We had different groups with overlapping memberships—our unnamed CR group, the larger activist Take Back the Future, our smaller street theater group No More Nice Girls, and a study group, all women, called Feminist Futures. Everything we did was political. Sometimes with men, sometimes not. Always feminist. At Ann’s loft we also had a lot of discussions of urgent issues to see how we could engage with them. When the Patriot Act came up, after 9/11, Take Back the Future joined in demonstrations against the Patriot Act. Which I think is still on the books.
We Were Interested in Everything
Some people think that to be a radical feminist means that you’re interested exclusively in women’s issues, in just radical feminism, rather than radical everything-ism. We were interested in everything that was against us. Because we knew very well that the powerful forces against us and all marginalized groups – the patriarchy and capitalism – wants to obliterate feminism if they can. You see daily how, under Trump, they are trying to undo the gains we’ve made.
AS: I do believe that the election of Trump and the defeat of Hillary provoked a tremendous response from women. And men. There was that women’s march of several million people all over the world on the day after Trump’s inauguration. There was another huge one all over the world a year later. There’s the #MeToo movement. There’s all kinds of anti-Trump activity.
And I have noticed – I have my own evidence of a big change that happens to be literary. I have a collection of journals which were always hateful to feminism, like the New York Review of Books, which suddenly has on its cover – on its cover! – the words “American Feminism.” As a lead article!
Before, they wouldn’t even acknowledge feminism, or women writers except for a very few. It’s true that their worst editors have died now. But I do believe that it’s connected to Trump. Now, suddenly, the very word feminist, which was a shunned word for so long, is acceptable. It’s everywhere, people you’d never have expected to utter it now embrace it. And then – I can’t even begin to tell you how much evidence of change I see from this vantage point where I sit writing books. One is the hiring of a gender editor at the New York Times. And if the Times is appointing a gender editor then whatever other newspapers might still exist – they’re also going to appoint a gender editor.
And this gender editor has been really slashing and burning through the various sections of the Times. For example, that supplementary obituary section on women who didn’t get obituaries during their time, and now the Times is making up for it? I think the section is called Forgotten No More. That’s due to the gender editor, and the political atmosphere. There was an issue of the New York Times Book Review, a little later, which was all women.
This is incredible to me because it’s inconceivable that any of that could have happened forty years ago or two years ago. Or if Trump hadn’t won. So something has changed. And if it’s happened in this world of the media it’s happening elsewhere too. Probably first. See how many new women are running for office. See how women, especially women of color, turned recent elections in the south. The #MeToo movement is spreading like crazy. Some of these guys are getting their comeuppance.
It’s Very Satisfying to Me to See the Movement Reborn
Just as I described that earlier time of seeing everything under a single searchlight, so I think that may be happening again. If it is happening in the media, it’s going to spread. It’s going to keep spreading, although there’s already a huge backlash building. It’s very satisfying to me to see the movement reborn, but we can’t kid ourselves that the patriarchy and those powerful white men, are not still in charge. They’re still in power everywhere, and not just because of this president. And they’re busy provoking that backlash.
So I don’t have any illusions that the world is going to suddenly change, that the movement is going to suddenly succeed in making a revolution. No – that is going to be a long drawn out process. And there’ll be times when there is a lot of radical movement and there’ll be times when there is less.
But feminism has been gaining for 250 years. It’s going to happen in the future too. It’s going to keep happening. I’m only hoping – Well, first I have to say I feel so lucky to have been alive long enough to see this rebirth of the movement. Wow! I feel so bad that Ros Baxandall died before it happened. I don’t know whether I’ll still be alive when the backlash takes over again. Maybe I will – but I have no doubt that feminist change will continue too.
Because Every Generation Can Do Only So Much
Each generation can do only so much. When you come of age you see what needs to be done. Your horizon goes just so far, and you work for that and to accomplish the changes you can, so that people who are born afterward come of age to a different horizon, a different consciousness. They see a different world, and they set different agendas.
Fine – I embrace the agendas of the young women who have started this new movement. It’s such a diverse movement, and they see a world I don’t. They have a horizon line that is much farther than mine was. They have different priorities in their different world, and I want to support them. And I hope they’ll support ours too. I don’t know if that answers you.
HL: Yes it does. I think that’s a good conclusion.
AS: There are just so many other organizations and important events that I participated in – groups, projects, protests, things that happened – that I didn’t mention. Like CARASA (Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse), and the 1975 Sagaris Summer Institute, and WAC (Women’s Action Coalition, formed after the Anita Hill fiasco), and WOW (Women Occupy Wall Street). Not to mention the other books I wrote. But you know – as my dear friend Margaret Fiedler, who died in 2004 at the age of 85 – the age I am now, though I’m almost 86. As Margaret Fiedler often said – this conversation is endless, so we might as well end it here.