Oracles of Feminism
The Sisterhood: The True Story of the Women Who Changed the World.
by Marcia Cohen.
Simon & Schuster. 445 pp. $19.95.
Although at first blush The Sisterhood looks like a semi-scholarly history of American feminism in the 60’s and 70’s, the reader quickly discovers that it is something else. That “something” is suggested by Marcia Cohen’s prose style, which will be quite familiar to readers of Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, and Ladies’ Home Journal (to the last of which she has contributed). Organized around brief biographies of four of “the major oracles of the Golden Age of Feminism”—Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, and Gloria Steinem—the book focuses in good part on these women’s looks, their taste in dress and lovers, and the scandals they were involved in. A better subtitle for it might thus have been “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Politically Correct.”
Yet despite these qualities, or oddly enough because of them, The Sisterhood is a very illuminating work. Who could object to Cohen’s frequent praise of Gloria Steinem’s long legs, on the one hand, or her many disparaging descriptions of Betty Friedan’s physical attributes, on the other, when it turns out that the sex-appeal gap between the two women had as much to do with precipitating their political split as any ideological differences? Who could complain about the detailed accounts of boyfriends, girlfriends, and bedrooms when a premise of the feminist movement at this point in its history was (as a feminist not cited here once put it), “nothing is more political than orgasms”? And although Germaine Greer has denounced this book’s portrait of her “shabby, shaggy, half-naked, and braless self,” Greer’s own description of a photograph that she chose to appear in the first issue of her magazine, Suck, is not exactly an improvement: “I just lay on my back on the floor of the studio and put my knees over my head. It was shot from there. So that all you can see is legs, a huge bottom, like a great apple, a cunt, an anus and a face. . . .”
In the manner of the celebrity journalist that she essentially is, Marcia Cohen tends to give disproportionate attention to a few events in the annals of the feminist movement because of their drama and novelty, and to neglect the historical context that made these events possible. Here, too, however, her approach succeeds in spite of itself, for the incidents she highlights are often both exceedingly bizarre and symptomatic. Consider, for example, the life and loves of Ti-Grace Atkinson, the first president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). That Atkinson was a defender of Valerie Solanis, the author of the SCUM [Society for Cutting Up Men] Manifesto and attempted murderer of Andy Warhol, is fairly well known. In The Sisterhood, we also learn about Atkinson’s fondness for the Mafia—“They hated the police as much as I did”—and her relationship with the mobster Joe Colombo, whom she eulogized as follows after he was gunned down: “This STRANGE and BEAUTIFUL and REVOLUTIONARY FOOL and ‘criminal’—Joseph Colombo—wore a ‘Freedom for Women’ button in front of the press and the FBI and nobody dared laugh.” It seems not to have occurred to Atkinson that Colombo could have worn a button with the device “Votes for Lobsters” and nobody would have dared to laugh.
There are several other such strange and fascinating tidbits reported here. The question they all raise is why the approach Cohen has taken to her subject—an approach that amounts to the mere retailing of gossip—should seem somehow so appropriate. And the answer is that the feminists themselves legitimized this approach with their famous insistence that “the personal is political.”
This slogan, and variations on it, arises repeatedly in Cohen’s accounts of feminist writing and debates. What the feminists of the 60’s and 70’s meant by it, however, is not immediately clear. One construction of the idea might be that in the end, our knowledge of our political environment derives from our experiences, which are therefore our ultimate standard for analysis and guide to change. The problem with this interpretation is that it renders the concept plausible only by reducing it to a truism. Moreover, although the politics of militant blacks, say, or of union organizers, may be rooted in the experience of racism and/or exploitation, the movements to which those experiences gave birth are hardly “personal.” Nor are the personal lives of political leaders normally viewed as central to the public issues they address. Only feminists voluntarily put their own dirty laundry out for inspection.
What, then, is the meaning and appeal of this slogan for feminists? When the feminists of the period covered by The Sisterhood referred to “the personal,” what they had in mind was something less than the sum total of one’s experiences. What was meant was one’s sex life, plus the more awkward details of one’s emotional condition. They claimed an indissoluble link between bedroom practices and deepest emotions on the one hand, and ideology and policy preferences on the other.
This was a tactic that recommended itself for two reasons. First, since even the more “moderate” feminist reforms concerned such matters as abortion, birth control, and divorce law, it was essential to win acceptance of such matters as legitimate subjects of public debate if the movement were to go anywhere. This seems to have been the main intellectual point that NOW was trying to gain in the mid-60’s, and here it was successful. But then, owing to a number of factors, not least of which was simple intellectual laziness, a second factor came quickly into play: it was discovered that opposition to feminist ideas could be disarmed if the feminist case were put in the most sexually graphic, emotionally distraught, and generally coarse manner possible. This too proved successful.
Marcia Cohen quotes a professor of Kate Milieu’s as saying that reading her book Sexual Politics was “like sitting with your testicles in a nutcracker.” The remark is perhaps unfair to that particular book, which is among the more reasoned of feminist polemics, but it is not unfair to the genre as a whole. Here is Robin Morgan: “Let it all hang out. Let it seem bitchy, catty, dykey, frustrated, crazy, Sloanesque, nutty, frigid, ridiculous, bitter, embarrassing, man-hating, libelous, pure, unfair, envious, intuitive, low-down, stupid, petty, liberating.” Few serious people of either sex were willing to conduct a discussion in such terms (Norman Mailer, never known for his own rhetorical restraint, was one of the few), and in quitting the field they gave the impression of having been refuted.
Even when feminist discourse was not nearly so raw, there was a tendency to forestall objections by implying that one’s deepest and most private feelings were at stake. Gloria Steinem, for example, once wrote an article about her mother, entitled “Ruth’s Song,” which was meant to be a portrait of oppressed womanhood. Her mother, Steinem tells us, “was defeated by a biased world. . . . Her fate is not uncommon for women.” Of this article, written in an incantatory, James Agee-like style, Cohen observes that it is “. . . laced with a gentle shower of detail, of heartbreaking incidents.” The only problem is that, assuming the article’s accuracy, Ruth Steinem was obviously a mentally ill person, a fact which her daughter nowhere acknowledges and indeed has explicitly denied in an interview with Cohen. But who would be willing to tell the editor of Ms. that she was wrong about her own mother? In this way did the personal come to do the work of the political.
Still, whatever advantages feminists achieved through their deployment of this technique, historically it must also be seen as a major factor in the failure of the feminist movement to produce serious intellectual spokesmen. In particular, the public flaunting of one’s private life as a means of “subverting” bourgeois discourse has proved much easier to harness for commercial purposes than anyone in the late 60’s would have believed. Once “bitchy, catty, . . . petty,” became a legitimate mode of expression, the result was not a new feminist language but Donahue and People magazine.
Germaine Greer claims that she chose the photograph described above, rather than a more modest topless shot, because the latter could easily have been published in the tabloids. Today, one wonders whether many publishers would draw the line so chivalrously. Cohen herself notices that the feminist movement made its greatest impact on the public just as celebrity journalism and plain gossip were achieving a previously unheard of legitimacy—as the Marxists say, this is surely no accident. Although the particular figures discussed in The Sisterhood may not have intended it, consciousness-raising easily translated into revenue-raising.
Whatever may be said for (or against) the social and demographic changes wrought by feminism, the consequences of all this for the intellectual side of the movement have been plain. Feminist writing today falls into two categories. First are writers like Friedan and Steinem, who have never managed to rise above journalism. Then there is feminist scholarship, published in journals like Signs and of no interest for the most part to anyone but other academic feminists. Missing altogether are intellectuals who express their thoughts in the language developed by generations of political thinkers and actors, and whose frame of reference is the history of democratic institutions, their progress and their failings. That the feminist movement is devoid of such figures perhaps helps to explain why its history is so easily captured in gossip.