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Back at the feminist barricades Susan Brownmiller recollects the glory days of the women's movement in North America .But writing In Our Time made her realize how moribund feminist politics have become.



The Globe and Mail

Saturday, November 20, 1999


Toronto -- Susan Brownmiller calls herself, reflexively, a radical feminist. The phrase is just the slightest bit startling, coming from a woman who is 64, and wearing a yellow knit sweater with a giraffe on the front and little black granny boots. She doesn't look remotely fierce -- although one senses, somehow, that she could be.


This is what made her fierce: "Imagine a world -- or summon it back into memory -- in which a husband was required to countersign a wife's application for a credit card, a bank loan or automobile insurance, when psychiatrists routinely located the cause of an unsatisfactory sex life in the frigid, castrating, ball-breaking female partner, when abortion was an illegal, back-alley procedure, when rape was the woman's fault, when nobody dared to talk about the battery that went on behind closed doors, or could file a complaint about sexual harassment."


Those lines come from the start of Brownmiller's new book, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, a rich history of the little-documented North American women' sliberation movement. She defined rape as a crime in the United States in her groundbreaking 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. Now Brownmiller, who was there in the thick of the first speak-outs and teach-ins, at the start of the abortion fight and the sexual harassment struggle, has written it all down.


It started for her one night in September, 1968, when a friend dragged Brownmiller, reluctant and skeptical, to a meeting where women were getting together, just to talk. Within minutes she found herself, eyes filled with tears, telling a room full of women she didn't know that she had had three illegal abortions. It was her "feminist baptism."


Thirty years later, Brownmiller saw the memory slipping away: memory of both what the world was like before the movement won those rights, and of the struggle itself. There was a history to be recorded. "In the five years I was researching the book, three people died. Some people's memories are already very bad." And there is no central archive of the movement; she sent women rummaging in the back of the closet for their personal shoebox archives.


"I felt this tremendous urgency to tell the story, even though I was painfully aware this is not necessarily the moment when people want to hear the story," she said over breakfast earlier this week. 

Brownmiller tracked down all the women she remembered from the first consciousness-raising groups, the first pickets, the first sit-ins. "I called a lot of women who [are now] very depressed. They all said uniformly [of the 1970s], 'This was the most exciting time in my life. Nothing has ever been like that time.' They haven't felt any honour and recognition, let me tell you."


Writing the book, Brownmiller had to confront the fact that the women's liberation movement is completely moribund. "What do you do when you've devoted so much of your life to social activism and you're in a non-activist time? People think of you as a relic -- when they think of you at all."


It makes her wistful for the 1970s.


Brownmiller was a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements when she found feminism; she spent the next 12 years working for the cause. She saw the first rape crisis opened, heard women talk of "equal pay for equal work" for the first time, watched male-only admissions policy at law and medical schools peeled away.


The book also has an engaging gossipy component: who fought whom and who slept with whom, and what they said behind each other's backs. It is, for anyone who has taken Women's Studies 101, like being allowed into the bar where the great leaders tell war stories.


Over pancakes and cigarettes, she confides that in the past few years two great icons of the movement, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, have tried to repair their historically rocky personal relationship. They boycotted recent dinners in honour of the other, but when Friedan was in the hospital last year, Steinem sent flowers.


Brownmiller breaks off into a wheezy chuckle -- "Gloria sent Betty flowers!" No humourless feminist here.


Matters weren't, however, always particularly funny. The movement was eventually ripped asunder, in part, by the bitter divisions (the pro- and anti-porn feminists, the lesbian separatists versus the straight women) and the resentment that a few women, such as Steinem, became media stars.


"I had two seconds when I thought, 'is this wrong to air all this dirty linen?' " she says. "And then I thought, you know, this is how all movements are . . . There's no point in doing this unless it's honest."


The book is, for the most part, a chronicle of battles won. Most riveting is her reconstruction of the Roe v. Wade case, the U.S. Supreme Court's seminal decision on abortion. Brownmiller was with her "sisters" in their hangout, the Mother Courage restaurant in Manhattan, the night the decision came down. She remembers thejubilant owner popping the corks from bottles of wine, and a huge spontaneous party. "We thought we'd done it. We all felt part of that victory. We felt unstoppable."


She knew the value of safe, legal abortion, having journeyed herself to Cuba and Puerto Rico to have hers, once nearly bleeding to death. Brownmiller makes the admission, with a candour that is startling, at the outset of the book. The reader pauses: Was this before birth control? Was she wildly sexually active? Just dumb?


She accepts the question calmly.


"I wasn't having that much sex and I was using birth control methods. Never the pill, because that was after my time, but condoms and diaphragms, the rhythm method. Why? Because the men said it worked. And I happened through a freak of nature to be extremely fertile. But I'm not alone; I have friends who have had six abortions."


It had to go in the book. "This was the truth of my life, and if you want to know why I turned out to be a radical feminist, I think going through three illegal abortions had a lot to do with it."


The right to safe abortion was a triumph, but Brownmiller remembers losses, too. The fight to eradicate pornography, most notably. "We lost that one. Period."


Today hip young women who happily call themselves feminists equally happily head to a strip bar with friends or rent porn flicks (it's called being "sex positive"). Nonsense, says Brownmiller. "Women have old themselves a bill of goods if they feel porn is at all empowering. I don't believe there can be equality in porn."


She concludes the book with the observation that her revolution is truly over. Why does there seem so little place for feminism today?


The movement grew too big to have unanimity -- and the political and economic climate of the 1980s sapped the strength of activism, she says. "How long can you maintain anger and militance? And the doors had opened."


There seems to be little left. "I can't get too excited about fighting the glass-ceiling stuff. I'm not going to the barricades for a woman to get a million-dollar bonus at the end of the year. I wish them well -- if the men are getting these million dollar salaries then women should, too -- but it wasn't the issue that made us into militants."


What will she do now?


"I haven't a clue. What do you do when you've summed up the highlight of your life?"


Copyright 1999 Globe Information Services


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