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
"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
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
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
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
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
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?"
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