Doris Lessing Not Really Interested in Leading Women’s Lib


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May 22, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 32

‘Best Battles Are Fought By Men & Women Together’
by Susan Brownmiller

When a cult writer is introduced to his/her cult, is it necessarily a painful encounter? An encounter full of surprise and misunderstanding took place last Thursday evening at the Lexington YMHA when Doris Lessing met some vociferous Doris Lessing fans at her first New York public appearance. The expectations of fan and writer collided in a drama that was not without irony. Irony being a Lessing virtue, the writer emerged with her virtue, if not her aplomb intact. Some of her fans were sent reeling. Prepared to crown a leader, a delegation from the women’s liberation movement was thrice refused. The writer was shaken, moderately. She has no use for True Believers.

To set the scene, let it be noted that before Mrs. Lessing walked hesitantly on stage to read from her latest work, “The Four-Gated City,” there was a lively discussion in a few rows of the auditorium over the probable length of the writer’s skirt. The giddy discussion was, in its harmless way, an indication of what a writer who is also a woman is up against. It seemed to matter what Lessing looked like, how she stacked up in the fashionability scale. The heavy betting was on “just below the knee.” No money was actually seen to have exchanged hands, but the heavy bettors lost. Mrs. Lessing’s hemline, now it can be told, was just above the knee.

Those who speculated on Lessing’s skirt length, however, were not those who call themselves radical women. Their moment came during the discussion period after the reading. In three separate attempts, an effort was made to have the writer declare herself as a champion of feminism. Lessing, who had previously declared that she was not Martha Quest (the heroine of her quintet of novels, “The Children of Violence,” of which the new book is the final volume), was having none of it. Perplexity gave way to exasperation and then to irony as the women questioners pursued their theme. When an intense young girl demanded, “Mrs. Lessing, will you give us your definition of a free woman?” Lessing responded, straight-faced, “Freedom is the recognition of necessity, isn’t it?”

It was a small in-joke, this use of a Marxist slogan, and a joke that only a Martha Quest, at age 50, could make. It went over dully, not understood by those without an acquaintance with Marx, and misunderstood by others who still hoped for a commitment. The flippancy was later apologized for, but the apology made matters worse. “I’m sorry,” Lessing said to the next questioner. “I’m sorry there are so many unhappy women. But there are a lot more important battles than the sex war.”

The next afternoon, in her hotel room, Lessing was still feeling the unsettling effects of the previous night’s encounter. “What are these things?” she said earnestly. “I don’t understand.” The writer held out some mimeographed pamphlets. They had been handed to her by the radical women as she left the auditorium. “I’ve read them all through,” she said in a plaintive little voice. “I’m so far away from it, I don’t know where to begin.”

The hotel room was in a fine state of chaos. Lessing was packing for a trip to San Francisco and then on to Oregon and the Midwest. “I’m hungry for emptiness, emptiness of the land,” she explained. “I come from Africa, and England is so full.” She offered water from the bathroom tap, apologized for the lack of room service, and haphazardly shoved a panty girdle and stockings into a bulging shopping bag. “Belongings,” she sighed as she surveyed the room. “I have too many things.”

The writer twisted her long, graying hair through her fingertips. “If there’s one war that no one can win it’s the sex war. There isn’t anyone in my generation who hasn’t fought it. Of course I think women should have equal pay for equal work and day nurseries and things like that, but I don’t see — I don’t understand what they want from me. In England I’m not considered a woman’s writer. This same thing happened to me two years ago in Sweden. My hotel room was besieged from 8 in the morning until midnight. I was accosted as a champion of the sex war. I’d be interviewed by these women journalists, I’d talk for three hours from A to zed and all they’d write about was the sex war. Now I won’t give any interviews to any Swedish woman journalist. Look, I would support a women’s trade union in a factory, but the rest is bad political thinking. Is one-half of the human race equating itself with a minority? Do they think of themselves as a minority? I should feel extremely nervous in a battle where there are no men around.”

…”For me, now, is the top priority. The danger is worse now. We’ve just gotten used to it. Every time we fight a war we give up further liberties. I see things as getting worse and worse. Nasty authoritarian governments here and in England. I attended an SDS meeting in Stony Brook. It broke my heart. The students are innocent as baby lambs. They are so idealistic, they don’t know what they’re up against. I think they’ll be defeated. Raids at 3 o’clock in the morning terrify me. This clamping down on pot smoking is nothing but anti-youth. I’m not very optimistic about the future.”

…”If you want to give me a good mark, say I don’t believe in getting married, unless you have children. I don’t like marriage at all. I’ve had two of them. People expect too much from marriage — long term romance, financial security. I like living with men, however. But having to stick to one forever is a bit much, isn’t it? Also, assure those women that it’s very pleasant to be middle-aged. One can take everything or leave it. It doesn’t become a question of principle.” Doris Lessing laughed a faint laugh.

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