The light of liberation can be blinding
The women’s movement has been under fire from the moment it drew its first breath. It’s enemies and detractors are many, though often they pose, in their own minds, as supporters — “Yes, yes, there is much justification in what you are saying, but good God! those awful women you put on tv!” … “Well, I’m willing to support you people, but you’re just gonna have to do a lot better in the way of propaganda. That mimeographed Marxism. Jesus.” … “Look, I’ve always believed in women’s liberation. I take my wife out to eat all the time, but my God, what’s going now is just incredible. These strident, man-hating bitches you people have for spokesmen.” … “You people.” If I hear “you people” just once more …
Those who have responded with open fear and anger to the movement — no doubt out of the illness of middle-class libertarianism — are too numerous to articulate properly on the sociological scale that will accurately place the many combinations of anxious self-interest they represent. (And, indeed, it is not now my intention either to castigate or to proselytize.) But there many who declared themselves partisans from the start, many who claimed to see in the women’s movement a hope of salvation denied elsewhere in the cultural politics that dominates our social passions, many who responded to the cause of justice for women with quick support and ready alliance, who are now beginning to separate themselves from the movement. For many of those partisans — both men and women, but most especially the men — are striking out now, in boredom and irritation, at the many apparently unwholesome aspects of the movement — and in that quick partisanship and early souring lies an instructive tale, one that is crucial to both an increased understanding of and a renewed faith in the movement that seeks to alter radically the psychic lives of men and women.
I have a story to tell, a story that contains all the dramatic elements involved in this significant play of life:
Recently, I was visiting old friends in Berkeley, a couple who are both radicals of many years’ conviction, people who literally feel that the oppression of other people limits and corrodes their own lives. This conviction happens to be the best part of these people. Unlike many radicals whose radicalism is the worst part of them — that is, their radicalism is often rendered in mean-spirited and righteous behavior, an arrogant excuse for emotional deficiency — in these people the disgust with capitalism and the social inequities that follow from the system is neither shallow nor fanatical: it has produced an extension of spiritual generosity, a genuine disavowal of worldly accumulation without an absurdly false asceticism, and, more often than not, an emotionally developed desire to understand what the other person is all about. It was, in fact, this man and this woman who introduced me, two years ago, to women’s liberation, and it was, at that time, the man’s understanding and persuasive eloquence that I found most affecting. “I am just now beginning to understand,” he had said softly, “that my wife’s oppression has forced me into certain molds of behavior and all of a sudden I see a whole world of behavior that has been denied me …” (It was after that conversation that I began, very fast, to feel a great number of connections being made inside me.) Things went quickly for them. The woman became an active member of a women’s collective (that is, a group of women who meet regularly to talk, and also to plan women’s liberation actions.) The man helped organize demonstrations and started a couple’s group.
Now it was two years later. I had seen them only once in the intervening time, and we were naturally anxious to see one another again. When I arrived at the house in Berkeley I found some changes. My friends, together with their two children, now occupied the lower half of the house they lived in; the upper half was occupied by three maritally estranged feminists and their collective five children; together, all five adults and seven children were attempting some variant of cooperative living.
Richard was out when I got there at 8 p.m. but Eva welcomed me heartily and pulled me inside to the kitchen for coffee and kisses and laughter and words that tumbled one after another in some vague semblance of sentences meant to communicate meaning. After a while, one of the feminists from the top floor came down and joined us at the table. She was the estranged wife of a prominent New Left radical, life with whom she acidly described: “He was the intellectual and I was the earth mother.” It became quickly clear that she was now, heart and soul, given over to the women’s movement. Within minutes we were all embroiled in serious, fastmoving movement talk — and within the hour I was being told I was a revisionist … It seemed I had too loose an idea of what constituted properly revolutionary behavior.
When Richard came home he walked into the kitchen; I was very glad to see him and leaped out of my chair to hug him hello. He responded, was friendly for a few minutes, and then left the room. I expected him to return and so I simply sat down again, resumed the conversation, and it was 1 a.m. before I realized Richard had gone to his room with no intention of returning to the kitchen.
We, the three women, continued to talk movement talk until 3 a.m. Movement talk, of necessity, is composed of a constant intertwining of personal experience, tactical speculations (regarding activity in and out of the movement), and theoretical projections, all being fed continually through the mill of observation and analysis. Naturally, the men in our lives are part of the material we supply for model cases and situations. Naturally.
I wasn’t able to speak to Richard, who seemed abnormally preoccupied, until late the next day, and then I asked him why he hadn’t come back into the kitchen the night before. He looked at me for a long minute, and then he burst out; “I’ve gotten to hate women. I can’t stand them gathering in cliques, the way they do now. I just can’t stand the constant cliqueishness. It reminds me of my mother, for God’s sake. When I was a kid, my mother and her friends would gather in the kitchen like that, pushing the men — me and my brother and my father — out with their eyes and their sudden silences … Jesus. Now it’s the same thing all over again. When I walk into my own kitchen I feel the invisible curtain suddenly coming down between me and the women. Suddenly, I am the enemy incarnate, I am the fucking oppressor, I’m the one to be watched and to be shut out …” He gestured in disgust. “It’s useless now. I really don’t know what to make of the movement any more, and certainly I don’t feel part of it at all.”
I was stunned by his outburst. A great blot of sympathy began spreading in me. But very quickly my sympathy began to be outlined in anger, and the outline thickened until it covered half the blot … and then I realized that both my sympathy and my anger were for Richard and for the women. For him and for me, for the cause and for the movement, for the depth of meaning sealed into this incident and for the insight it holds into the nature of the struggle that lies still so far ahead of all of us.
What is happening to Richard is happening to men (from liberals to revolutionaries) all over this country who have considered themselves spiritual partisans of the women’s movement and feel, bewilderedly and angrily, that the movement itself is now beating them over the head daily with an indiscriminately wielded club marked “male chauvinist pig.” (A really unhappy example of this: John Leonard’s recent, startling battle in the Times with some of my sisters.) The entire action is amazingly reminiscent of the time only 10 years ago when thousands of white middle-class liberals who had fought with patience and sincerity in the black civil rights movement were suddenly being called “ofay motherfuckers” by LeRoi Jones and Stokely Carmichael and told to get the hell out of their movement. It was as difficult then to sort out the right and the wrong of the matter as it is now, because the right and the wrong were then, and are now, all mixed up with the ugliness of emotional need so swollen and so distorted as a result of having been told so long it does not exist that blacks then, and women now, could not take in all at once both the full impetus of their previous condition and their roaring need to see it change and still retain their full capacity for humanist behavior. It is almost as though the very act of declaring oneself ready to do battle for one’s humanity transforms one into something other: like the good and innocent men who go to war to fight for the sweetness of civilization and return killers.
But of course that is the whole sickening trickery in life — the idea that one cannot fight for one’s humanity without, ironically, losing it — and it is a piece of trickery that the blacks sometimes seem helpless against and the women now sometimes seem helpless against, and, in the final analysis, that trickery is the real enemy, and the very essence of the thing we must continually be on our guard against. For what shall it profit a woman if she gain an end to slavery in marriage and in the process lose her soul?
However, a liberal who was outraged 10 years ago at the sheer “unreasonableness” of the blacks and is outraged now at the sheer “unfairness” of the women is a fool, and possessed of the kind of impatience that calls all of his early allegiance into question. For how is it possible that a man in one breath should proclaim his genuine understanding of woman’s deeply subordinate position in our society, and in the very next exclaim savagely against the forceful and sometimes “unreasonable” expression of rage now rising in women, an expression which inevitably accompanies the uprising of those who suddenly realize they have been cheated of their birthright, and which dies down only slowly and with the healing passage of time that brings real change and increased understanding? Does a woman suddenly understand the need to reverse the behavior of over 2000 years, and presto! That understanding makes her saintly? Or is it exactly the opposite? “Ye shall know truth and it shall turn you into a monster. And only after a long siege of fever shall you become human again.” After all, why did it take Moses 40 years to cross the goddamn desert? Because God instructed him that he was not to return slaves to Canaan.
Many women are acting ugly now because they feel ugly. For a long, long time these women acted sweet when they didn’t necessarily feel sweet. They did so because deep in their being, in a place beyond conscious thought, they believed their lives depended upon their being sweet. Now, when they think of that time, of all that life spent on their knees, they feel green bile spreading through them. and they feel that their lives now depend upon calling men “male chauvinist pig.” That sweetness, then, was infantile, and this virulent aggression, now, is infantile. But a people are not kept for generations as children and suddenly, simply upon coming to realize that they have lived as children, become fully humanist adults, capable of measured proportion. That measured proportion is the kind of behavior that is learned, and it is learned only in a specific way: through the reinforcement of a repeated personal experience which perceives humanism, finally, as the only true and necessary and satisfying expression of the sell. A people who have only just begun to emerge from a state of subjugation are in no position to be even-handed in this manner, and it takes much patience and understanding and good will on the part of the strong ones both in the subjugated group and in the group holding the power to provide an atmosphere of stability in which the frightened bravado on both sides of the fence can dissipate itself without increasing the chaos that is already intrinsic in the situation.
John Leonard was appalled by the out-of-focus fury of the sisterhood over his review of a number of feminist books, a fury that ended up saying a man shouldn’t be reviewing feminist books. Leonard, a long-time supporter of women’s liberation, flew into a rage and in reply said that in that case “Moby Dick” should be reviewed by whales, and ended, in his turn, with an attack on the stupidities of the women’s movement. It was so obvious to him that the feminists’ response was an outrageous attack upon every civilized notion that allows a reviewer of intelligence and decency to call the shots as he sees them.
Leonard was right and he was wrong; the women were right and they were wrong. If I were in Leonard’s place, I would have done precisely what he did — and regretted it five years later. On the other hand, I am in the feminists’ place: I would not have done what they did, but I can see exactly why they did what they did.
Women’s liberation is being called by many names today. It is called “the movement,” it is called “the cause,” it is called “the revolution.” Often, the language — as language does — begins to take on a life of its own, and then the idea of women’s liberation and the terms of description by which it is known begin to grow dangerously distant from each other. Even more important, those terms of description sometimes harden into dogma, and dogma in time becomes a kind of shorthand — first for explanation and then for response. When that happens, experience is on its way to becoming institutionalized and the life at the center of that experience is slowly sucked away.
The liberation of women is, in my view, at one and the same time, all of the things it is called, and none of those things. For me, feminism is, more than any other single thing, not a movement, not a cause, not a revolution, but rather a profoundly new way of interpreting human experience. It is a vital piece of information at the center of a new point of reference from which one both re-interprets the past and predicts the future. In that sense, it is parallel to the great cultural movements that have so altered the shape of the 20th century — Freudianism and existentialism. Feminism is a piece of emotional and intellectual insight that allows us to see that women’s lives represent the effects of a piece of culture that has come to be known as “sexism”: a determination — based on fear and the existential struggle for power — that women shall be declared natural inferiors, and taught that they are natural inferiors. The consequences of this insight, if it is perceived instantly, are as far-reaching as Freud’s discovery of sexual repression and the existentialists’ discovery of nothingness. For each woman and each man contains within herself and within himself a microcosm of the universe in feminist terms — just as each person also contains within himself and within herself a microcosm of sexual neurosis and existential angst — and thus feminism also is nothing less than a new form into which one pours old knowledge, thereby re-vitalizing and setting into motion anew the sources of psychic energy responsible for growth and change and altered behavior.
The conversion to feminism is also very much like the conversion to Freudianism and existentialism: for a long time one sees nothing, and suddenly one sees it all — whereupon absolute hell breaks loose. A woman suddenly sees herself in feminist terms (just as a prospect for psychoanalysis suddenly sees that his behavior is the response to repression); she grasps the fundamental idea in a flash (and that, by the way, is the last thing she is going to grasp in a flash); immediately she is surrounded by the “panic and emptiness” of a world in shambles, on the one hand, and the drunken exhilaration of a world overflowing with new possibility on the other. Utterly dislocated, a newly converted feminist is then like the man in Plato’s parable who, coming out of the cave of ignorance, is blinded by the light and must grope slowly and painfully toward some coherent re-assembly of the world — a groping, I might add, that is further retarded by the fact that the man is eager to accept each new object he stumbles on as the ultimate object, the one that really defines this giddy and fearful new atmosphere he now finds himself in.
But more significantly and more directly, the newly converted feminist bears a striking resemblance to the novitiate into psychoanalysis who — for an amazingly long time — is overwhelmed by the fact that his father never made him feel loved and that his desire for his mother deeply affected his ability to love other women, as well as by this amazing discovery of a world within himself of emotional scars, complicated repressions, unbelievable defenses — all busily going into operation every time a stranger says hello all explained by an erudite world theory, all passionately seen as part of an enormous puzzle, there simply to be worked out — and shazam! on the very day the last piece of the puzzle is in place, those compulsions formed by that unanalyzed self begin to wither and die, one sheds the worn-out skin of defensive behavior, and a whole, new creature is born inside the familiar but now psychoanalyzed body.
All that is romantic fancy, as the unhappy analysand is quick to learn; should he actually piece the entire puzzle together, he has just begun his trip, and it is one of the cruelest journeys in the world — that journey that must be taken from the stunning point of initial conversion, quick understanding, and unquestioned belief in the miraculous powers of the language of faith, to the disenchanting point of realization that insight must be reinforced by and ultimately (through the formerly impotent tools of intelligence and will) replaced by an act of hard, drudging work in which the emotional habits of a lifetime are slowly and continually chipped away — inch by inch, moment by moment, day by painful day — in order that the analysand’s life may perhaps begin to resemble that glorious possibility of existence glimpsed in the rarefied atmosphere of the analyst’s office, hour after cathartic hour.
For the feminist, it is exactly the same. The woman who suddenly sees that she has been forced by cultural decision to remain a half-formed creature, never to have known actual autonomy or direct power, is as overcome by her revelation as is the new analysand by his. So violent is the nature of her insight that she is able in a shot to gather into her previously resistant understanding a new explanation for almost every identifiable piece of behavior that characterizes her life. She is able quickly to see her life — down to its smallest detail — as a microcosmic example of the larger and more theoretical idea: sexism. She sees the cultural and political system under which she has grown, suddenly, not as the familiar capitalist West but as a patriarchy in which men have direct power and women do not; in which women have been kept, essentially, as children, and men have assumed the responsibilities and the rewards of adulthood. When the feminist comes to see her life in this light, it is inevitable that she should see men — all men, the men in remote places of power as well as the men in her immediate life — as agencies of her victimization. It is also inevitable that she be overwhelmed by an uncontrollable and very unhappy fury — just as the analysand is overtaken by a furious anger against his parents when he first realizes what they did to him.” It is only with enormous difficulty that the feminist — like the analysand — can get past the point of initial understanding and primary response — for indeed, if she does not, she, like the psychiatric patient who cannot stop explaining his behavior in terms of how his mother or father affected him in early childhood, is lost to genuine change. Man-hating, for the feminist, then becomes a waste of energy and a force for retardation rather than progress. It is exactly like taking a trip down an unknown country road in the middle of the night. One goes a short distance and falls into a ditch. One steps on the gas pedal, again and again, but to no avail. The force of acceleration makes it feel as though the car is moving, but in fact the wheels are only spinning. One must get out of the car, lift it from the ditch, and proceed down the road — to the end of the trip.
For in the final analysis, feminism, for me, is the journey deep into the self at the same time that it is an ever increasing understanding of cultural sexism … and, more than anything, the slow, painful reconstruction of that self in the light of the feminist’s enormously multiplied understanding.
Let me explain what I mean. Recently I was walking through midtown Manhattan with another woman. We had just had lunch and we were speaking warmly with one another. This woman is over 50. She is very beautiful, she has two broken marriages behind her, a grown son, an amazingly gentle nature, and a terrifying history of alcoholism. She does not call herself a feminist, and yet she is certainly deeply affected by the women’s movement; she is, in my view, a perfect candidate for feminist conversion. As we were walking, she said to me: “You know, I’ve been reading Ti-Grace Atkinson, and I’m beginning to think perhaps she’s right, perhaps separatism is the answer for us. I realized, as I was reading her, that love, being in love, had always been to me exactly what alcohol had been. I mean, when I was in love, it was just like being high; I would experience exhilaration, a sense of strength, and a marvelous conviction of freedom … do you know what I mean? And then, after a while, love — like alcohol — would begin to wear off, and the high would end in depression … Perhaps, then, I should abstain from love as I have abstained from alcohol.”
I felt a terrible rush of confusion and unhappiness as she spoke. “No,” I said hotly, “no.” It seemed to me that the lesson to be learned from that experience is not that we must stop loving men, but that we have all been taught a corrupting version of romantic love and we must learn better how to love. That high of love is like something on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. It is falling in love with the ritual of love, not with a human being, and experiencing the emptiness that follows when ritual is perceived to be without substance; and women do it a thousand times more often and more easily than men because “falling in love” is what women wait to do. Imagine a bride as she is prepared for the ordinary American marriage: there she is draped in masses of queenly white, surrounded by adoring subjects, (family, friends, neighbors), ready to worship at her prize-winning feel, intent on absorbing every detail of this high-mass ceremony: the gathering of gifts, silver, wedding rings, honeymoon plans, dressmaker details, wedding-hall plans … the actual man who is actually being married slowly recedes into the unreal background … delicious! Suddenly it’s over. They are married and it is all over. Nothing remains but to prepare for the next high: having a baby. In one sense or another — given higher or lesser degrees of spiritual and intellectual pretension — thousands of people marry in precisely this manner, mistaking circumstance for personality. Although we alone are not the victims, we, the women, are the ultimate victims of these marriages — because marriage is so damnably central to a woman’s life — and precisely because we are the more genuine victims, it is incumbent on us to understand that we participate in these marriages because we have no strong sense of self with which to demand and to give substantial love, it is incumbent in us to make marriages which will not curtail the free, full functioning of that self. If giving up “romantic” love, then, is the price that must be paid for a new kind of marriage, let it be a price we pay gladly, and once and for all have done with the hellish lies attached to the whole damned business so that we can look forward with pleasure to a new, free, full-hearted, eminently proportionate way of loving. That, for me, is the feminist lesson to be learned from the realization that love is an institution of oppression, as Ti-Grace so accurately puts it.
breaks my heart to hear a woman speak of “ripping off” a man, or another calling a man she lives with — and has every intention of continuing to live with — a “male chauvinist pig” 29 times a day, or another reveling in the open hostility she displays toward every man she sleeps with. It breaks my heart because I know equally well the confusion and the despair and the frustration behind such a woman’s words. I know that her emotional wheels are spinning, and that she can’t see her way past her present position. And I know also that somewhere inside her, perhaps well below the conscious level, she apprehensively feels that displaying the same emotional viciousness toward men that they have displayed toward her may be suspicious proof of the females crippled ability to assume responsibility for the making of her own life.
And I want to say: have faith, my sister. The place in which we now find ourselves is unavoidable, but soon it will prove insupportable; soon it will prove emotionally unsatisfying, and with that emotional dissatisfaction comes another leap toward understanding, and with that, the automatic courage to press further and be off down that road once again. It is insufficient to the cause to concentrate on man-hating; it exhausts your energy and makes you lose sight of the real aim of the struggle. It is not the action that will return your life to you; it is not the way to the end of that road, and the end of that road is all that counts.
None of which is to say that the fight against sexism is not very real, or that it must not be fought daily by the woman’s movement — in the courts, in the streets, in the offices, in the bedrooms — or that those in power are anywhere near ready to relinquish that power. It is only to say that I believe that the thrust of feminism should not be the reforming of old institutions so much as the creation of new ones:
— I do not wish to batter down the doors of male institutions, crying “Let me in!”, so much as I simply wish to walk away from those institutions, thereby causing them to fall, as women make of themselves human beings who simply will not participate in the male scheme of civilization.
— I wish to see every feminist take a solemn vow: “Let there never be another generation of women for whom marriage is the pivotal experience of psychic development.”
— I wish to see every feminist say to herself: “Yes, the patriarchy has taken my life from me, but also I have given it. I am not going to waste the rest of it in an avalanche of reproach. I am going to fight the patriarchy, but my real energy goes to the hard drudging work of making myself human — as well as humane. Men may have taken my life from me — but they cannot give it back to me. Only I can do that, fighting inch by inch to reverse the emotional habits of a lifetime.”
All much, much easier said than done — especially for us, the women between 30 and 40, the truly brave and sacrificial transitional generation. But it is, I believe, the only true direction that we — as women, as human beings, as intimate possessors of the final understanding of “liberation” — can travel. Yes, men are also in chains. Yes, “powerful oppressor” is, for most men, a painful farce. Yes, it is the sexual liberation of everyone that is required. But history has now passed the ball to us, the women, and it is our liberation that is demanded, our liberation that must be of paramount concern, our liberation that will, by default, insure the liberation of all. And it will come, all of it, not so much through the development of a political dogma or a revolutionary apparatus or a sweeping commitment to feminist ideology, as through the slow, irreversible conversion to a new psychology of the self on the part of thousands of women today, and millions more tomorrow. Against that force, the operating principles of the old male civilization will be utterly helpless. Against that force, the denial of female autonomy will be as a leaf in the wind.
It is for these reasons that I believe that the heart and soul of the feminist movement is the small, anonymous consciousness-raising group. It is here that the real work is being done, here that feminism struggles to life, here that it takes hold with rooted strength, transforming the soul of a woman, biting deeply and slowly — like acid on metal — into the ready heart beneath the encrusted surface, so that it becomes forever impossible for that woman to turn back on what she now knows or to make whole again that old, false self.
The existence of the women’s movement as a source of support and strength for thousands of women who will come slowly to feminism is invaluable. On the other hand, the movement is also a source of apprehension in that it nurtures the irresistible tendency toward doctrinaire indictments, the easy out of man-hating, the often false solidarity of ideological “sisterhood.” In the short time since it first came into existence, the movement has already spawned hundreds of party hacks, women who are now “movement women,” women whose line of defense grows more rigid with each passing day, women who have often exchanged one crudely held ideology for another.
To travel down that ideological road is not fatal — nothing can be fatal to the feminist movement, for it is alive in all its parts and its desire for more life is omnivorous, feeding itself on anything and everything — and often, it seems the only real road to be on. But, it seems to me, in the end it is regressive and dangerous to a movement that prides itself on having as its ultimate goal the humane treatment of all human beings.
For myself, I can only say: I fight the polemicist in me daily. I fight not to destroy it, but merely to hold it in balance. To hold it in balance. And I must fight, because it is such a temptation for me to simply surrender to it. The excitement, the energy, the sheer voluptuous sweep of feminist ideology is almost erotic in its power to sway me. My mind grows vividly sharp, my responses come quickly, my illuminations and connections are irresistible, as one piece of the puzzle after another begins to fall swiftly into place no sooner do I allow a single sentence to dominate my being: “Everything in man’s experience makes him an oppressor, everything in woman’s experience makes her a victim.” That’s all. Just a single sentence. No more than that. And yet …
Something in me holds back, some part of my soul struggles up in painful confusion to say softly: no, that’s not entirely true. That is certainly not entirely true. I cannot say to a man who has loved me: “You goddamn sexist” (as I have said) without feeling a terrible, numbing pain as I look upon his dismayed face and the whole of our deeply woven experience together flashes before me. No, I cannot say I am a total victim as I feel the energy of life rushing through me and I exult in my growing independence. I cannot say these things — and I think it is the best part of my feminism that will not allow me to say them.
Feminism has within it the seeds of a genuine world view. Like every real system of thought it is able to refer itself to everything in our lives, thereby rescuing the old, forgotten knowledge that is locked deep inside each of us. But if, in the end, in our ideological lunge toward retribution, we use it as a means of abdicating our responsibility to be true to every part of our experience — we are lost. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 28, 2020