Lipstick and Violence: America and Vietnam, Chicago Women's Liberation Union Poster, 1970s
I was born in 1952, and so I became a teenager, a college student, a young woman during the era of Second Wave feminism. In those days, feminist women, “women’s libbers,” as they were called were what we would now describe as “bad” – in the most positive of the word’s meanings. They were bad and bad-ass. They were take-no-guff, take-no-prisoners kinds of women. As Phyllis Chesler said of those years and her radical feminist sisters, “We were giants.” And she’s right; I was there, and feminist women really, really were giants. The Second Wave had a certain swagger, a compelling, intriguing bravado, a sort of tribal, don’t-mess-with-me, mystique which was at once attractive and intriguing and also intimidating and even frightening. My first ex (who died some years back), a leftist and Black nationalist in those years, despised the “women’s libbers.” He enjoyed nothing so much as to badmouth and berate them, in particular, for their appearance. He would rant and rave on and on incredulously: “Can you believe how they dress? Flannel shirts, no bras, baggy jeans, overalls and combat boots. No makeup. Pea coats. You can’t even tell what they look like under all that shit!” It angered him. He resented them. His idea was, women existed for his viewing pleasure, and clearly, they had missed that memo.
Economic Justice for Women March, Chicago, 1974
I was alternately repelled by them and drawn to them. I admired and respected them so much. At the same time, I couldn’t relate at all. By way of what mental or emotional gymnastics or feats of magic or derring-do were they able to just get up in the morning, run a brush through their (usually long) hair, throw on their wire-rimmed spectacles, flannels and jeans and meet whatever the day should bring their way? Why didn’t the hostile and antagonistic reactions of men get to them? Did they ever miss being thought of as pretty or attractive or desirable? Did they ever miss male attention?
How did they do that?
Robin Morgan with her son, Blake
I remember a certain moment in my life the way I remember only this type of moment: it was a watershed moment, in which I chose a certain path over another one I was considering. I had been actively involved in radical politics, the peace movement and the Civil Rights movement especially. I’d done my share of marching and participated in actions and boycotts, the closing down of the University of
Washington and the occupying of the ROTC building. I hadn’t involved myself too deeply, though, in feminism. And part of the reason was, I just didn’t think I could do what those women did. I couldn’t throw out all my clothes and shoes in favor of Army surplus. I couldn’t envision just letting my hair do whatever it did. I couldn’t imagine life without makeup or undergarments. I knew I could be a feminist without changing my appearance, of course, but I also knew intuitively – the way women know things, as Catharine A. MacKinnon says, “with our lives,” before we have any theory to describe what we know – that my resistance and my reluctance meant I wasn’t really a feminist. Not the way these women were.
Andrea Dworkin and Women Against Pornography
Anyway, I had gone to the stacks at the UW library with the idea of just reading about feminism, reading feminist materials, teaching myself about the women’s movement, “let me check this out for myself,” kind of a deal. As I flipped through various books and pamphlets, looked at the art, while what I saw appealed to me and drew me in just as the feminists I knew did, the bottom line was, I just wasn’t there. I remember looking at one book in particular: Up from the Pedestal. I checked it out actually, never brought it back, and I think I still have it. On the cover was a cartoon rendering of a superwoman-type figure with her arm held high, like she was flying, or about to fly. I knew I wasn’t ready to fly.
Many choices, decisions, twists and turns of fate, and several decades of living as a woman under male supremacy later, I made my way back to that fork in the road, and this time, all those many years later, I took the turn marked “Second Wave radical feminist.” By now I had suffered deeply for that decision I’d made in the library stacks. I wished I’d been able, wished I’d had what it took, to make a different decision in that watershed moment, for many reasons, one of which was, I would not have had to wrestle with 30 or so additional years of what Germaine Greer has called women’s “defect of narcissism,” our ongoing inability to arrive at a satisfactory self-image. Greer’s theory is that it is only when a woman arrives at a compromise she feels is acceptable, in terms of her looks, that she feels secure with men, and so she is compelled to alter this, alter that, camouflage this, change that. The irony is, it’s not really men who are compelling her, certainly not directly. Men aren’t saying, “I won’t go out with you unless you put on your false eyelashes,” or your makeup, or whatever. In fact, many men dislike these latter, even traditional men. It’s also not that women want artificiality in their looks. What they are compelled towards is an artificiality that masquerades as “natural,” to be viewed as that epitome of womanhood, the “natural” beauty. The irony is the breathtaking beauty which is IN what women are naturally. Because those swaggering, bad-ass radical feminists, possessed of enough courage, even bravado, that they could assemble crowds of 100,000 or more, commanding the whole world’s attention in flannels and combat boots, shouting into bullhorns demands the world could not ignore? They were beautiful. In a way which cannot be applied, created or mimicked.
It takes a certain kind of hubris, a certain kind of healthy (nondefective) narcissism, a certain kind of, hell yeah, self-love and real pride to conduct one’s life and political activism with that kind of swagger and that kind of courage. I suspect it takes all of the above to do the kind of work that makes real change in the world. So the issue in my mind is not whether feminists should or shouldn’t wear whatever or do whatever to themselves. The issue is more, are swagger, pride, self-love, bravado, courage, nondefective narcissism – in ourselves, in other women — beautiful to us? My thinking is, as with my own watershed moment in the library stacks, how we answer this question tells us less about what we do or don't have to be or do to be feminists, and more about whether in fact, a feminist is what we really are and want to be.