In the 1976 cross-country race film The Gumball Rally, the late, great Raul Julia rips off his rearview mirror and tosses it over his shoulder, saying "What's behind me is not important."
He didn't win the race.
Maybe that's because what's behind us actually is important. Feminist literature and history did not spring fully formed from Betty Friedan's and Naomi Wolf's pens and word processors; they have had long, complex, and often buried lives. The six works profiled here, ranging from once-famous titles to all-but-unknown works, were dead-on portraits of the state of women when they were written in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, but they still resonate with readers today. Themes like race and the women's movement, gender and identity, and body politics are evergreen; discussions of these topics still roil in books, on blogs, and in person. And while mainstream feminism may not be grappling with issues like separatism these days, the passion, politics, anger, and truth contained in these books can inspire us to burn as brightly as these authors did.
The Women's Room
Marilyn French, 1977
What it's about: The Women's Room is a relentlessly bleak look at marriage and women's powerlessness in prefeminist America, especially for those of us raised on cable reruns of I Love Lucy. Main character Mira's marriage proves to her that the real benefit of the institution is men's, both as an expectation and an outcome of male dominance. ("You don't have to rape her or kill her; you don't even have to beat her. You can just marry her.") After her husband leaves her, Mira attends graduate school at Harvard, taking comfort in a close circle of friends and, along the way, in love and physical passion. The narrative takes us into the social upheaval of the 1960s, and its women come to unfortunate ends—early in the book, a woman quite in her right mind is institutionalized; at its end, one of the book's strongest characters dies in a police shoot-out during a political protest.
When it was published: The Women's Room was born into a golden age of feminist literature that included everything from Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch to the anthology Sisterhood is Powerful to Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. Despairing as it was in its outlook for women who threw in their lot with men, The Women's Room was a sharp, clear battle cry. In his 1977 New York Times review, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote that "the best compliment I can pay it is that I kept forgetting it was fiction. It seized me by my preconceptions and I kept struggling and arguing with its premises…. The Women's Room is a book that women are going to read to relive the stories of their lives. I only wish that it contained some small comfort for men." It made the bestseller lists shortly after its publication, and remained there through November 1978.
These days: It's a great time to reread The Women's Room. For its 30th anniversary, Virago Press reissued it with a new introduction by French. She admits that some of the novel's strength has been leached from its bones, but The Women's Room still has the power to outrage simply in the telling of its story. The chapters on Mira's pregnancy and the birth of her first child, in particular, offer a chilling perspective on the paternalistic treatment of women with regard to their own bodies—which, if you look closely, doesn't depart all that much from today's conservative/fundamentalist line on women's physical sovereignty.
Why you should track it down: Because it's not yet historical fiction. Because it's still a good read. Because we still need shelters to protect battered wives. And because our current sociopolitical landscape reminds women daily of the fragility of some of the gains we have come to accept as rights. Consider this: The anniversary edition of The Women's Room with French's introduction is available in England, but not in the United States—American publishers simply weren't interested.The Women's Room may seem overly pessimistic and depressing to young women today, but it pays homage to those who paved the way.
Up Your Ass
Valerie Solanas, 1965
What it's about: You know Valerie Solanas best as the woman who shot Andy Warhol. What you may not know is why she shot him: The art world's master manipulator lost one of only two copies of the manuscript for Up Your Ass, a play Solanas submitted to him in 1965. The play—which Warhol found so obscene he initially thought Solanas was a cop involved in an undercover sting—follows a day in the life of prostitute Bongi Perez and her interactions with everyone from a pair of drag queens to an uptight uptown matron. Bongi, who proclaimed herself "queer" long before the word was snatched back from homophobes, is clearly Solanas's alter ego—a funny, foulmouthed lesbian who's "so female, I'm subversive." Up Your Ass excoriates male-female power dynamics with rim-shot dialogue—when remarking, for instance, that she entices potential clients with a seductive fan dance, Bongi notes that it's a "modernistic fan dance. I use an electric fan."—and pulls no punches in its assessments of what male-identified women put themselves through for love. (Let's just say it involves a dinner party and some turds.)
When it was published: It wasn't. While she waited for Warhol to produce Up Your Ass, Solanas appeared in a few of his movies and self-published The SCUM Manifesto, a scathing, satirical letterbomb that famously began, "Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore, and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and destroy the male sex." The publisher Olympia Press soon offered an advance for a novel based on the screed, and in 1968 capitalized on Warhol's shooting with a published edition of The SCUM Manifesto.
These days: Up Your Ass was exhumed from piles of papers in Warhol's Factory after both he and Solanas died; the manuscript ended up in Philadelphia's Warhol Museum. The play itself was presented for the first time in 2000 by renegade San Francisco theater company George Coates Performance Works, in a performance featuring an all-female cast and set—tongue firmly in cheek—to a karaoke score featuring Patti Smith's "Because the Night" and Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness." Coates chose to cast women in all the roles to underscore the idea that all gender is performative, an idea given voice in Up Your Ass long before it was the stuff of women's studies and queer theory. Paul Ben-Itzak wrote of the production, "Where much proto-feminist theater and dance these days, by artists young enough to be Solanas's daughter or even granddaughter, is just so much screaming, Solanas delivers her punches with constant hits to the funny bone as well, making any sexist accusations of 'man-hater' secondary." The Village Voice's Alisa Solomon marveled that "Queer theory has nothing on the boundary-smashing glee of Solanas's dystopia, where the two-sex system is packed off to the junkyard."
Why you should track it down: Solanas was a few sandwiches short of a picnic, it's true, but Up Your Ass was also remarkably prescient about what would become the defining issues of feminism's second and third waves, while poking mordant fun at them. (Listening to two women discussing the difficulty of juggling marriage and career, Bongi remarks, "Trickier to combine no marriage and no career.") Solanas was hailed as a quintessential radical by the likes of Robin Morgan and Florynce Kennedy, and though she was too much of a wild card for any organized feminist movement, Up Your Ass serves as a document of intent, a look at social structures with an eye simultaneously for the absurdity, the humanity, and the hope for change.
Blood and Guts in High School
Kathy Acker, 1984
What it's about: An avant-garde experimental novel, both highly philosophical and crudely pornographic, Blood and Guts in High School defies typical categorization and subverts traditional literary ideology. The novel traces the life of Janey Smith, reportedly 10 years old at the opening of the book. After the meltdown of her sexual relationship with her father, Janey moves to New York, joins a gang, and is subsequently kidnapped and sold to a Persian slave trader who keeps her in prison and teaches her to be a whore. The book's plot points transcend the literal and instead function as larger symbolic statements about the role of women in society. "We all live in prison. Most of us don't know we live in prison," says Janey, who escapes from her own because she gets cancer; she then goes to Tangiers and wanders around the desert with Jean Genet. In the end, Janey dies—but in true Acker style, it's not quite the end.
When it was published: It was deemed obscene by South African and German governments, and was subsequently banned in both countries. Hannibal Lecter, My Father, the 1991 collection of Acker's early writings, contains court transcripts of the 1986 obscenity trial in Germany in which Blood and Guts was deemed "harmful to minors": The hearing featured a perplexing interrogation of Acker's politics, with judges ruling it "remarkable" that she called herself a feminist.
Acker, who once worked as a stripper, was part of a school of thought which stated that women have their own sexual desires and that part of liberation from patriarchy is to liberate women's bodies and express their sexual freedom. By focusing on male power, Acker exposed the oppression and disintegration women face in society, language, and culture and the struggle to express sexuality outside of patriarchal power. Yet Acker always maintained her stance as a feminist, and most academic study now focuses on the way she gave voice to subjects often silenced in our culture—among them abortion, rape, incest, and the war on women's sexual desires.
These days: Acker died of breast cancer in 1997, but Blood and Guts is still in print and available from Grove Press, and it remains the most widely read of all Acker's work; it was recently listed in the 2006 compendium 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. With the recent publication of two books of critical essays on Acker (2005's Devouring Institutions and 2006's Lust for Life), there's been a re-examination of her influence on contemporary literary forms.
Why you should track it down: Blood and Guts remains relevant to current feminist examinations of desire and gender identity, and was an expression of the pioneering sex-positive movement which gave voice to these ideas. Traces of Acker's influence can be found in the work of Michelle Tea and other queer feminist writers. The postmodern literary godmother of all gender-deviant feminist writers, Acker celebrated all the journeys we go through in search of a place outside patriarchy's control. By smashing ideas of literature, she smashed ideas of what a woman was supposed to say, think, feel, and do. In short, she was punk as fuck, and her work should be kept alive.
Woman Power: The Movement for Women's Liberation
Cellestine Ware, 1970
What it's about: Despite the back-cover copy, which moves from sensationalistic ("marching women! who are the new feminists? what do they want?... men are the enemy") to Cosmo-esque ("learn how the women's liberation movement is going to affect you: your sex life, your marriage, your children, your whole life"), Woman Power is not an outrageous, titillating read—unless, that is, you're the sort of person who thrills to tales of internecine feminist feuds. Unlike many other early publications of the second wave, Woman Power is neither manifesto nor anthology. Rather, it's a primer on the politics and practices of women's liberation, with an astute analysis of the nuances of the various factions of second-wave feminism, the role of black women in the movement, and the legacy of 19th-century feminism.
When it was published: The women's liberation movement was just a few years old, but it was already complex (and apparently sensational) enough to warrant this mass-market paperback. Radical women had only recently defected from both the more reform-oriented National Organization for Women and the sexist New Left to start articulating their vision of radical feminism, by which they meant "the eradication of domination and elitism in all human relationships. This would make self-determination the ultimate good and require the downfall of society as we know it today."
These days: It's taken as a truism that black women were alienated from second-wave feminism. While many were (and with good cause), it's well worth remembering that very early on, some second wavers did grasp the disconnects between the rhetoric of women's liberation and the realities of many black women's lives—and offered up ways to reframe the nascent feminist movement to include black women. It's also crucial to remember that among the earliest organizers of the women's liberation movement were a handful of black women like Ware, a founding member of the influential New York Radical Feminists.
Why you should track it down: It's true that Ware's analysis of the ideological differences between various factions of radical feminists, women's liberationists, and liberal reformers goes into a level of detail that others may not find as fascinating as I do; it's also true that a number of historians and feminist veterans have covered the same ground in subsequent, more readable volumes. But Ware's eyewitness, on-the-ground perspective of the quickly morphing movement is immensely valuable, and her ability to analyze a movement in motion is admirable. She doesn't shy away from pointing out WLM's liabilities and shortcomings either, as aptly demonstrated in her assessment of the relationship of black women to feminism. Plus, how can you not admire the woman who penned the awesome phrase "Kick out the jams doesn't apply to the jelly roll"?
The Black Woman: An Anthology
Toni Cade, 1970
What it's about: I was born in 1970, the same year Essence magazine launched and a revolutionary book was published. It was called The Black Woman: An Anthology, edited by Toni Cade (later Toni Cade Bambara). The cover of the paperback I own features a beautiful sister with a serious afro meeting the reader's gaze—a hint at the powerful critique of capitalism and its stepchild, racism, to be found within. Writers such as Nikki Giovanni, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde spoke out in The Black Woman—about the Pill, about raising children in the ghetto, about sexuality, and about what it means to be a woman in the civil rights/black power movement and black in the women's liberation movement.
When it was published: It was a big deal—the first mainstream moment for black women to voice their discontent with the racism of the women's movement and the sexism of black power. Marcia Gillespie, who later became the editor of Ms., was the 25-year-old managing editor of Essence in 1970, and remembers that The Black Woman became her personal bible. "I must have read it a dozen times," she recalls. "That book gave us voice. Bear in mind that until that book the voices defining the Black experience during this period had primarily and overwhelmingly been those of men. This book not only affirmed the importance of the female experience, it defied prevailing notions about who we were and were not as women, and announced that we were going to speak for ourselves from that point on."
These days: Bambara died of cancer in 1995; The Black Woman was reissued with a new introduction by Eleanor Traylor in 2005. Elsewhere, other anthologies such as This Bridge Called My Back and But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies have picked up on the themes first explored in the book.
Why you should track it down: Like Sisterhood is Powerful, The Black Woman is part of the early women's liberation archive, but has never quite gotten its due in the mainstream world of publishing or women's-studies courses. Crack its cover and find some of the very earliest analyses of multiple oppression, theories that were the starting point for what some call third-wave feminism.
We Who Are About To
Joanna Russ, 1977
What it's about: We Who Are About To is Gilligan's Island in space, with a cranky, artsy, drug-toting intellectual as the protagonist. When eight regular folks get stranded on an impossibly distant planet, seven of them are determined to survive the traditional way—through repopulation. Our heroine, the eighth, isn't having it: As the lone holdout against a nascent patriarchy, she resists their efforts to "ru[n] into the brush yelling Colonize, Colonize!" Her efforts to reason with her cohorts (mostly by pointing out that they're all doomed anyway) quickly morph into something more desperate and genocidal. And though she succeeds in freeing herself from a life of forcible maternity, her fate—pondered in the second half of the book—isn't exactly a happy one.
When it was published: As sci-fi writer L. Timmel Duchamp noted in a 2006 article in the New York Review of Science Fiction, "The Women's Liberation Movement was alive, and if not entirely well, still kicking some serious ass." Duchamp goes on to say, "When I first read We Who Are About To in 1978, I burned with its anger, I gloried in its defiance." Though set in the distant future, Russ's novel was very much about women in her own day—how and whether they should control their own bodies; how and whether they should compromise with their society.
These days: Health problems have left Russ less than prolific, though she still writes plays, essays, and feminist monographs like 1998's What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism. Russ's earlier work tends to be marginalized in the sci-fi world, and, as a feminist, she's marginalized most everywhere else. We Who Are About To was reissued in 2005 by Wesleyan University Press with an enthusiastic introduction by Samuel R. Delaney—another gender-conscious sci-fi wunderkind whose public profile only vaguely outlived the '70s.
Why you should track it down: In We Who Are About To, Russ captures all that is fundamentally intolerable about any social grouping—if you've ever felt that you couldn't stand the people in your home or office or nation for one more instant, this will be an extremely satisfying book. But, at the same time, the book is a meditation on how dependent we are on civilized society, and what it costs to dispense with it. As a result, the story is both cathartic and depressing. If you build your feminism on the charred bodies of the past, where does that leave you? Happy or sad, free or not free, sort of where you started but not quite? Read We Who Are About To and decide for yourself.
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Worth the search
Deb Jannerson replied on
I'm delighted by the <i>We Who Are About To</i> blurb! That novella is one of the most stunning (meaning both "incredible" and "shocking" here) works that I've ever read, and in four short paragraphs, Berlatsky has captured a lot of its intrigue and philosophy.
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