In 1970 I was a 22-year-old hippie with a 3-month-old son. The baby's father had gone off to Tahiti to build us a hut on the beach - his dream of the week. In the previous week’s dream I would support us while he finished high school, college, and a PhD in nuclear physics. The morning he left for Tahiti I told him I would not follow him. I had my own inchoate dreams. I was going back to Ann Arbor, where I had friends to help me get started again.
With other young mothers, mostly single, I formed a baby group. We talked while the children played, and it soon became a consciousness-raising group. We read Our Bodies Our Selves. We examined each others’ cervices with a transparent plastic speculum, and tried to see our own in the mirror.
We all tried to figure out where we were going, and what we would do next. Even the married women didn’t want to be “just” wives and mothers. We would not be defined by a relationship to a man, nor hitch our wagons to a man’s life, but make our own course.
I had not been raised to support myself. The goal was a husband and children - I would take care of the home, he would bring in the money. That was what my mother did.
Now it was obviously up to me. So I went back to college. I would become either a children’s librarian or a lawyer, the former because I loved children’s books, and the latter because I wanted to change the world. By the time I finished college I had decided on law school.
I was a full-blown feminist, bristling with outrage. When I wasn’t wearing flamboyant minidresses, I used to wear brown overalls and hiking boots. I was quick to flare up at a man who assumed I was looking for a leader rather than a lay.
My father and brother teased me when I visited. “Look at the feminist fixing breakfast for her baby.” “You’d better shut up or somebody will get kicked in the balls,” I snarled, and raced off to tell my sister what I'd said. We didn’t speak like that in our family.
The bristles are soft now, the edges and prickly bits smoothed out. Forty years and raising a son have done that.
Some 70's feminism seems comical now. Popular media defined the movement through symbolic acts, sometimes invented by the media, without acknowledging what the symbols represented.
Bra burning. Flikr.com click
The movement suffered from internal politics, and from a perception that it ignored issues of class, race, and sexual identity, and addressed only white, middle-class, heterosexual women’s issues. But though certain organizations were self-annointed or selected by the media to represent feminism, the movement of the 70's was anarchic, and way broader than any group. Women of all kinds were telling the truth as they saw it: Robin Morgan, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich.
True, these were intellectuals, mostly not subject to the indignities of welfare or the hourly wage. And many middle class women did focus on their own issues. Some professors, free to come and go on their own schedule, complained when a secretary stayed home too often with a sick child. They organized around barriers to tenure rather than the abysmally low pay of custodial staff.
But others: writers, lawyers, community activists and organizers, took on welfare, childcare, health care, domestic violence and rape. The women's movement I knew was not about a few leaders selected by and filtered through the media. It was about women supporting and valuing women. It was about changing the world so that women could be self-supporting and achieve power in the workplace while still valuing motherhood. It was about encouraging men to expand their role in the family and share as equal partners.
Some of the changes fueled by the movement are minuscule, some are being eroded by reactionary forces. Some made things worse for poor women. Welfare reform's fraudulent veneer of empowering women to work failed to conceal the intent to reduce welfare roles by any means necessary. But without the feminist movement of the 70's we would not have domestic violence shelters, rape shield laws, the glorious flowering of women’s history, and younger generations of women who assume they are equal to men: equally entitled, equally capable.
From feminism I learned the significance of being an outsider. For me the most important issues are still those affecting the least powerful. I know that poverty and injustice crush men as well as women, and I am thrilled to work with the (mostly) guys living in tents in the woods. I care more about what happens to them than I do about access to tenure, or a glass ceiling at the top of a business ladder, though I know those matter too.
But as a group, I like women more than men. I understand and forgive our foibles. I see the world through a female lens, and value “women’s work.” My heroes are the suffragists, the welfare rights organizers, the women in the civil rights movement, and the countless women in the third world struggling against all the brutal forms of patriarchy. I am still a feminist, and proud of the name.
Johnnie Tillmon - welfare rights organizer click
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