From a distance, Oxford in Oxfordshire, the concentration of Women’s Liberation in New York City is a nightmare. Both sides in the argument seem bolted to Manhattan, a little island of battle. No end to the books on the subject is in sight—at least the publishers must be profiting.
This splurge has, of course, an irritating quality, as though only New Yorkers know how-hard-it-is-to-be-a-woman. But the noise may work to the good of the entire sex. The New York writers are not all brilliant, but still they are like the writers before the French Revolution: their effect, however wayward and hysterical it now seems, may have profound practical influence.
But why does this fixation on feminism occur in New York City? Why not Paris or London? The reasons are not very pleasant. For one thing, New York is unnaturally piled up with talent—ready, even desperate, to leap on causes. And the talents are exceptionally vocal, practiced over years on a variety of problems. Midge Decter passes easily from other social issues to that of women: The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation.* Ms. Decter was also an editor of Harper’s when Norman (the Knuckle-Rapper) Mailer published there his Prisoner of Sex. And Jill Johnston’s Lesbian Nation develops easily out of her column in the Village Voice. And then there is Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics, now The Prostitution Papers—and victim, in Harper’s, of Norman Mailer. One of his victims—I was another.
But it is clear too that New York City is exceptionally framed for feminism: no other Western city is so rude, outrageous, unbridled as New York. Gail Sheehy’s Hustling describes the everyday experiences of New York prostitutes, but life for everyone is abrasive. The one (and only one) thing you can almost sympathize with in Ingrid Bengis’s Combat in the Erogenous Zone is her resentment of construction workers’ hooting and whistling. And you must go to New York to be asked by strangers, “Wanna fuck?” But people are inclined to laugh at this sort of thing, or be bored by it. When, at night, an intensification to terror occurs, the police (if they are called in time) will pay attention. But they too are capable of distrust and mockery. It is not surprising, then, that women, getting home safely at last, open their typewriters. Naturally, they can’t compose calmly. Someone could be jimmying the lock on the back door of the apartment, unheard because of the typewriter’s clamor. So every word is given a nervous hurry—at once its irritation and its force.
Out of the worst city, comes the passion of revolt: an ironic capacity, borne by timidity out of risk. The comparative tepidity of London produces a matching tepidity of reaction. The racket of New York is unseemly, exhausting. One longs for the feminists to subside, to give quiet a chance again. But what good would that do? The grit of being alive in New York has to be expressed. Still, the feminists provoke impatience. One problem of the lot of them is unwitting but engrained middle-classness. The rich are too busy jetting about and the poor seldom get to write books. So only the middle class is left, flaunting a puritan work ethic and yet (thanks to the working class) free of drudgery.
In a way, Ingrid Bengis has chosen a good title: Combat in the Erogenous Zone. It amounts to a frank forewarning, an introductory admission of coyness. At first, the book seemed to me merely loquacious, but it grows tedious in time. Ms. Bengis is my candidate for Cliché-Monger of the Year:
There was something strong but at the same time fragile about her, something uncompromisingly direct and fiercely proud.
So it goes, all drivel. But this is a good and profitable time to have a sexual history, and Ms. Bengis is determined to have one. She is uneasy about the middle class and eager to disavow it. That is why she worries about her interest in women (nonexistent) and complains about her own pursuit by men. The latter especially strains her talent. The latter especially strains her talent. Her book makes you wonder why there’s any sex at all, why the loathsome can’t leave the loathsome alone and let the species die out.
In an unexpected way, Ms. Bengis and Steven Goldberg, in The Inevitability of Patriarchy, have something in common: they both seem determined to prove that sexual stereotypes are quite, quite true. For this purpose, Ms. Bengis is flagrantly subjective, self-contemplative, confessional. Mr. Goldberg is objective, impersonal, litigious, professional, and dull. Moreover, Mr. Goldberg’s motives are suspect. He pretends to chilly scientific evidence, but the effect (which he seems to relish) is to depress women. He grants them one (two-part) ability, completing pregnancies and producing children. But of course no one can devote her life these days to that single act. And when women stop having children, what are they to do instead with their long lives? Sit on their laurels?
No. Let us grant Mr. Goldberg’s point, disputed by some feminists, that there have never been matriarchies, that there have always been patriarchies. Consequently, there are things women want to do, and never have done, and now still can’t. Out of justice alone, and to hell with the anthropological past, women should be allowed to do whatever they think they can do. And they should not have to appeal to men. One wants to ease the lot of the poor and the ugly, and neither of these can afford the insurance of men. Progress must be legal, not capricious.
Two foreigners appear in this otherwise American barrel: Esther Vilar, in The Manipulated Man, and Julia O’Faolain, along with her American husband Lauro Martines, in Not in God’s Image. These two women, in different ways, are of course welcome. Ms. O’Faolain’s and Mr. Martines’s book collects writing about women from Homer to the Victorians and is distinguished by genuine scholarship. Its feminist sympathy is apparent—why else has it been done?—but it pursues the point by hard work, not by swishy emotionalism. And what a picture unfolds! In early (I deliberately do not call it “classical”) Greece and Italy, the feminists were not on hand—they were merely, and desperately, needed. And so through the centuries—one constant, oppression, in the flux. The cause, somewhat mitigated, persists: feminists now too are essential and a bad light, thanks to history, at last falls on antifeminists.
I’m afraid this bad light falls, for example, on Esther Vilar, fiercest of antifeminists. I will confess to thinking, with Ms. Vilar’s book, that only a woman would turn on her own sex. But that was sexist thinking on my part, and Michael Korda’s Male Chauvinism! directly contradicts that notion: he turns on men. Still, it’s women who are under, not men, and before Ms. Vilar I’d have thought hitting-when-women-are-down violates the rules of the game. On these same grounds, I didn’t like Ms. Vilar’s book at first. But as I went on, I reluctantly liked it better. She is a legitimate cynic. Her argument is slapdash and unsubstantiated, but pointed. The common defects of women are quite neatly isolated and excised. And perhaps this honesty about faults is more important than sexual solidarity. Since both sexes die in the end, they might as well leave a record of self-knowledge.
According to Ms. Vilar, only poor and ugly women accomplish genuine work: they have no alternative. But her chief representatives are from the bourgeoisie: these “women, who hardly ever work, need men for everything.” Perhaps not virtue then, but indigence, prevents some women’s using three shades of eye shadow at once. The poor are saved by poverty from these excesses. Ms. Vilar’s book is about the suburbs, the middle class, and tends to ignore those who don’t make it out of the city.
Nobody could be more American than Jill Johnston in Lesbian Nation. For men, I expect the book is intolerable. But for many women, too, Ms. Johnston’s proposals are not acceptable. Most women, and I suppose we must be glad of it, demonstrate heterosexuality, not lesbianism—not even political lesbianism, like Ms. Johnston’s. Moreover, Jill Johnston’s writing is full of perversities. Except for the period (and that comes slowly), punctuation ceases to exist for her, as though it had never been. Meanwhile, capitalization is deliberately and consciously avoided. But nonetheless, the book has originality. Ms. Johnson comes on like a flood—vivacious, mile-a-minute, with an uncontrollable eloquence. No, not uncontrollable. The writing has liquidity, but also energy, even wit. Ms. Johnston is a genuine (even if indigestible) writer, whereas most of the others tend to be placid or contentious, logical or emotional, without being, in any ultimate sense, writers at all.
The problem they’re all discussing is eminently practical, and the first purposes of Liberation should be political, legal, and financial. Naturally, opponents of Liberation see lesbianism as a welcome distraction from the real business. And only in Jill Johnston’s Lesbian Nation does lesbianism become at least a genuine political position. Ms. Johnston may alienate more than she converts, but she has, if nothing else, linked lesbian with political aims. Her opposite is Ingrid Bengis, pretending to homosexuality, brooding on the choice, undergoing self-scrutiny—like cleaning out one’s navel. Through Ms. Bengis, one attains a new respect for psychiatrists: their huge fees are justified by what must be their huge boredom.
The trouble with Midge Decter, in The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation, is that she is too deep in the middle class and in the Manhattan scene. For her, government help in the care of children is tantamount to total asexuality. This shift in sexual attitude is perhaps conceivable in New York, New York, but hardly as a consequence of government help. In the name of universal heterosexuality, Ms. Decter would prevent Jane Doe from enjoying free adult time. But this is a mean mistake, a senseless finger in the dike. Even if heterosexuality is imperiled, present heterosexuals still deserve relief. And the risk seems clearly limited. A month, say, in Evanston, Illinois, would calm and appease Ms. Decter. In Evanston, no widespread intention of asexuality is discernible. But there is, among heterosexuals, a widespread begging for rescue.
Only people with money have free access to domestic help. And while there may be expressions of envy, no one complains: the well-off employ nursemaids without public comment. But now those without money appeal to the government, and so bring down laborious reproaches upon themselves. Being poor isn’t bad enough—these women have to be scolded as well. And yet the US is the only Western country in which the advanced education of women is discarded thoughtlessly. As it is now, ability and training are ignored in half the population.
How could this arrangement be improved? Those women who want to remain at home all the time must be free to do so. For the rest, need must be proven, assistance must be partial, but many could be helped—without the slightest risk, except in New York City, either to sex or maternity. Ms. Decter leaps from one small, proposed change, providing child care, to a vision of total catastrophe. She needs to slow down, fret less, and eat tranquilizers.
Fortunately, the culprits haven’t time to read Ms. Decter. They can read, thanks to their free, public, elementary education, but they lack the opportunity. Leaving their husbands in bed, they are too busy with babies and bottles to realize sex is dying. Its evidence is still very much alive and howling for them. And in their free half hour, between the babies’ bedtime and their own, they complain. To their husbands first and then, a relief to the husbands, to public organizations of women. At this crucial time, I had only a few friends, busy too, and so my husband bore all the complaints alone. I am glad public organizations have developed, and I wish NOW, if not SCUM, success.
Most women are not appalled, as Ms. Decter says they are, by a confrontation, “unbearably close,” with the self. They are not trying, as Ms. Decter says they are, to “shunt the encumbering responsibility a child represents.” Instead, most faithfully care for the children, but they are appalled by the waste of themselves, by the attrition of their “sense of self.” The decade of their thirties particularly passes like one long, bad dream. One still has, then, the human hunger to develop, to foster all aspects of oneself. These desires may be selfish but they are also, rather like breathing, inevitable.
Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father is, quite possibly, the most radical of all. But this fact is not easily or obviously apparent. Ms. Daly, unlike the other writers, musters philosophy, theology, and psychology for a new “cosmic covenant.” The potpourri is sometimes portentous, sometimes witty. Ms. Daly seems bold, brave, erratic, and adventurous—an eccentric Roman Catholic in theology, a sort of existentialist in philosophy. And her solution is androgyny: the mere substitution of She for He, in reference to God, will not suffice. Phallic consciousness must go, and so must all perpetuations of dualism.
But still, since the egg broke into yolk and white, it isn’t clear how androgyny is meant to operate. This is, of course, a legitimate obscurity: prophets are not obliged to subdivide Utopia. On the other hand, we are not obliged to honor their speculations. I feel I need a precise account of androgynous action. For the sexes, if conceivably possible, to relinquish criticism of each other may be an androgynous benefit. But for them to become psychically indistinguishable would be dreary, if not dangerous. What would attract them to each other? Like Ms. Decter, I would wish to keep both sexes distinct and discrete, so that they can still enjoy encounters.
November 1, 1973