Courting controversy: the second wave on love and romance

Last week, the French newspaper Le Monde published a letter signed by a hundred women (including the actress Catherine Deneuve), which said that men’s freedom to pester (‘importuner’) women was ‘indispensable for sexual freedom’.  ‘How French!’ said the English-speaking pundits—but in fact plenty of English-speakers have expressed the same fear about #metoo. If men can’t try their luck in all the time-honoured ways, how will anyone in future ever have sex?

Faced with this question, a lot of women have answered: ‘don’t be ridiculous! Harassment is unwanted sexual attention, not any sexual attention. Do you think we can’t tell flirting from stalking, or consensual sex from assault?’

As put by opponents of #metoo, the question is indeed ridiculous (or at the very least, disingenuous). But the answer, arguably, isn’t quite as straightforward as the précis above might imply. What passes for ‘normal’ heterosexual courtship does have some features in common with harassment—in particular, the assumption that the male role is active and the female one passive. Both sexes learn that it’s men’s job to take the initiative, while women should not appear too interested initially in case they seem either desperate or slutty. On the assumption that their resistance is token, however—there to be overcome—men are expected to keep trying until eventually the woman gives in. As Jameela Jamil wrote recently:

Our society, the internet, and even our most mainstream media, constantly perpetuate the idea that men do not need to worry about what our needs and boundaries are. They just need technical consent, however that consent is acquired.

And as she points out, all too often it is acquired by way of pestering and badgering—the male prerogative defended in Le Monde as ‘indispensable for sexual freedom’.

Jamil also points out that these sexual scripts have to be learned, and one source from which we learn them is the cultural products we consume. She is particularly scathing about the sexism of popular music, with videos featuring scantily-clad women gyrating for ‘men who are sitting there on their arses, sometimes in outdoor winter layers’, and lyrics


In the past, Jamil suggests, popular culture idealised romantic love; today it glorifies naked sexual aggression. But reading this reminded me that feminists of the second wave were as critical of the ideology of romantic love as they were of sexual violence. Rather than seeing the two as opposites, feminists often made the argument that they were connected and mutually reinforcing.

In her 1974 book From Reverence to Rape: the Treatment of Women in the Movies, the film critic Molly Haskell wrote about the way women of her generation were induced (by, among other things, the movies they watched) to find pleasure in the idea of being overcome by the force of a man’s desire, and to see the manipulation of that desire as a source of power:

Those of us who were ambitious would use our femininity as Scarlett O’Hara [the heroine of Gone With The Wind] used hers; would flirt, tease, withhold sex, to get what we wanted. It would rarely occur to us to ask outright for a place on the starting line, to enter the ranks of competitive male activities and thereby lose our place on the pedestal and our ‘preferred’ passive position in the game of love. …We were guilty of conspiring in our own idealization—and our own oppression. For whatever else may have been our goals, we still assumed that the need men and women had for one another, and its satisfaction, was indissolubly linked to their roles as conqueror and conquered, and we accepted all the implications that followed from that first parsing of human nature into active and passive.

More than forty years on, the Le Monde letter–and other contributions to the anti-#metoo backlash–suggest that these attitudes have not withered away. Male ‘gallantry’ and feminine ‘wiles’ still have their defenders–though as feminists pointed out in the 1970s, these concepts presuppose that courtship is not a transaction between equals.

In 1984, Janice Radway published Reading the Romance, a now-classic feminist study of popular romance fiction. Rather than just analysing the books themselves, Radway sought out a community of regular romance readers in a midwestern American town she calls ‘Smithton’, and studied what they read, how they read, and what, by their own account, they got out of it. At the time, one of the most popular subgenres of romance fiction was what the industry called the ‘bodice ripper’, a new take on ‘gothic’ romance which was more sexually explicit—and more violent—than previous iterations. What flame-and-flower-2readers thought of this was among the questions Radway investigated.

She found that the Smithton women objected strongly to what they classified as rape scenes, but felt differently about scenes which involved, as one reader put it, ‘a little forceful persuasion’—even though the acts they put in that category would clearly, in the real world, have met the legal definition of rape. The distinction seemed to rest on their understanding of the man’s feelings for the heroine. If they were convinced that his use of force reflected, in Radway’s words, ‘his passion and her irresistibility’, they didn’t see it as abusive or unforgivable (though they also expected that as the story progressed his lust would give way to love, tenderness and the obligatory happy ending).

Radway discovered that the publishers of romance novels made a similar distinction in their advice for aspiring authors. One set of guidelines explained that a scene in which the hero raped the heroine could only be included on certain conditions, one being that ‘it must never be initiated with the violent motivation that exists in reality’. Women’s fantasy, the guidelines went on, was to ‘lose control’ with someone who really cared about them. If he didn’t care, it would be a ‘true rape’, and as such unacceptable to most readers.

Radway did not suggest—far from it, in fact—that the Smithton women were brainwashed dupes. What she did suggest, though, was that their way of making sense of romance fiction could be linked to their subordinate position. Like the heroines of gothic romance, they knew what it was to feel threatened, exploited or undervalued by men: what they got from their reading, Radway argued, was a way of reinterpreting hurtful or violent behaviour as an expression of men’s need and desire rather than their contempt.5293b8a343b464115800013e-1385412771-700x344

Many second-wave writings about the ideology of romantic love are reminiscent of what Marx said about religion (‘the opium of the people’). Though it gives comfort and pleasure to the oppressed, it is also an obstacle to the radical social change that would be needed to liberate them from oppression. As the #metoo debate continues, perhaps this is something we should think about. Do we just want men to become more sensitive seducers, or do we want to rewrite the traditional sexual script?







Before Cat Person: bad sex in second wave fiction

‘It is not every day’, wrote Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett in the Guardian this week, ‘that a short story goes viral’.  She was talking about Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, published last week in the New Yorker, and subsequently shared, discussed and dissected by thousands of readers.

What has made Cat Person a sensation is not its literary qualities. It is basically, as Cosslett says,

a tale, straightforwardly told through the eyes of a young woman, of an unpleasant sexual encounter that she has with a somewhat ambiguous stranger who turns out to be actively unpleasant.

But the response it got from women readers was extraordinary.  Their comments emphasised its ‘relatability’, the way it resonated with their experiences and their feelings: some said it was as if Roupenian had read their minds. Among men, on the other hand, reactions ranged from simple bemusement (‘I don’t get it’, tweeted one, ‘it all seems very mundane’) to outright hostility. Which is perhaps unsurprising, given how unflatteringly the central male character is depicted:

During sex, he moved her through a series of positions with brusque efficiency, flipping her over, pushing her around, and she felt like a doll again, as she had outside the 7-Eleven, though not a precious one now—a doll made of rubber, flexible and resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head. When she was on top, he slapped her thigh and said, “Yeah, yeah, you like that,” with an intonation that made it impossible to tell whether he meant it as a question, an observation, or an order, and when he turned her over he growled in her ear, “I always wanted to fuck a girl with nice tits,” and she had to smother her face in the pillow to keep from laughing again. At the end, when he was on top of her in missionary, he kept losing his erection, and every time he did he would say, aggressively, “You make my dick so hard,” as though lying about it could make it true. At last, after a frantic rabbity burst, he shuddered, came, and collapsed on her like a tree falling, and, crushed beneath him, she thought, brightly, This is the worst life decision I have ever made!

Many commentators have put the extreme responses–both positive and negative–down to the novelty or shock value of seeing heterosex depicted from the woman’s point of view. ‘If so many [women] feel this way’, asks Cosslett, ‘then why has it gone unsaid until now?’

Actually, it hasn’t gone unsaid until now. Cat Person is utterly contemporary in its language and its setting (it belongs to a world of dating apps, flirting by text and learning your moves from internet porn), but its depiction of sex–more specifically, of bad sex–reminds me strongly of some fictions that struck a similar chord with women in the 1970s.

In a 2003 article called ‘Beyond trashiness: the sexual language of 1970s feminist fiction‘, Meryl Altman discusses three novels written by American second wave feminists–Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), Marge Piercy’s Small Changes (1973) and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973)–which became popular successes, selling enough copies outside the political subculture that produced them to ‘[carry] feminist revolutionary thought into millions of homes’. And the secret of their popularity, Altman suggests, was the way they approached the subject of sex.

They included lots of explicit heterosexual lovemaking, described from the women’s point of view, and they were forthright and clear that sexual satisfaction was important to women as well as men, that this was a reasonable and normal expectation – albeit an expectation often frustrated.

Among the recurring themes Altman identifies in these popular/feminist fictions are ‘the routine harassment and abuse of girls by boys and women by men’, ‘the expectation that [women] would both arouse and police desire’ and ‘an emphasis on sexual disappointment and male inadequacies, described in graphic detail’. Cat Person ticks the same boxes, especially the last. And just as commentators on it have been reminded of  Margaret Atwood’s aphorism ‘men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them’, so the 1970s novels very often depict men’s behaviour as simultaneously threatening and ridiculous.

Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, for instance, opens with the narrator Sasha telling her husband Frank that she has slept with another man. He responds by demanding sex (and reminding her that since they are married, she has no right to refuse):

I began to struggle in earnest. His breath on my neck made me very nervous. “Please, Frank, no fair.”
“Please, Frank, no fair,” he mimicked, adding, “bitch!”
…he pushed me onto one of the beds and deftly pinned my wrists over my head. With a wrench of his head he shook his glasses off; they dropped to the floor. I had a picture of myself as a comic-book victim, strangling on my own bra, which was flopping around my throat, and I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to laugh. But Frank looked so helpless without his glasses, dewy-eyed and unfocused, that bitch or no, I struggled not to laugh at him. …Instead I said, “I’ll scream!”
“Scream, then”, he mumbled. And, transferring both my wrists to one of his hands for an instant, he prepared with a minimum of undressing to rape me.

But then things take an unexpected turn:

There was no way out…to the accompaniment of my finally unsuppressible laughter, off we went on our last trip together.
This scene makes uncomfortable reading. Is what ultimately happens a rape, or isn’t it? It seems clear that Frank doesn’t care what Sasha wants, and is prepared to use force if he has to. She makes it so that he doesn’t have to, but her motives remain opaque: is she just resigned to the inevitable (‘there was no way out’), or does her anger give way to genuine affection, or pity?
51Stzakp-9L._SY346_What women want from sex, and how they negotiate between their own desires and others’ expectations or demands, are also questions explored in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. The resulting narrative, like Shulman’s, can be uncomfortable to read. After spending much of the novel pursuing what she refers to as ‘the zipless fuck’–a brief, anonymous sexual encounter unencumbered by emotional baggage–the heroine Isadora Wing finally gets to enact one of her favourite imaginary scenarios, having sex with a stranger on a train. But in real life she is not in control of the action, and she experiences the encounter as an assault. ‘I’d been offered my very own fantasy’, she reflects, ‘and instead of turning me on, it had revolted me!’
Like Cat Person, these second wave novels present us with female protagonists who have, as we say nowadays, ‘agency’–they are certainly not helpless victims, or passive creatures that things just happen to. Nor are they exemplary feminist heroines: though Marge Piercy’s characters are Political-with-a-capital-P, Shulman’s Sasha and Jong’s Isidora are not. They are on a quest for personal fulfilment, not trying to start a revolution. Nevertheless, their stories make clear that this quest exposes a woman to risks which men do not have to contend with, and that, in turn, exposes the limits of women’s freedom.PromQueen-cover01-330
Not only does Cat Person itself have precedents in 1970s fiction, its polarised reception echoes the way the earlier texts were talked about (albeit on a smaller scale, since the internet did not yet exist). One reviewer of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen wrote:
I daresay that not a woman reader will be really shocked and that the average man’s hair, regardless of length, will automatically stand on end from page to page.
Another suggested that
Men may curse, they may howl . . . yet men owe it to themselves to see themselves plain, as their wives and girlfriends perceive them.
Yet here we are in 2017 listening to another generation of men cursing and howling in response to another story portraying a man through a woman’s eyes. Has anything really changed since Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen?  Alix Kates Shulman asked that question herself in 1997, when the novel was reissued to mark its 25th anniversary:
Shall I rejoice that the novel, steadily in print since 1972, remains sufficiently alive to the times as to warrant a new, celebratory edition? Or should I bemoan the conditions that keep its social satire current?
Twenty years on, I think the answer is probably ‘both’. The reception of Cat Person suggests that there is still plenty to bemoan. But we should also acknowledge and celebrate the fact that women haven’t just been silent all this time. There’s a whole tradition of using fiction–comic, satirical and sexually explicit–to offer a critical female  perspective on heterosexual relations. And that evidently still packs a punch.

Battle of the Sexes: the second wave on film

My ‘further reading’ list for the Second Wave course includes a short list of feminist films from the relevant period. Most are by European directors like Chantal Akerman, Marleen Gorris, Helke Sander and Agnès Varda; I don’t list any of the mainstream films, made for a mass rather than an arthouse audience, which were either feminist in spirit (think Thelma and Louise or Fried Green Tomatoes) or else represented ‘women’s lib’ from the outside–sometimes sympathetically, as with the 1980 hit 9 to 5, in which Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin do battle with their sexist boss, and sometimes not, as with the execrable Carry On Girls, in which some militant feminists disrupt a beauty contest in an English seaside town (it was made in 1973, and is as relentlessly sexist as you’d expect from the Carry On franchise).

But this week I’ve been pondering the mainstream representation of the second wave after seeing Battle of the Sexes, a new film which tells the story of the 1973 exhibition match where tennis legend Billie-Jean King took on–and decisively defeated–the veteran player and self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. In case anyone doesn’t know the context for this event, King was the leader of a group of women tennis professionals who protested against sex discrimination (and in particular, the derisory amounts of money women players competed for) by forming their own independent tour. Riggs, who in addition to being a former grand slam-winner was a gambler, hustler and general attention-seeker, saw an opportunity: on the pretext of settling the ‘should women get equal treatment?’ question he would challenge the top woman to play him in a public ‘battle of the sexes’.

I say ‘on the pretext’ because Riggs’s motives don’t seem to have been primarily political. For him it was mostly about the publicity and the money. For King, on the other hand,  the political stakes were high. Her eye was on the real chauvinists who ran her sport, and whose position had been strengthened when Riggs won his first match against a top-ranked woman, Margaret Court. Having previously refused to be drawn into what she called a ‘circus’, she now felt compelled to accept the challenge. Her victory did advance the larger struggle, in that the US Open announced later that year that it would offer the same prize money to both sexes.

Interwoven with this narrative is another, focusing on King’s relationship with a woman, Marilyn Barnett, and the personal struggle which was precipitated by her realisation that she was sexually attracted to women. In reality this story began earlier than it is shown to do in the film, and it also ended badly, in a way the film chooses not to mention. In 1981 Barnett sued King for a share of her financial assets. King won the ensuing court case, but since it made the relationship public knowledge she also lost millions of dollars in endorsements. She wasn’t ready to declare herself a lesbian: it was not until 1987, after she became involved with her doubles partner Ilana Kloss, that she ended her marriage to Larry King.

These are both archetypal 1970s feminist stories, one dramatising women’s battle for equality and recognition in the public sphere, while the other follows a woman’s quest for freedom to live and love outside the confines of patriarchal marriage. And I should acknowledge that they are told here in a way that is both sympathetic and entertaining: Battle of the Sexes looks good and is very well acted. If I weren’t teaching a course on the second wave I’d probably just recommend it as a decent feminist night out and leave it at that. But my current preoccupation with this period of feminism’s history led me to watch it more critically than I might otherwise have done. And I found myself thinking that there’s a rather persistent problem with the way second wave feminism has been packaged for popular consumption.

Generically Battle of the Sexes is a ‘comedy drama’. It has some serious moments (like the scene where King confronts the misogynist who runs the US lawn tennis association), and there is nothing funny about the lesbian romance plot. But the battle of the title is basically a joke, a circus masterminded by, as King herself says, a clown. According to the sports writer Richard Williams, that’s also what it was in reality:

Yes, there really were 30,000 spectators in the vast Houston Astrodome for a match which, in tennis terms, had no meaning at all. Yes, there were cheerleaders in hot pants, waving pom-poms. Yes, King really was conveyed into the arena by husky young men bearing the champion on a feather-bedecked Pharaonic litter (Riggs, wearing a jacket emblazoned Sugar Daddy, arrived in a rickshaw pulled by young women in tight tops, known as Bobby’s Bosom Buddies.)

This is pretty much what you’d expect from something billed as a ‘battle of the sexes’. What’s behind that familiar formula is the ancient idea that men and women are natural adversaries, locked in an endless struggle for supremacy which neither will ever definitively win, because they are also naturally bound to one another by desire and mutual dependence. And this is basically a comedic trope. From Aristophanes’s Lysistrata through Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew to Carry On Girls, the eternal battle of the sexes has repeatedly been played for laughs.

On the face of it this is not the most obvious frame for a feminist narrative, nor is it one that gets used in stories about other liberation movements (will we ever see a comedy drama about Rosa Parks called Battle of the Races? I think not). Yet I can hardly think of a single mainstream film about the second wave which doesn’t draw on the comedic ‘battle of the sexes’ tradition. 9 to 5 is a classic example, while the more recent Made In Dagenham, a dramatisation of the Ford sewing machinists’ strike for equal pay in 1968, was praised for its ‘light’ tone and compared to the British comedies Calendar Girls and The Full Monty. Like them (if more gratuitously) it featured stripping, though one woman who had worked at the plant, Gwen Davis, told a newspaper that ‘we weren’t allowed to strip off, and we had too much pride to do it even if we were’.

My own favourite mainstream movie inspired by and released during the second wave, the 1975 version of The Stepford Wives, is an exception to this rule, being not a comedy but a sci-fi/horror film. But most people reading this will probably be more familiar with the 2004 remake, in which the same story is reframed as a comedy–a darkish comedy, since it’s still about organised femicide, but a long way from the chilling dystopian vibe of the earlier version.

With the exception of the Stepford Wives remake, which I regard as a post-feminist mess, I quite like all the films I’ve just mentioned, and as I said earlier, I also enjoyed Battle of the Sexes. The fact that it’s based on a real ‘battle of the sexes’ which was as much a humorous publicity stunt as a serious political action means I can’t reasonably criticise the directors for approaching the story the way they did. But at the risk of sounding like the proverbial humourless feminist, I do feel the need to ask what it means for our understanding of the second wave that it is so often presented in this way, relying heavily on a trope with a long history of being used to trivialise sexual politics. As the New York Times pointed out in a 2006 piece about King,

Most civil rights causes are thwarted through fear, but ridicule has always been the weapon of choice against feminism.

The films I’ve cited may not set out to ridicule feminism, but why is it assumed that a film about it has to be jokey or ‘light’ when that doesn’t apply to films about other kinds of radical politics?

One answer might be that film-makers (or maybe the people who decide what films get made) think anything harder-edged would be too unpalatable for a mainstream audience to swallow. But they evidently didn’t think that about last year’s big herstory film Suffragette, a serious drama which did not pull its punches when it came to the brutal treatment of the campaigners or the unjust and oppressive laws to which women in general were subject. Maybe the difference is that the struggle for the vote (and other basic legal and civil rights) belongs to the distant rather than the recent past, and is generally seen in retrospect as a just cause. By contrast, the political struggles of the 1970s are still to quite a large extent unfinished business. And many people–some of them born long after the second wave–continue to dispute the justice of the demands feminists made then and are still making now.

In that connection I found it interesting that one reviewer (writing for, of all things, GQ) described Battle of the Sexes as ‘a prequel to the #MeToo campaign’. I imagine he was thinking particularly of some cringe-making scenes where a visibly uncomfortable Rosie Casals is forced to commentate on the King-Riggs match with her male co-presenter’s arm draped around her. In fact the film must have been shot well before the current sexual harassment scandal kicked off, and I suspect the rationale for these and other similar scenes was probably the opposite of what the GQ writer implies: not to point up the continuities between then and now, but rather to emphasise the differences.

This is another problem with the comedic framing of second wave narratives: by inviting us to laugh incredulously at the over-the-top, cartoon-like sexism which was prevalent in the past, it tends to block any recognition of the (many) ways in which things haven’t changed. 1970s sexism is amusing/ unbelievable in the same way as 1970s fashion (‘how could they say that/wear that in public?’) But like the difference between massive flares and skinny jeans, the difference between yesterday’s male chauvinist pigs and today’s MRAs is more about style than substance.

Ironically, recent events (not only the ongoing sexual harassment saga, but also the presence in the White House of a man-baby–a more malevolent and more genuinely misogynist version of Steve Carell’s Bobby Riggs) make it possible to watch Battle of the Sexes in another way the makers probably didn’t intend: nostalgically. I don’t mean we should feel nostalgic for a time when women were second-class citizens and lesbians stayed firmly in the closet. But in 1973 feminists could feel that they were winning (and not just in the Houston Astrodome). They could see the male chauvinists as dinosaurs heading for extinction. Maybe the most important thing this film conveys about the second wave is that spirit of defiant optimism. If only we had more of it today.


Political lesbianism revisited

Some second wave feminists argued that withdrawing from sexual relationships with men was a radical political act. Among those who took this position were the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, whose paper on the subject caused controversy in the late 1970s. In this post, guest blogger Sydney Heifler re-reads the debate.   

In the late 1970s, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group presented a paper called ‘Political lesbianism: the case against heterosexuality’, which was later published in the feminist newsletter WIRES.*  It argued that women who were serious about feminism needed to stop having sexual relations of any kind with men. Why? Because heterosexual relationships support misogyny, full stop.

Large numbers of feminists, including lesbians, were critical of this argument. Many felt it reflected the misogynist logic of telling women how they should feel, and was unfair to straight women who had to figure out what heterosexual relationships meant for them on their terms. Others thought the proposed solution—political lesbianism—was simplistic and idealistic and couldn’t change the patriarchy. However, very few denied that heterosexual relationships were oppressive to women and problematic for feminism.

It would seem that this argument has died out. Sex, with or without a penis, is seen as liberating for women—a way to defy the idea that women are submissive.  If you look closely at today’s idea of heterosexual relationships, both as propagated in the mass media and as experienced by women personally, you can see that the issue isn’t dead. It is alive and well, and feminists still need to address it.

Even though modern women’s publications, such as Cosmo and Jezebel, would have readers think that sex has liberated the male-female relationship, their topics indicate otherwise: their writers are still excessively worried over whether or not any given woman knows how to properly swirl their tongue around a man’s penis and they think that exciting sex is bending over a sprinkler while the male partner takes the woman from behind. Women are writing these articles. Can we say that Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group was wrong?

As a heterosexual woman who has only ever had sexual and romantic relations with men, I believe that there are men out there whose don’t intend to oppress, and I don’t think every sexual act with a man is a form of oppression. That said, I also realize that all men, at least in the society I belong to, are privileged in some way by the patriarchal system. This privilege allows for oppression, which will reveal itself in a heterosexual relationship at some point. Half of the relationship, the man, has absorbed a sense of his own entitlement throughout his life. Misogyny has been pushed on him as much as it has on women.

In this sense, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group was right. Feminists who participate in heterosexual relationships do confront a paradox. Does that make political lesbianism a viable option? A complete withdrawal from relationships with men would stop them from exploiting women on a personal level, but it wouldn’t change the system that grants them their privilege. (And in practice it would be impossible get all women to abandon heterosexual relationships.)

Maybe it’s time to change the heterosexual relationship and create new demands. The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group suggested that it’s better to fight sexism with other women than it is to fight with your male partner. But while this would free up more time to devote to the feminist cause (or simply to existing peacefully), would it block other kinds of feminist action aimed at changing men’s behaviour (like the actions Pat Mainardi described in 1970 in “The Politics of Housework” and making relationships between men and women equal?  (What would equality look like? It would surely look different from the heterosexual relationships we have today, or those we had in the 1970s.)

This line of reasoning poses a question which The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group answered with a resounding no, but which is still unresolved for many feminists today. Can men change, and will they? If not, then what?

*In 1981 Onlywomen Press published the text of ‘Political lesbianism’ along with the responses it attracted in WIRES, plus the LRFG’s responses to the debate, as Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism. You can read the first part of it here.


I am my parents’ daughter & my mother’s sister

Troubled mother-daughter relationships are a recurring theme in second wave feminist writing. They are also discussed in Astrid Henry’s book about generational conflict in feminism, Not My Mother’s Sister. But guest-blogger Finia found that these depictions of daughters at war with their (literal and metaphorical) mothers just didn’t resonate with her own experience.

Like many women born in the 1990s, I was raised with an unshakable belief in my own equality. My parents grew up in the Leftist movement in West Germany during the Cold War, and when they had a daughter it was clear she would become their feminist project. This involved an atheist upbringing, empowering kids’ books, an artistic education, and a father who stayed home part-time while my mother made her career as an international IT journalist. (The recurring joke in my family is that if Mama had stayed home with me I would have learned to change light bulbs, but stuck with Papa, I had no chance to learn any practical skills at all.)

In Marge Piercy’s 1973 novel Small Changes some of the women live in communes, and I could relate to that from the kids’ perspective, because I grew up in a house with five adults: my Mama, myself and the big bearded teddy downstairs, my Papa, the woman artist and the musician upstairs. Recalling this period, I have fond memories of a busy, energetic house, where there were always people around (many of them men with long hair and long beards) for me to talk to and play with.

The two main protagonists of Small Changes both have difficult relationships with their mothers. One of them reflects that it was as if

there was a law in operation that mothers and daughters could not teach each other, could not inherit, could not relate.

In my family I think we overcame this, by opening up to the possibility of learning from each other. Dinner-table conversations would frequently revolve around stereotypes, personal experiences and mutual support – an early consciousness-raising of a sort. My parents helped me to perceive situations in different ways and to recognise injustices. It must have killed them to sit through all eight seasons of Germany’s Next Top Model—looking back it is a terrible sexist show – but they preferred to watch it with me rather than let me go off and watch it without context.

It was probably unavoidable that in my teenage years I would rebel. But as the daughter of hippie parents my rebellion took an unusual form. I chose Latin as my third language, and took up ballroom dancing as a hobby. To this day I believe I’m a disappointment to my parents, since I have not learned how to juggle (“not even with fabrics” – my father likes to add with utter judgement in his voice), nor can I ride a unicycle. But I felt no need to reject feminism, or (in Astrid Henry’s words) “escape from my mother”: she was never a prison to escape from, but rather a launch-pad from which to start.

Today my Mama and I relate to each other first and foremost as women, without erasing our generational family bond. We share many of the same concerns: we talk about our relatives’ ignorance of gender issues, criticise badly-written female characters in films (or praise the ones we admire—we both love Claire Underwood in House of Cards), and complain about the lack of sanitary products in male-dominated office environments (while celebrating Mama’s ingenious plan to expense the tampon supply for the staff bathrooms on the sly). Even now I still call my mother if I am not sure whether I am reacting to a situation appropriately. And—here’s the twist—she does the same. I know all about her office politics and struggles with incompetent male board members. She values my advice as much as I value hers.

One source of conflict Astrid Henry mentions is the idea that feminists today are less idealistic than the second wavers, less optimistic about their personal power to bring about social change. But many radicals of my mother’s generation have ‘cooled down’ over time—they have been willing to compromise to achieve results. My Mama now acknowledges that jumpsuits are more appropriate for business meetings than jeans, and she eventually agreed to accept a promotion, even though this pushed her onto the ‘wrong’ side in the capitalist system. The tension between radical ideals and the practical politics of incremental change is something I grew up with: I think of it as an integral part of feminism, rather than a division or a conflict between different generations of feminists.

If your relationship to feminism is bound up with your relationship to Mother (both in the literal ‘my Mama’ sense and in the more metaphorical ‘second wave’ sense), then that’s a good thing for me. My relationship with my mother is one of mutual respect: it has evolved over time and it continues to facilitate our growth as individuals. We do have arguments and disagreements, because our values and approaches are not the same. But the issues we face are similar. We are part of the same struggle, and we fight it together—as mother and daughter, and as sisters.

Resist cock privilege! Free the clitoris!

Inspired by Anne Koedts The myth of the vaginal orgasm and Robin Morgans Goodbye to all that, guest blogger Santina Sorrenti presents a 21st century (waveless) feminist manifesto.

FRIGIDITY. Women, hold that word in your hands, put it in your pocket, keep it a secret. Ice-cold, lamenting, uninviting, unpenetrable for pleasure and lost in our heads–these are caws heard from men nearby as they stand in groups with their pint in hand stimulating each other’s erections by conversing about their “cock privilege”. A privilege that manifests itself in men’s ability to penetrate a woman both in bed and in her workplace.

It’s the 21st century, and still we cannot be legitimized as autonomous beings, whether we are a freak in the sheets or make money in the streets—these are the rhymes of (what we think is) sexual emancipation. We may feel more sexually liberated now than in the 1970s, but how much freer are we?

Our anatomy is still the same and still sabotaged the same. Our clitorises still exist but they are refuted, ignored, operated on and cut off. ‘Girls nights’ prevail, as we reflect on ideas that men consider whingeing and can’t bear to listen to. We speak about masturbation, our failed Tinder dates and the unpleasant experience of having sex with our lovers and still failing to cum to our senses. “But I love him so much”, exclaims my best friend. “But I love my clit more”, utters another who shows her desperate friends how to utilize sex toys after her husband goes off to work.

Wake up! Wake up! It’s 2017 but it still feels like 1970. It’s 7am and you have to get to work. You run your own business, you own your own ‘bachelor pad’ in the West End and drive yourself to the office where you manage a team of 150 people. Yet here is your boyfriend at 7am rubbing his erection against you even though you blatantly said NO three times. You feel imprisoned, you feel guilty and you feel annoyed. The fourth attempt is coming and you try to race to the shower but he pulls you close to him as he demands your affection and he promises to make you breakfast. You fall into the trap and there you are on your back thinking about all the tasks that need to be completed today at work. It’s hard to manage these thoughts as your boyfriend hovers over you while his cock revels in the privilege of being able to be pleasured, by your vagina NOT you. But at least you get some free breakfast that you do not have to labor for.

You get up and race to work, your body overworked and your clitoris underwhelmed. You arrive at your desk and open your Facebook feed only to be confronted with visuals and slogans or feminist memes that your friends persistently share. One promotes the hashtag #metoo, bringing awareness to the (male based) sexual violence that women continue to face. Another shows a girl taking selfies with men from whom she has faced street harassment. Click! Down the page you scroll. All you see is a barrage of activist slogans with one that reads ‘free the nipple’ displaying a picture of a woman posing topless with a refusal to have her nipples blurred out. Free the nipple? What is one nipple going to do?

In 1970 Anne Koedt’s ‘The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm’ spoke to the false assumptions made about female bodies. Women were described as ‘frigid’ because they were unable to orgasm from vaginal penetration. But it’s impossible! The vaginal canal has no sensitivity, only the clitoris does. We have been defined sexually in accordance with what pleases men. And nothing has changed. More than ever this idea is perpetuated through visual and media representations such as mainstream pornography and Hollywood films.It’s also pervasive in the school system, through heteronormative sex education classes, teen magazines and student gossip in the cafeteria.

Heteronormativity is such bore, it is a disease that infects every institution. It is strong and dominant but it has an inferiority complex. Men are scared. Worried that if they give power to the clitoris it will take over. That a giant clit will storm in and grant women equal pay, stop sexual harassment in the streets, put an end to home cooked meals and a clean house.

We must resist sexual submission. Goodbye to weekly sex. Goodbye to fulfilling his sexual fantasies. Goodbye to making sure you go down on him when he won’t even use his mouth on you. Hello to sexual explorations with other women and yourself. Hello to diffusing information on your latest self pleasing techniques to your girlfriends. Hello to refusing sex unless it is on your terms. Hello to meet-ups IN PERSON in the 21st century. Mobilizing, educating, getting your voices heard (but not just online).

Free your body! Free your anatomy! Free yourself from submission! Free yourself from alarm clocks in the form of erections! Free the psychologically ill women! Free your vagina! Free yourself through mental fantasy! Free your flesh! Free your hair! Free lesbianism! Free your mind! Free yourself from heteronormativity! Resist cock privilege! FREE THE CLITORIS!


Them too

This year’s Second Wave class met for the first time this week, and we talked about a set of readings which discuss the origins of the US Women’s Liberation Movement. The women who formed the earliest feminist groups, beginning around 1967, had been (and in some cases remained) active in the radical social movements of the 1960s, like the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC, a civil rights organisation) and various ‘New Left’ groups. But as the 1960s wore on, they became increasingly discontented with the way their male comrades treated them.

It wasn’t just that women were excluded from leadership positions and expected to do the menial jobs. There was something else as well–something which, this week, had a very familiar ring. Robin Morgan, writing in 1970, called it out when she asked:

Was it my brother who listed human beings among the objects that would be easily available after the Revolution: Free grass, free food, free women, free acid, free clothes, etc.? Was it my brother who wrote Fuck your women till they can’t stand up and said that groupies were liberated chicks ’cause they dug a tit-shake instead of a handshake?

The term ‘sexual harassment’ did not yet exist–it would be coined by Lin Farley in the mid-1970s when she was teaching a course on women and work at Cornell University–but it was rife on the radical left, and (then as now) it covered a spectrum from objectification to rape. A very common form of it involved pressuring women to have sex with male activists as part of their contribution to the struggle. As Anne Koedt would recall in 1968, female activists were largely used for ‘food-making, typing, mimeographing, general assistance work, and as a sexual supply for their male comrades after hours’.

Robin Morgan’s words, quoted above, come from a bitter polemic entitled ‘Goodbye to all that’, her feminist farewell to the male-dominated counter-culture. But it had been a long time coming. Women on the left had spent several years trying to raise their concerns about sexism, sexual harassment and sexual abuse. And they had not been heard.

In 1964 two white women on the staff of SNCC, Mary King and Casey Hayden, wrote a paper for a staff retreat called ‘Women in the Movement’, laying out what they and other women saw as the problem in the hope of sparking a constructive discussion. This was, after all, a radical, egalitarian political organisation. They believed the men would be willing to take women’s criticism on board. But in the event, they were the ones who were criticised. This was the occasion on which Stokely Carmichael (in)famously declared that ‘the only position for women in SNCC is prone’. (Originally King and Hayden took this as a joke, regarding Carmichael as an ally–but he went on to repeat it at many other SNCC meetings.)

In 1965 SNCC became an all-Black organisation, and many white activists joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). King and Hayden made another attempt to have the question of women’s position discussed at an SDS conference at the end of the year. Women present began to share their experiences of sexism, but according to the historian Ashley Eberle, ‘Instead of concern, the discussion elicited “catcalls, storms of ridicule, and verbal abuse from the men.” Men hurled insults like, “She just needs a good screw” or “She’s a castrating female”‘. In the end most of the men walked out, leaving the women to go on talking long into the night.

Incidents like this one were the second wave’s ‘me too’ moments–moments when women spoke openly about their experiences, realised they were not alone in having those experiences, realised that they were understood and supported by other women. Allowed themselves to feel anger, and to think that their anger might become a force for change. In ‘Goodbye to all that’, Robin Morgan wrote:

There is something every woman wears around her neck on a thin chain of fear—an amulet of madness. For each of us, there exists somewhere a moment of insult so intense that she will reach up and rip the amulet off, even if the chain tears the flesh of her neck. And the last protection from seeing the truth will be gone.

I thought of those words when the first women came forward to accuse Harvey Weinstein. And again when all the ‘me too’ stories began to flow–stories which weren’t just about wealthy and powerful men like Weinstein, or ‘unreconstructed’ men of his generation. Some of them were about the contemporary equivalents of the hip radical leftists Morgan took aim at in 1970. This view of women, this treatment of women, goes, as Morgan put it, ‘all the way down’. And women’s resistance goes all the way back in time. When we call men to account today, we are building on the insights and the actions of an earlier generation.

I’ll end with another quote from ‘Goodbye to all that’ which seems pertinent this week:

Let it all hang out. Let it seem bitchy, catty, dykey, Solanisesque, frustrated, crazy, nutty, frigid, ridiculous, bitter, embarrassing, man-hating, libelous, pure, unfair, envious, intuitive, low-down, stupid, petty, liberating. We are the women that men have warned us about.