Guest blogger Teresa Green wonders what happened to second wave feminists’ rage
I remember being sixteen, and listening to my father talking about the female students he encountered at Cambridge in the 1970s: “These women were climbing the walls! They were so angry.”
Reading the essays and manifestos written around the years that the Women’s Liberation Movement came roaring into view, by women like Anne Koedt, Robin Morgan and Pat Mainardi, one of the things that strikes me most is their anger. It isn’t their anger per se that sticks out, but the fact that they boldly express it with no qualms about the male egos and female delusions they tread on.
Today, that rage seems to be tucked out of sight. Male politicians can bluster and shout and turn red in the face, but women must stay calm and placid lest our anger give us away as “overemotional” and “hormonal.” Koedt and many of the other women who wrote on women’s liberation in the 1960s and 1970s gave their anger a voice and did not bother to sugar-coat their hatred of injustice, or their conviction that things had to change.
Pat Mainardi breaks down the justifications produced by men for avoiding housework, translating her husband’s excuses and refusing to accept them. She’s angry, and she is sarcastic. Anne Koedt is similarly sarcastic in her denunciation of that “incredible invention,” the vaginal orgasm, and refuses to mince her words in demanding a new conception of sexuality. Judy Syfers relentlessly lists the expectations men have of women and finishes in blunt exasperation: “My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?” Robin Morgan defiantly points at man as the oppressor, male friends and colleagues and family members and partners and comrades, disparaging their self-centeredness and their misogyny. She invites women to be
bitchy, catty, dykey, Solanasesque, frustrated, crazy, nutty, frigid, ridiculous, bitter, embarrassing, man-hating, libellous, pure, unfair, envious, intuitive, low-down, stupid, petty, liberating.
She makes no suggestion that the system itself can be re-made feminist, but simply says goodbye to the whole thing, tells us it must be destroyed: “Run it all the way down.”
Most academic feminism is written by women, but they know that their work will be scrutinised by men, too, and men control the boundaries defining what is angry and what is “crazy.” When the author is a woman, men have learnt that they can use these words interchangeably and so dismiss her.
Koedt and Mainardi, Syfers and Morgan, are not writing for an audience of (male or female) academics, but for their fellow women. It seems that they don’t feel the need, evident in so many feminist speeches and articles today, to make the issue abstract, neutral. Maybe they don’t feel the need to hide their anger, speaking as they are directly to other women, or maybe they hope their anger will be shared and reproduced.
I can imagine these essays sparking new rage in the women who read them, sending rose-tinted spectacles flying to the floor. There is no attempt in their writing to soothe the male ego by labouring the idea that an end to patriarchy will benefit men too (a lie- when you reach your great heights by stepping on someone’s back, you can’t continue to float there when they pull themselves out from under your weight, which Morgan freely points out). There is also no attempt to soothe or sustain or sweeten female delusions; I can’t imagine any of these women suggesting that we don’t need to change our society or our expectations, we just need to call them “empowering.” Of course, not all contemporary feminists have fallen prey to this need to be palatable, but one wonders where the anger went, and specifically the direction of that anger.
These women, writing in the 1970s, were not simply angry about a system, a structure, a society, they were angry at men. Many of them write about the rage they felt as a result of men’s treatment of them in New Left organisations, the frustration and resentment spurred by the realisation that the redistribution of power between men would change nothing about the fact that women do the “shitwork.” They express their anger towards their fathers, brothers, husbands, even their sons: concrete individuals, not institutions. The Redstockings Manifesto makes their stance explicit:
Institutions alone do not oppress; they are merely tools of the oppressor.
Maybe the reason the anger expressed so vividly by these women seems to have faded from today’s feminist writing, and been replaced by the neutral tones (or anger directed in the vague direction of institutions) of many modern feminist writers and groups, is that anger is exhausting. In particular, anger given the direction embraced by women like Koedt and Mainardi is exhausting. Even as she describes the “fury older and potentially greater than any force in history” of the women of the New Left, Morgan points to the emotional strain of that fury against known, loved men. She describes women rising in powerful rage but
stuffing fingers into our mouths to stop the screams of fear and hate and pity for men we have loved and love still.
To hate the injustice of institutions and social structures is, I think, much easier than to direct that anger towards beloved fathers and brothers, partners and friends.
When I asked what happened to those roaring women in Cambridge, my father said “I think they got tired”.