Twilight of a feminist

Susan Brownmiller talks about the golden age of ideology and when it's OK for a woman to be a sex object.

Published December 22, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

I'm always facetiously saying to female editors, "I'm not a feminist, but --"

But after reading Susan Brownmiller's "In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution," I realize that I am, in fact, a feminist, an old-style one from the late '60s and early '70s. Feminism in the early 1970s was a civil rights movement. In those days, women had no reproductive freedom. Rape was considered a rare occurrence. Domestic abuse was a nonissue. A woman's only choices of occupation -- besides becoming a housewife -- were secretary, waitress or movie star.

Not that early feminists (or "women's libbers," as they were called in the suburbs where I grew up) shared a mutual agenda. The anti-war feminists clashed with the communists who clashed with the lesbians. Brownmiller, author of the important treatise "Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape," describes this social movement's history even-handedly, revealing it to be a riveting time in American history when ideology was exhilarating.

I said as much to Brownmiller at the beginning of our interview.

Your book reminded me of the days when the left still stood for something, and the right wing hadn't yet monopolized the moral high ground.

I'm so glad you said that, because 99 percent of my readers are always women. So maybe some men who are interested in political theory and activism will appreciate this. Certainly young men have far greater understanding than the men of my generation ever had or ever will. Men of my generation say, "It wasn't until I had a daughter that I began to see what you were talking about."

Having a female boss gives one plenty of perspective.

[Laughs.] I think having no boss is the best. But you know, I feel that the generation just after mine developed this great dislike of us for what we had done. And I think today's young people are just so much more open to what was happening in the '70s.

There once was a time when a woman had to put the date of her last period on a job application.

The young just don't know that. It wasn't their experience at all.

Some women readers regret that you didn't write more about yourself in the book, but that didn't bother me. You only appeared as often as you needed to.

That's what I thought. Although I can imagine some movement women saying, "There she goes! Talking about herself again!" But I knew I needed to be very careful not to become the Zelig or the Forrest Gump of the women's movement. Was I significant to this movement? Yeah, I was significant to the anti-rape movement. I was not significant to the anti-sexual harassment movement. To put myself into that chapter would have been self-serving.

So you worked on this book for four or five years -- what was it like seeing your old comrades?

Well, it was often very emotional. I did a lot of phone interviews because everyone was dispersed around the country. The interviews were usually conducted very late at night for me because many of them seem to be on the West Coast now. There was such a stillness over the telephone wires as I was getting them to recall and tell me about their history. They were remarkable conversations, but I have to say that many of the women I called were very depressed. They had captured the attention of the nation in the '70s, and their time had passed. Nobody remembered their name and contribution. They were often surprised to get a call from me, because of course I'd become more famous with "Against Our Will." So if they'd been waiting for a historian's call -- and they all had been -- they didn't imagine that it would be me.

What does feminism mean today?

Well, it remains a solidification of the values that we created, but I'm too much of a realist to tell you that there's a feminist movement out there. We're in a holding pattern -- and that's OK. Its time will come again.

I think there should always be some sort of conflict between men and women. Otherwise we'll become one boring homogenous gender.

I agree totally. I think there's a place for a woman to be a sex object, in bed, you know?

After Nina Burleigh wrote in the Washington Post that she'd gladly give Clinton a blow job, I had an argument (which I lost) with a Salon editor that in the end, after 30 years of feminism, it still comes down to giving Mr. Big a blow job.

Well, maybe you should have won that argument. I wrote a kind of naughty piece about Bill and Hillary for my Web site called "Bill Clinton, Jack Rabbit." I was so pissed off that all these feminists were falling into line and defending this guy. I felt very sorry for people like Gloria Steinem who thought she had to defend the president because he had done more for women than any other president to date. It's my feeling that he did that because of our movement. He couldn't not do it.

Is there a slang term for giving a blow job to get a job?

Well, there were all those casting-couch stories in the '50s and '60s. I was a struggling actress in those days. We used to say to each other very bravely, "Yeah, women who screw get screwed."

How many years did you spend trying to be an actress?

Oh, my dog years, in my early 20s. I was always politically minded. I don't come from a red diaper family, but I found my way to the left very early because I was a rebel. But I was studying acting. I was in a couple of off-Broadway shows. I was a terrible actress -- and still involved trying to be political, because those were always the two things in my life. I didn't dare think I could write. Of course that was the deep dream. But by the time I was 28, I got a job at Newsweek as a researcher, and it really was the time when I understood that there were other paths that I could take in life.

I was at Newsweek from '63 to '64 as a researcher in the National Affairs department. And I quit to join the civil rights movement in Mississippi. And that was the time when Betty Friedan's book ["The Feminine Mystique"] came out in paperback. I read it just before I went to Mississippi. And I said, "Oh my God, it's me; she's talking about me." That was probably my crucial turning point.

The FBI tried to infiltrate the civil rights movement. Did they care about "women's libbers"?

Well this is a debate I had with other movement women. As far as I could see, any of the craziness of the women's movement was due to individual women who were a little crazy. Now other women, and they still argue with me, feel that the FBI was infiltrating the movement with provocateurs. I have never seen hard proof of this. I'm sure some agents attended some meetings, but they were looking for communists. They didn't see feminists themselves as any threat.

That's sort of insulting, isn't it?

[Laughs.] I never thought of it that way. Well, I guess they really didn't think that talking about sexual satisfaction and orgasms was dangerous. They were there to report on who was going to blow up a building.

Were you ever tempted to blow up Hugh Hefner or something?

No. I must say, though, there were a couple of earlier incidents where people had actions at draft registration centers, when I'd say to myself,
boy, if somebody gave me some of this plastique, would I have been tempted? Yes.

My anger at my country and at this war was tremendous. But I've just never thought that violence was the way to go, particularly in America. I can't speak for other countries where conditions were more extreme and they had to do what they did. But no, we in our movement had so many imaginative things to try that violence was just not on our agenda.

So, in the end, did the good "guys" win?

I once heard a Marxist historian give a speech where he said, "Capitalism has an extraordinary ability to co-opt its enemies. And you will have to pardon me from celebrating this, because I cannot." That has resonated in my head all my life as an adult political activist. It is astonishing how the "establishment" manages to co-opt all ideas and give the people who created them a little piece of it. And then change it around. Mellow it out. So that it's no longer got its cutting edge. And it certainly happened with the rape crisis centers and the battered-women shelters. We created these as brilliant tactics to shock the nation into understanding that rape is a problem, and battery is a problem, and men were the source of the problem because they were doing the raping and battering. Right? And now they're all called "victims' services centers."

So who is really running things in America?

Is anybody? Probably not. I don't want to get paranoid about it. But having lived through a time when -- as I say in the end of the book -- you could have a part-time job, a cheap apartment and have plenty of time for social activism, then boom! Ronald Reagan, rise of the fundamentalist right, and all of a sudden everybody's working just to pay the rent like mice on treadmills. And that's what young people are today -- they're mice on treadmills and they don't even know it. Or if they do know it, they don't know that once it was different. Someone once said so plaintively to me the other day, "I hear there was a time when you could get a cheap apartment in New York and work part time and work on your novel. Ha-ha-ha." Yeah. "Work on your novel." "Work on political activism." Yes. Once upon a time there were cheap apartments in New York.

Come on, historians have to appreciate irony ...

Isn't that funny, the things that life does to you? I am a historian, aren't I? I became one when I wrote "Against Our Will" because I saw that rape had a history, and nobody had ever said that before. Let me tell you, to be my age and to suddenly be a historian of a life that you lived, it makes you feel old.

What I think is great about your book is that it's about a time when intelligent people took ideology seriously. It seems like for the past 20 years the only people with ideology are the nuts that blow up buildings in Waco -- I mean, Oklahoma.

Yes. But even the nuts who blew things up -- the Weatherpeople in the '70s, the '60s -- they're much more famous than my women's movement heroines. Everyone seems to know about Bernardine Dohrn, right? Because it's very sexy to the American public, that a good-looking young woman blows things up and goes underground.

That's true in a way. But I think Americans have always been crackpots hungry for ideology.

[Laughs] Yeah, we're ripe for crackpots at least.

A little while ago I had a vision about the relation between the civil rights movement and the women's rights movement that will sound crackpot, but I believe it's true.

Tell it.

Last month I interviewed a female dominatrix. Among other things, I learned that there are private clubs in New York City where successful female executives -- powerful women like Tina Brown -- can go and get whipped by men. Whatever that says about the hidden desires of certain women, I know that there are not secret clubs in New York where successful African-Americans can go to be subservient to some "Massah."

You know I stopped going out to look at the [Greenwich Village] Halloween parade because a couple of years ago I watched a white man with a leash, and the collar was around a black man. They were bravely walking through the street. And my inner voice was saying "No, no, no." And they thought they were being very brave.

And once on the radio, a hundred years ago, when gay liberation was just happening, I'll never forget hearing a Jewish gay man say, "I will admit this, I will admit this, I grew up during the Holocaust, and yes, my sexuality includes being handcuffed." [Laughs.] You know, how can you deal with people's sexuality and fetishes? This was a big stumbling block for us in the women's movement. We ran up against a lot of crazy people's crazy sexuality.

You think nothing can surprise you, but then ... [Both laugh.] It's like Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the great British actress, said: "I don't care what they do as long as they don't do it in the streets and frighten the horses."

You have to accept that. Because otherwise you're put in the position of being the moral censor. And that's what happened in the anti-pornography movement. The pro-porn women said, "You are censoring our minds. You are censoring our behavior. This is who we are. And the end of the road goes no further. The road stops right here."

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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