In 1967, at age 16, I was expelled from high school. A few weeks later, I ran away from home. I didn’t run, actually; I took the subway. I got on the train at 86th and Lex and got off the train at Astor Place and I was never seen in in my parents’ world again.
Nowadays, my past makes a good cocktail party story. “You were so brave! Alone in New York City at sixteen! How did you survive?”
Easily, actually. In 1967, the Lower East Side was teeming with teenage runaways. We built a true sharing economy. We pooled food, drugs, sex partners, crash pads, treatments for crabs and VD.
Some of our parents wanted us back. The telephone poles of the East Village were plastered with homemade flyers, each bearing a photo of a kid and a desperate message from Mom and Dad:
“All is forgiven, Suzy. Mommy and Daddy love you. Please come home.”
“Have you seen our son, David Rosenthal? Please call. Generous reward.”
Meanwhile, tucked into our sleeping bags in tenement hovels, bricks of pot or balled-up pea coats for pillows, girls like me sang the Beatles’ haunting new song “She’s Leaving Home” in our sleep: Quietly turning the backdoor key/Stepping outside, she is free.
Stumbling through the sweltering summer streets, flashing peace signs at other kids wearing the same wide-wale bell-bottoms and the same dazed smile as mine, it hit me that for the first time in my sweet short life, no teacher, no principal, no parent controlled me. I could be whoever I wanted to be, do whatever I wanted to do.
What I wanted was to do was make a f**king revolution—to help “build a new world in the ashes of the old.” And to be a writer. Not necessarily in that order.
In high school, my boyfriend Paul and I had co-published an underground newspaper. We wrote exposes of Big Oil’s role in Viet Nam and of the uselessness of smoking banana peels, cranking out copies on our mimeograph machine, selling them for a nickel in the bathrooms at school. (Hence my eventual expulsion.) We modeled our rag on the “real” underground newspapers that were proliferating across the country: The Berkeley Barb, The Chicago Seed, The Madison Kaleidoscope, Boston’s Avatar, Atlanta’s Great Speckled Bird.
One day a new, local paper appeared on Lower East Side newsstands. RAT: Subterranean News had cartoons by R. Crumb and articles by Jerry Rubin. Its office, I saw, was mere blocks from where Paul and I lived. I put on the paisley Nehru shirt that I wore as a very mini-dress and my thigh-high Capezio boots and made my way to 201 East Fourth Street, humming Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street,” mapping out my strategy. Standing in the doorway of the crumbling building, watching as a couple of actual rats disemboweled a moldy pizza crust, I unbuttoned a few buttons, stepped down into the fittingly subterranean office, and asked the girl at the front desk to point me to the Editor-in-Chief. Within minutes I’d flirted my way into a staff job. To secure my position (and because guys with power turned me on), I asked the editor if he’d like to take me home that night. “I sure would,” he answered. “But I live with my old lady. How ‘bout we go to your place instead?”
Conveniently, Paul was out of town. “Groovy,” I said.
This wasn’t the first time I’d balled some chick’s old man. Nor would it be the last. In the parallel universe of my own imaginary morality, every ‘freak’ had signed on the Free-Love dotted line. Emphasis on free. Paul and I didn’t call our arrangement “nonmonogamy.” We called it “being free.” If you had long hair, if you scorned The Man, if you didn’t shave or deodorize your armpits, if you stayed high most of the time—in other words, if you let your freak flag fly—you were busy being free. There were no limits on what you could do with your body, or with mine.
Once we’d sealed our sexual deal, I asked my new boss how he wanted me to earn my $25/week. He shrugged. “Ask one of the guys,” he said.
Rat’s basement office was dank and dim, but even in the darkness I could see what was up. There were guys at the typewriters, pounding out stories. Guys at the layout tables, waxing text onto paste-up boards. Guys on the phone, checking sources.
There were two other chicks in the office. One was brewing coffee in the makeshift kitchen. The other was working the front desk. I wasn’t about to ask either of them what to do. I had zero interest in learning to operate a percolator.
What did I want? What the guys had. When did I want it? Now.
How could I get it? Simple. Avoid the loser chicks, so the guys wouldn’t mistake me for one of them. Get close to the men, so they’d see me as one of them—only f**kable, because a girl with ambition needed an insurance policy.
While the chicks made the coffee and answered the phones and waited for their boyfriends to come home—from late nights putting the paper to bed; from late nights in my bed—I was where the boys were: on the masthead as a “guerilla,” the paper’s moniker for reporter. Covering Nixon’s ‘Inhoguration’ in D.C. Attending an underground newspaper convention in Madison. Interviewing William Burroughs in London. Getting Maced and clubbed at induction centers. And always, always writing about it.
RAT was a voice of the counterculture. Just as we lived to counter our straight parents’ boring, traditional marriages and politics and beliefs, RAT lived to counter the “straight press” in every possible way. We didn’t just report the news; we made it. We aspired to revolution, not objectivity. We refused the glory of individualistic, ego-boosting bylines; we reported and wrote and bylined our stories collectively.
By “we,” of course, I mean “the guys and me.”
Did I wish I was collaborating with female guerrillas? Hell, no.
Did I like being the guerrilla in the minidress? Hell, yes.
Did I mind having no one to talk to, no one to hang out with or go to Planned Parenthood with, not one single female friend? In the moments when the yearning arose, I swallowed it whole. I was on a mission. And my mission wouldn’t be served by wasting time with chicks.
Outside the bubble of RAT’s underground office, there were rumblings about a movement called “Women’s Lib.” Our arch-enemy, The New York Times, started running headlines like “The Feminine Protest” and “Women March Down Fifth in Equity Drive” and “What Black Women Think About Women’s Lib.”
One night the rumblings penetrated the bubble. The RAT women asked me to meet at one of their apartments “to talk about our unfair treatment by the men.”
“I like the way the men treat me,” I said, not in the friendliest possible voice.
I wasn’t waiting for anyone to liberate me. By rubbing up against the men who held all the power, I was liberating myself. I couldn’t understand why any woman who wanted something wouldn’t do what I was doing to get it.
I denounced Women’s Lib as a crutch of the weak, the chickenshit, the willingly victimized. “Any chick who wants what guys have should just take it.”
Being the only female soldier in a battalion of men made me feel special. And smart. And hot. My lifelong role model, Lois Lane, never hung out with women. She hung out with Superman, and look what it got her: she became Superwoman. That looked pretty damn liberated to me.
So much for peace and love: in 1969, speed and heroin tore through the Lower East Side like a powder hurricane. After two of our friends OD’ed, Paul and I escaped to a small village near the small town of Taos, New Mexico, where we formed a small commune with another couple, Sunshine and Steve. We lived on forty acres instead of four hundred square feet, cohabitated with roadrunners and rabbits instead of roaches and rats. The four of us raised goats and vegetables, joined the village water association, traded farming tips and gossip with members of the many other local communes at the general store in town.
One thing didn’t change. I was free to f**k whoever I wanted. Most of the guys I wanted to f**k had girlfriends. I didn’t let that get in my way. After a while, the other commune chicks stopped inviting me to their Little House-on-the-Prairie gatherings, gaggles of girls grinding wheat berries into flour and spinning sheep’s wool into yarn and canning endless jars of rosehip jam.
I did feel left out, even a little lonely, when Sunshine came home with armfuls of homespun yarn and Mason jars of jam, bubbling about the cool chicks she’d met and the good woman-time they’d had.
But I had something better than women’s work and women. I had men’s work, and men. Where would spinning wool and canning jam get me? Barefoot, pregnant, and powerless. Not where I wanted to be.
So I learned to use a chain saw and an axe, and I went on wood runs and split cords of firewood with the guys. Sunshine got a J-O-B at the weaving shop in town. Steve, Paul, and I built an adobe house for Sun and Steve, and an A-frame for Paul and me, the three of us working topless in the hot, high desert sun. My body became as lean and strong and sinewy as the guys’.
News from the coasts was always slow to arrive, often distorted by the time it reached us. So in January 1970, when I heard that RAT had been taken over by a group of women calling themselves W.I.T.C.H.—Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell—I thought my New York friends were pranking me. And then I reached into our P.O. box and pulled out the first issue of the new RAT. Women's LibeRATion, it was called.
I brought the paper to dinner at Sunshine and Steve’s, read Robin Morgan’s lead editorial, “Goodbye To All That,” out loud.
“So, Rat has been liberated, for this week, at least. If the men return to reinstate the porny photos, the sexist comic strips, the nude-chickie covers...our alternatives are clear. Rat must be taken over permanently by women–or Rat must be destroyed.
“Goodbye to Hip culture and the so-called Sexual Revolution, which has functioned toward women’s freedom as did the Reconstruction toward former slaves—reinstituting oppression by another name...”
“What’s wrong with those chicks,” I fumed. “I’m no slave! I’m the opposite of oppressed!”
“They probably don’t get laid enough,” Paul opined. Steve nodded uncertainly. Sunshine stared at me silently, her lips pressed into a straight line.
“I need to talk to you,” Sunshine said the next morning. The two of us were weeding the asparagus bed. Paul and Steve were up the mountain, cleaning aspen leaves out of the irrigation ditch.
“So talk,” I said.
“Not here.” Sunshine rose to her bare feet, spanked the dirt off her knees. I followed her to her kitchen table, watching nervously as she poured steaming water over homegrown chamomile flowers. I had no idea what she was about to say, but I knew I didn’t want to hear it.
“The women asked me to talk to you,” she began. “They’re tired of you f**king their old men.”
My heart lurched. Since when did we call chicks women?
“You don’t care about us,” Sun went on. “You don’t care about me.”
“You’re my best friend!” I sputtered. “We’re sisters. We love each other!”
Sunshine twisted a hank of long blonde hair around her hand. “You only put up with me to get to Steve. I know you want to f**k him. Just like you f**k every other woman’s man.”
I wanted to argue with Sun, accuse her of betraying me by taking the other chicks’ side, say whatever would keep her from uttering another word. But my rumbling stomach, my jagged breath told me that what she was saying was true. It’s even worse than she knows, I realized. I do want to f**k Steve. And I want to f**k Sunshine, too.
The years of doing what I’d been doing boiled and bubbled inside me, a stinking, stinging brew. Had I always known that I was giving up pieces of myself, grabbing at pieces of masculinity and men?
Had I always known that the power I’d appropriated from the men I f**ked was someone else’s, not mine?
Had I always known that by working so hard at pursuing men’s power, I’d given up on growing my own?
I knew it now.
I’d gotten what I wanted, yes: the jobs and the adventures and the accomplishments that only men were allowed to have. But I’d lost some things, too. A softness I couldn’t afford to yield to. A sweetness that would have relegated me to chicks’ work and chicks’ passivity and a chick’s small, meaningless life.
Even worse, I’d lost years—the formative years—of knowing and loving myself for whatever and whomever I actually was.
“How can you hate women so much when you are a woman?” Sunshine didn’t wait for my answer. “You’re going to have a sad, lonely life, Meredith, if you don’t change your ways.”
I didn’t hear Sunshine’s words. I felt them—the rightness of them—in my solar plexus.
I was Helen Keller at the water faucet, understanding language for the first time.
I felt desperate and terrified and angry and relieved.
How will I live now? I wondered, knowing that my life would forevermore be divided into past and future; before this moment and after it.
“You’re right,” I said.
Sunshine’s eyes widened.
“I know I’ve hurt people.” I took a breath. “I’ve hurt...women. I’ve hurt you.”
Tears welled in Sunshine’s eyes.
“I don’t know how to fix this,” I said.
“It’s easy,” Sun said, regarding me calmly. “Stop f**king other women’s boyfriends. Start loving women. Including yourself.”
Fast-forward to San Francisco, thirteen years later, 1983. Sunshine—now known by her birth name, Suzanne—and I are sitting in her VW bug, parked across the street from Amelia’s, the notorious lesbian bar. I’m newly divorced from the father of my kids. Suzanne is newly separated from the guy she moved in with when she left Steve. We’re both thinking we might be bi. Our mission today is to find out.
“We have to go in,” I say with false bravado.
“We don’t look right,” Suzanne stalls.
I can’t argue the point. For this coming-out outing, Suzanne and I dressed in the butchest outfits our closets allowed. I’m wearing a Western snap-shirt left over from Taos days, my new Jordache jeans, and baby-blue Reeboks. Sunshine is in a long-sleeved t-shirt, Calvin Klein jeans, and Earth shoes. Neither of us is wearing a bra. Suzanne’s blonde hair falls halfway down her back. Mine curls around my shoulders. The women going into the bar don’t look anything like us. More to the point, we don’t look anything like them.
“We’ve been sitting here for an hour,” I say, overriding a wave of nausea. I open the passenger door. “Let’s go.”
Suzanne follows me across the street. We get as far as the strapping, short-haired bouncer, a carabiner loaded with approximately two hundred keys dangling from a beltloop on her jeans.
“Do you know what kind of establishment this is?” she growls at us.
“Yes,” Suzanne and I croak in unison.
Frowning, the bouncer steps aside. We’re in.
We amble up to the bar, try to straddle our stools like the other women. “Uncross your legs,” I whisper to Suzanne. “We’re the only ones in here with purses,” she whispers back.
A woman comes up behind me. I can feel her breath on my neck. My heart pounds. My hands sweat. My sphincter seizes against the contents of my gut.
“That’s my drink,” the woman barks. “And my cigarette. And my seat.”
On the bar in front of me I see a half-empty beer bottle and a smoldering cigarette in a black plastic ashtray. How did I miss all that? I jump up, mumbling an apology.
And then it happens. My bowels gurgle and cramp and let loose. My first foray into the world of wimmin-loving wimmin, and I literally shit my pants.
I head for the front door, Suzanne right behind me.
We run across the street, fall against her car, laughing hysterically.
“Well, that went well,” Suzanne giggles.
“I need a bathroom bad,” I say.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Suzanne says, holding her nose.
One year later, Suzanne is living in San Francisco with her first girlfriend. I’m living in Oakland with mine. Suzanne is training to become a feminist therapist. I’m writing a feminist memoir.
Suzanne’s lesbian phase will pass; within the decade she’ll marry a man, and stay married to him. Mine will stick. Over the course of our 50-years-and-counting friendship, I’ll thank Suzanne often for the life-altering “click” I heard at age 19, when she confronted my woman-hating, and I said goodbye to all that, and became a lifelong woman-loving-woman.
Thirty-six years later, the streets of downtown LA echo with a thunderous chant. “Who runs the world? GIRLS!” Tens of thousands of men, women, nonbinaries, and children are out for the 2019 Women’s March. Halfway to City Hall, I fall in with a pack of teenage girls—young women; definitely not chicks.They’re blonde, like Sunshine, and they’re brunette, like me, and they’re radiating the self-confidence, the self-love, the power that I’m still growing in myself, tender tendrils so long neglected, now requiring much attention and care.
These girls march in Doc Martens and mini-skirts, arms slung round each other’s shoulders, hand-knitted pink pussy hats bobbing, woman symbols painted onto their unlined cheeks. The signs they’re carrying are the antidote to the self-loathing that fueled and emptied me when I was a girl their age.
“Because I Slay”
“I’m a Girl. What’s Your Superpower?”
“Little Girls with Dreams Become Women With Vision”
“I March Because Long Ago Someone Marched For Me”
“We Are The Granddaughters Of The Witches You Couldn’t Burn”
And my personal, sentimental favorite,
“WITCH=Women In Total Control Here”
Looking at these bright-eyed, big-voiced girls, I don’t see them despising or denying their femininity, turning to men as their source of power, making the devil’s bargain that turned me against my sisters and myself for so long.
These girls’ evident love for each other, and for themselves, brings tears to my eyes. Tears of sorrow, for girls like me who could only see one way to power: f**king the men who had it, and f**king over the women who didn’t.
My tears are joyful, too. As we march I bathe in the glow of these radiant young women, standing on their foremothers’ shoulders, holding tightly to each other’s hands, free(er) to manifest their “GRL PWR.” Free(er) to slay. Free(er) to dream and to to help each other realize their own powerful female dreams—no f**king anyone else’s boyfriend required.